TANAKA AS WITNESS FOR THE DEFENSE
It was just before the noon hour on Friday when word evidently went round the stately old U.S. District Courthouse that Paul Tanaka was going to be the next witness called in the obstruction of justice trial of Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department deputy James Sexton.
Thus by the time, the witness arrived at Judge Percy Anderson’s courtroom number fifteen, the place was filled with men and women in suits who apparently believed that the subpoenaed testimony of the former undersheriff—who was now running for sheriff—would be a show well worth observing.
Tanaka walked to the witness box in a well-tailed grey suit and light Wedgwood blue tie. His stride had an overlay of confidence, a candidates gait.
He had been called as a witness for the defense and his testimony pertained mostly to the central issue of this trial, which is the LA County Sheriff’s Department’s response to the discovery that a convicted bank robber and jail inmate named Anthony Brown was an informant for the FBI.
To recap: in early August 2011, Brown’s double identity was revealed when a deputy happened to find a contraband cell phone in Brown’s possession. The phone’s call log featured calls to the offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, almost exclusively. After questioning Brown, LASD investigators further learned that the phone had been smuggled to him in return for money by a jail deputy, and that the smuggling operation was a covert sting designed by the FBI’s civil rights division as part of a widening probe into corruption and brutality inside the LASD-run county jail system.
Once Brown’s informant status was established, according to testimony heard earlier in the trial, the department brass ordered that the inmate be hidden from federal law enforcement. To accomplish this aim, Brown was moved between several far flung corners of the county jail system while, at the same time, all traces of his presence were made to vanish from the department’s computer database, making him impossible to locate for any but the small cadre of department members in the know.
Two lieutenants, two sergeants, and three deputies have been indicted for obstruction of justice and related charges, for their part in the Brown affair.
James Sexton, the defendant in this trial, is one of the seven.
An important part of Sexton’s defense, has been to illustrate to the jury that, when it came to the Brown operation, Sexton— who was 26-years-old and three years out of the sheriff’s academy at the time—was the last guy in a very long line of people who were following orders that came—and continued to come— from the very top of the sheriff’s department, specifically from then undersheriff Tanaka, with the approval of Lee Baca.
Prior to Tanaka’s appearance in court Friday afternoon, the jury had heard from a cluster of department member witnesses who placed Tanaka as the main boss of the informant-hiding operation. In addition to that testimony, the jury had seen a number of emails that would seem to solidly back up the primacy of the former undersheriff’s involvement.
It was in this context that Tanaka took the stand.
After a flurry of context-establishing questions, Sexton’s attorney, Thomas O’Brien, asked him about when and how he first learned about the cell phone and Brown.
Tanaka said initially learned through a call from the sheriff, placing the date on August 18 or 19, 2011. Tanaka also said that there was “concern that the cell phone had been introduced by a rogue FBI agent.”
(As it happened, the whole notion of the “rogue agent” had been pretty convincingly refuted an hour or so earlier when Steven Martinez, the man who, in 2011, headed up the FBI’s enormous LA office, described how he had called Baca on August 18, and explained in detail about the informant and the cell phone, and how both were part of a fully sanctioned FBI undercover operation that was part of a civil rights investigation into brutality and corruption in the jails. In other words, Baca knew there was nothing “rogue” about it.)
In the next series of questions, O’Brien asked Tanaka if he had given the order for various individual parts of the operation. The former undersheriff readily admitted to giving certain orders but danced away from questions pertaining to what his part had been in relation to other elements of hiding Brown, in specific the ones that, should the feds manage to prove obstruction of justice, would be where that obstruction was most likely to be demonstrated.
For instance, Tanaka said that the Brown matter was a high priority for the sheriff and acknowledged that it was actually he who had personally authorized the large amount of overtime for the team that had worked on what would come to be known colloquially as Operation Pandora’s Box. “We had to put a 24-hour guard on [Brown] to make sure he was kept safe.
“It’s not always easy to control what every deputy sheriff does,” Tanaka said. “When somebody has been labeled a snitch and that’s against deputy sheriff’s we have a real concern for that person’s safety. “
So if he ordered the overtime, who actually ordered the 24/7 security? At this, the vagifiers switched on: It was “possible,” it was him, said Tanaka. “Possible,” it was the sheriff. “Likely,” it was one of them.
When asked if he gave the order to change Brown’s name or his housing, Tanaka backpedaled further and answered No to both questions. But he learned of it, possibly when it was being done, and he probably didn’t object, he said.
“I didn’t specify how to do it. I just ordered [Brown] to be kept safe. This unit,” he said, referring the Operation Safe Jails elite unit in which Sexton works, and that is lead by Lt. Greg Thompson, who is also indicted. “They’re the experts. I might be the undersheriff, but they’re the experts.”
In that Tanaka is known to be a very hands on manager, to the point of often disregarding the command structure to micromanage, the notion that he would blindly delegate such a tricky assignment as the hiding of Brown, without any knowledge of how it might be accomplished, did not sound terribly credible, especially given the matter was purportedly, according to Tanaka himself, of such concern to the sheriff.
