It was around 9:20 a.m. on Wednesday, when U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson got a note from the jury in the federal trial of former Los Angeles County undersheriff Paul Tanaka, once the second most powerful person in the nation’s largest sheriff’s department.
The jurors had, by that time, been deliberating for less than three hours. So when word came down about the note, most of the attorneys and trial watchers figured the jury panel merely wanted some kind of clarification, or perhaps a read back of testimony.
But the jurors needed no additional information. They had a verdict.
The seven-woman, five-man federal jury found Paul Tanaka guilty on both counts of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice pertaining to allegations that Tanaka directed and oversaw deliberate efforts to disrupt an FBI investigation into a culture of brutality and corruption inside the LA County jails, that began in 2010.
Specifically, the prosecution contended that, from mid-August 2011 through September 26, 2011, Mr. Tanaka and department members under his direction, devised a scheme to hide a jail inmate turned-confidential informant from his FBI handlers through a complicated strategy of multiple name changes that made the federal informant, Anthony Brown, appear to vanish from the LA County jail system by making his name and distinguishing details vanish from the jail database.
The government also alleged that department members under Tanaka’s command attempted to intimidate potential witnesses, who had information on deputy wrongdoing, into refusing to cooperate with the FBI. Then the same group falsely threatened an FBI agent with arrest in an unsuccessful attempt to intimidate her into giving them information about the ongoing federal investigation.
Tanaka and company began their efforts to obstruct, according to Assistant United States Attorney Brandon Fox, and fellow prosecutors, Assistant U. S. Attorneys Lizabeth Rhodes and Eddie Jauregui, when by accident a deputy discovered a contraband cell phone among informant Brown’s belongings, and it came to light that Brown acquired phone by bribing a corrupt deputy, as part of an FBI sting.
The idea that the feds were not only investigating inside the jail system that department higher-ups considered “our house,” but that much of the investigation was an undercover operation, made Lee Baca and Paul Tanaka livid.
For the first week and a half of the trial, the prosecution presented a carefully constructed case that included a dozen witnesses to demonstrate that the result of that anger was the series of actions that came to be known, unofficially, Operation Pandora’s Box, and that Paul Tanaka was the operation’s undisputed leader, a leader who the said already had a long record of protecting deputies who stepped over the line of legality in the name of the kind of aggressive policing Tanaka favored. They brought in multiple witness who testified that Tanaka called that law enforcement style “working the gray,” and that anyone who in any way opposed the former undersheriff’s brand of leadership faced swift retaliation.
“He was running the show,” said prosecutor Fox of Tanaka. “We knew that from the beginning.”
When it was their turn, the defense worked to tell a very different story of a brilliant and demanding but scrupulously ethical lawman who did what his boss, the sheriff, lawfully ordered him to do, but who certainly was not the author of the actions underlying the charges he was facing. The primary form of evidence the defense used to tell their counter narrative, was the testimony of their client Paul Tanaka.
The jury didn’t buy the message or the messenger, whom they found “devious.”
When the guilty verdict was read aloud in court, Tanaka sat silently, his expression unmoving. His wife, an LASD detective began crying softly. Tanaka and his wife fled through a side door of the federal court building on Spring street in downtown Los Angeles. But his brother and sister and other family and extended family came out one of the court’s main doors, in spite of the mob of press. Tanaka’s brother, a municipal court judge, chatted briefly with reporters, his expression one of melancholy that he only partially masked. Tanaka’s sister, Cindy, a pretty, very slender woman, was sobbing. “Nobody gets it,” she sobbed. “My brother is the kindest man I know. I’m not kidding, the kindest man I know.”
“THE ENORMITY OF IT”
Corrine Zemliak, the jury forewoman said that she and her fellow jurors were close to announcing a verdict on Tuesday afternoon after talking for a little over an hour.
“The evidence was really strong. But we wanted to do our due diligence,” Zemliak said. “We wanted to make sure we hadn’t missed anything.”
