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Prosecutor paints ex-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka as the driver of plot to hamper FBI probe into jail abuses

Paul Tanaka

Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice on Wednesday.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Paul Tanaka, Los Angeles County’s former undersheriff, took the witness stand Monday and was grilled by a federal prosecutor who portrayed him as the main culprit in a plot to impede FBI agents investigating jail abuses.

In questioning that lasted nearly three hours, Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox confronted Tanaka with a barrage of emails, phone records and other evidence in an effort to undermine Tanaka’s claim that it was his boss who orchestrated the Sheriff’s Department’s angry response to the FBI investigation and that he was unaware of what was going on.

In one tense, extended exchange, Fox presented call logs from several days in 2011 that showed all the communications between Sheriff Lee Baca, Tanaka and others accused of having a role in the plan.

Going hour by hour, Fox pressed Tanaka to find in the logs any conversations that supported the defense claim that Baca had dealt directly with underlings and left Tanaka out of the alleged machinations.

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Over and over Tanaka conceded there were no such calls except one, and that each day’s log showed Tanaka was frequently in contact with Baca and the others.

The cross-examination marked a sharp contrast to Tanaka’s testimony Friday, when he fielded friendly questions from one of his own attorneys.

Tanaka, who once wielded great power as the department’s second in command, faces conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges for allegedly working with others to conceal the whereabouts of an inmate who served as an FBI informant and to intimidate an FBI agent by threatening her with arrest.

The case is likely to be the last in a string of prosecutions arising from the messy turf battle that erupted in August 2011, when sheriff’s officials learned of the secret FBI investigation into widespread allegations that deputies were beating inmates and visitors at the nation’s largest jail system.

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Nine sheriff’s officials have been convicted or pleaded guilty for helping to interfere with the FBI.

Last month, Baca himself admitted to lying to FBI agents and prosecutors. Under the terms of the deal he struck with prosecutors, Baca, who left office two years ago, will avoid being indicted on more serious charges and can be sentenced to no more than six months in prison. U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, who has handled the various proceedings stemming from obstruction allegations, must still approve the agreement.

Tanaka, who serves as the mayor of Gardena, was a polarizing figure in the Sheriff’s Department until he retired in 2013. Though he enjoyed support from a loyal segment of the force, he ultimately came to be seen as someone who carved out a powerful fiefdom under Baca that he ran with impunity.

A blue-ribbon panel that investigated the jails and found widespread problems of abuse faulted Baca for allowing his undersheriff to run the jails without effective oversight. Tanaka, they found, “failed to uphold the department’s goals and values.”

Tanaka’s risky decision to take the stand came after a week of testimony by witnesses whom Fox and other prosecutors brought forward as they presented their case to jurors.

Although testifying gave Tanaka the chance to offer the jury a different story and to knock down allegations made by prosecutors, it also forced him to endure unrelenting questions from Fox, who was given wide berth by the judge to dig into Tanaka’s past.

Fox zeroed in on a period in the late-1980s when Tanaka was a sergeant at the sheriff’s Lynwood station and reportedly joined the Vikings, a clique of deputies who were dogged by allegations of violence and other gang-like behavior.

Tanaka tried to push back, denying the group even existed and at one point raised his voice in the only sign of irritation he showed during his testimony.

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Fox didn’t let up, asking Tanaka to explain why he chose to get a tattoo of a viking. Tanaka said the image had been a benign mascot for the station.

“Just because you’re trying to make it evil doesn’t make it evil, so there’s no reason for me to remove it,” Tanaka said of the tattoo.

Much of the back and forth Monday, however, focused on the alleged efforts to impede the FBI investigation.

Prosecutors allege Tanaka dispatched deputies to pressure clerks working in the sheriff’s records center to falsify entries in the agency’s database in an attempt to hide an inmate working as an FBI informant. The episode was part of a broader plan in which the deputies repeatedly moved the inmate, Anthony Brown, between various jail facilities under fake names to conceal his whereabouts from federal authorities, prosecutors allege.

Tanaka is also accused of being part of a decision to send two sergeants to confront the lead FBI agent in the investigation at her home. When the agent refused to speak with them, one of the sergeants told her he planned to arrest her for running an undercover sting operation in which a deputy smuggled a cellphone into jail for Brown.

As Fox tried to elicit answers about meetings and conversations Tanaka had at the time, Tanaka often claimed not to recall details.

For example, Fox accused Tanaka of trying to identify deputies who were talking to FBI agents by issuing an order that required sheriff’s employees to report any contact with the FBI or other outside law enforcement agencies.

“I may have given the order, I don’t know,” Tanaka said.

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Fox showed Tanaka an internal memo in which a sheriff’s staffer said the order came from “the undersheriff.” Tanaka replied that he didn’t know why such a claim had been made.

joel.rubin@latimes.com

Twitter: @joelrubin

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