Tanaka did at least admit that the approval had to come from him for the FBI to be able to talk to or see Brown, . And that he had not given approval. “The FBI visit was a security breach,” he said, referring to an hour interview that FBI special agent Leah Marx and a colleague had with Brown after the discovery of the cell phone, an interview that was abruptly shut down once LASD higher-ups realized it was occurring.
But when asked if he authorized the complicated machinations that allowed Brown’s disappearance from the jail database, Tanaka’s answers were again swaddled in legal vagaries.
“That one I’m not sure I was aware of until long after the fact,” he said then repeated the thought for good measure. “I don’t recall learning about that until long after the fact.”
In other words, the part of the Brown operation that was the most significantly unique, that would have required the most planning—and that either skated the edge of legality or, as the prosecution has been working to prove, crossed well over the legal line—were all authorized without his knowledge by persons five or six ranks below him.
Tanaka’s answer was similarly hazy when it came to any knowledge of the court order that was issued requiring Anthony Brown to be released to federal custody so that he could appear before a federal grand jury.
“I don’t believe I knew about it until long after….” he said.
At the very end of Tanaka’s testimony, O’Brien asked one last question.
“Mr, Tanaka, you have not been indicted.”
“No, sir,” Tanaka replied.
And with that, the witness was permitted to step down.
AND THEN, THERE IS THE DEFENDANT
In high contrast to Tanaka’s testimony, a few hours earlier, the prosecution called its final witness, who was not really a witness at all, but a man who took the stand and read aloud from James Sexton’s grand jury testimony while Assistant U.S. Attorney Liz Rhodes played her part as the prosecutor asking questions.
The dramatic recreation was weirdly affecting. Sexton’s answers were nuanced and detailed, and appeared to be very candid, as if he was doing his best to be helpful—never suspecting, one presumes, that he would be indicted and that many of his answers would be used as evidence against him on some future day court.
He talked about how the team was told that, if there was any “static,” about the elaborate mechanism required to move and hide Brown, one of four people should be “invoked,” most prominently, Greg Thompson, Sexton’s immediate supervisor, and Paul Tanaka.
Sexton described the plan to repeatedly “release and “rebook” Brown every 48 hours under different phony names and personal details, in order to avoid fingerprints, and thus remove Brown’s presence from the jail systems database. He characterized the hiding of Brown as being part of an “adversarial” attitude in which “the adversary was the U.S. government”—aka the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office.
“It was ‘bring out the smoke and mirrors’” he explained.
What they did in hiding Brown was akin to “kidnapping,” Sexton said. “We had [Brown] in places that we weren’t authorized [to have him]. He didn’t consent to have his identity changed, so we kidnapped him.”
And so it went.
After the reading of Sexton’s grand jury testimony, the prosecution rested.
And also, right around that same time on Friday, as his grand jury testimony was being read to the jury, Sexton had been scheduled to walk across a stage in a cap and gown to receive his master’s degree at the USC Price School of Public Policy.
Instead, of course, he was inside the Spring Street federal court building facing federal charges.
On Monday, Tanaka will be cross-examined by the prosecution. Closing arguments are expected near the end of Monday’s session or first thing on Tuesday.
AND IN OTHER RELATED NEWS…
TEAM OF UCLA LAW STUDENTS RESEARCH AND HELP PROPOSE A “COMPREHENSIVE SYSTEM OF CIVILIAN OVERSIGHT” FOR THE SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT
At 9:30 am Monday (when, unfortunately, we’ll be in federal court), the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in LA Jails will launch a report researched and drafted by students from the UCLA School of Law International Human Rights Clinic, which outlines a comprehensive model of civilian oversight for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
In late June, the County Supervisors are expecting the new Inspector General, Max Huntsman, and Sheriff Scott to present their report and findings on the notion of a permanent civilian oversight body for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
The eight-page report synthesizes research of civilian oversight models across the country. The document provides a thorough breakdown of the functions and capacities of an effective community based civilian oversight body.
· The report proposes that the Civilian Review Board will direct the functions of the new Office of Inspector General while prioritizing the input, complaints, and voices of communities directly impacted by Sheriff violence.
The report has already been submitted to the five County Supervisors, the Office of Inspector General, and the Sheriff’s Department. The Coalition urges them to “support permanent civilian oversight that has the power and community backing to hold the largest Sheriff’s Department in the country accountable for any future abuses.”
On Monday, the report will be presented at 9:30 a.m., at the Mercado La Paloma, 3655 S. Grand Ave 90007
Speakers will include:
Patrisse Cullors – Executive Director of Dignity and Power Now/ The Coalition to End Sheriff Violence
Reverend Cecil Chip Murray – Former Commissioner of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence.
Miriam Krinsky – Attorney and former Executive Director of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence.
Sandra Neal – Member of the Coalition and mother of a survivor of deputy violence.
For still more on the report, read Abby Sewell’s story for the LA Times.