Paul Tanaka convicted in sheriff's jail scandal

paul-tanaka-vidgrab.jpgPaul Tanaka, the former Los Angeles County undersheriff who ran unsuccessfully for sheriff last year, was convicted today of conspiracy and obstruction of justice for interfering in a federal investigation into the county jails that he helped oversee. The jury deliberated less than two hours before convicting the former top law enforcement official. He faces up to 15 years in prison when sentenced June 20.

Slowly but surely, the legacy bad cops of LA are over time being weeded out — and the sheriff's department has been one of the worst abusers of basic American rights through the decades. The scandal in which the criminal arrogance of Tanaka (and his then-boss, Sheriff Lee Baca) finally got unmasked was over trying to hide a federal informant who was an inmate in the jails.

The conviction "[caps] a jail abuse and obstruction scandal that reached all the way to the top echelons of the Sheriff’s Department," the LA Times' Joel Rubin writes. "The conviction marks a dramatic fall for a man who rapidly climbed the ranks of the Sheriff’s Department, building a reputation for being a tough, overbearing leader who inspired equal parts fear and respect. By the time he retired in 2013, Tanaka was the second-in-command, running the day-to-day operations of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department and holding as much or more sway than his boss, Sheriff Lee Baca."

Baca pleaded guilty in February to a bargained count of making a false statement to federal investigators. He is expected to get no more than six months in jail.

From the LAT today:

In an immediate response to news of the conviction, the president of the union that represents line-level deputies issued a statement saying that the verdict meant the department could move forward now that “failed leadership” of Baca and Tanaka had been revealed in the courts.

“With this verdict, the department is rid of the culture that created the corruption,” George Hofstetter said in the statement.

Prosecutors alleged that Tanaka helped orchestrate a scheme to impede FBI agents in 2011 after discovering that federal authorities were investigating allegations of brutality and other misconduct by deputies in the department’s jails. Tanaka insisted that it was Baca who formulated the department’s response to the discovery that the FBI was running a secret investigation of his agency’s jails.

Tanaka is also the mayor of the city of Gardena in southern Los Angeles County.

Added: Statement from Sheriff Jim McDonnell:

Today, the jury rendered its verdict in former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s federal criminal trial. I, along with the hard-working men and women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, respect the jury’s verdict and fully accept and recognize that the justice system holds all of us in public service accountable for our actions. We look forward to closing this particularly troubling chapter in the Sheriff’s Department’s otherwise long history of providing essential public services in a professional and caring manner. Upon taking office, I made it clear that I expect every member of the Department to be held to the highest ethical and professional standards. As we move forward as an organization, we are committed to earning the public’s trust every day by providing the highest quality of service with integrity, respect, and accountability.

And statement from George Hofstetter, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the deputies' union.

The era of corruption which characterized the upper management in the L.A. County Sheriff's Department has ended with the conviction of former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. The Department can move forward now that the truth about the failed leadership of disgraced former Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka has been revealed through the judicial process. The Baca-Tanaka era created leadership failures that left the Sheriff's Department and ALADS members with real scars from rising assaults on deputies, and emotional scars from diminished morale as deputies struggled to perform a dangerous and difficult job under a cloud they didn't create. With this verdict, the Department is rid of the culture that created the corruption. The men and women who serve proudly as Deputy Sheriffs shall remain focused on restoring confidence and trust to the public we are sworn to serve.

We at ALADS find it unconscionable that the persons who created, perpetuated, and directed the diseased culture which encouraged a top-down culture of corruption may get off with a relative slap on the wrist while the people who either followed or thought they were following Baca/Tanaka direct orders and policy will languish for years in prison. We don't excuse the behavior of those persons, but only contrast the potential maximum punishment Sheriff Baca received with the potential punishment the mastermind of the criminal conduct will receive. I hope Federal prosecutors will revisit all sentencing that was handed out to deputies who were following what they felt were the lawful orders of a corrupt regime.

And from Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California.

This trial is not about one individual, or an isolated incident of obstruction of justice by a law enforcement official. Rather, this case is about a culture of lawlessness and violence within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department that went unchecked if not abetted by the top brass.

The ACLU SoCal repeatedly tried to alert the sheriff’s department and other public officials about the serious and chronic abuses taking place in the nation’s largest jail system. But many elected officials chose to ignore the numerous reports of eyewitness accounts of deputy violence against inmates provided to them.

Today is one more important step in the process of effecting much needed reform, a process that includes federal prosecutions, the resolution of the Rosas lawsuit, and implementation of the reforms proposed by the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence. This trial and the plea by former Sheriff Lee Baca are important reminders that no one is above the law and those individuals entrusted to uphold the law must also obey it.

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