“We realized the enormity of it,” added juror Mark Nolan. “And nobody wants to send somebody to prison.”
But jurors said that they became convinced early on that Tanaka was the man in charge. “The defense kept saying that Tanaka was a proactive leader,” said Zemliak, “and so he acted like a proactive leader.”
Jurors said this idea was strengthened by several of the witnesses who said that when Tanaka was assistant sheriff in charge of patrol, “he still was involved on the custody side,” telling people what to do, said Zemliak. And the lieutenants involved in moving Anthony Brown kept calling Tanaka, rather than “going through the normal chain of command,” she said. “Why would the lieutenants call the undersheriff if he wasn’t involved?”
ABOVE THE LAW
According to several jurors we spoke with, there was a list of things that tipped the scales early for the panel.
Among the most potent pieces of evidence, said juror Theresa Cisneros, was an audio recording of a call involving former LASD sergeants, Maricela Long and Scott Craig, who were the two department members that cornered FBI special agent Leah Marx outside her apartment. (Marx is now Leah Tanner, as the FBI agent recently got married.)
The audio is of a recording made by Long and Craig of a phone call they received from Marx’s boss at the FBI after the agent reported her encounter with the two sergeants who told her that a warrant was being sworn out for her arrest.
When he called, the boss got Long on the phone and he asked her if there was really a warrant and, if so, when it would be sworn out.
“It could be tomorrow, sir,” Long replied. “You’re going to have to talk to the undersheriff.”
Long repeated the instruction to call the undersheriff then, after ringing off, she clearly did not realize that she was still recording, so chuckled and said, “They’re scared! They’re like, do you know when– is the warrant….”
“You’re still rolling,” Craig warned her, and the recording ends there.
The jurors said they were similarly disturbed by the video taken by investigators from the department’s internal criminal investigative bureau (ICIB) of Marx being accosted by Long and Craig.
“It was bullying,” said Cisneros and juror Belinda Becerra of the encounter. “They are the law and they thought they could act above the law.”
Another of the prosecution’s most powerful pieces of evidence, according to the jurors, was a labor-intensive series of phone call charts that FBI investigators put together for the trial. The charts tracked all phone activity between Mr. Tanaka and some of the main department members involved in the alleged obstruction activities—namely former Lt. Greg Thompson, former Lt. Steve Leavins, former Cpt. Tom Carey and others—during the crucial time period of August 18 through September 26, 2011. The charts also showed any phone activity between the former sheriff, Lee Baca, and the same department members during that same period.
The phone records were impressive, said jurors. Not only did they show relatively constant contact between the alleged co-conspirators. (Thompson, Leavins, and five others have already been convicted for obstruction of justice, with their cases on appeal. Carey, who was originally Tanaka’s co-defendant, took a plea deal last year, but he has yet to be sentenced. And, of course, Lee Baca pleaded guilty to lying to federal officials about his roll in events, although his deal will not be finalized until he is sentenced in May.)
According to the charts, the calls, along with flurries of emails, clustered around various significant events in the obstruction plan, such as the launch of the name-changing strategy to obscure the whereabouts of informant Brown, the confrontation with FBI agent Leah Marx in front of her apartment and, tellingly, August 23, after Marx and two of her FBI agent colleagues managed to get into the jail unimpeded to visit their informant, against Tanaka’s wishes. After the rash of phone calls, the hide-the-ball plan kicked in that same afternoon.
Tanaka and his attorneys, Jerome Haig and Dean Steward, still maintain it was Baca, not Tanaka, who was obsessed with the actions of the FBI and their covert investigation into departmental wrongdoing, and who directed the actions that became the basis for the government’s criminal charges against Mr. Tanaka.
Yet to the jurors, the phone charts suggested muscularly otherwise.
In his closing arguments, defense attorney Steward claimed that the government had manipulated the phone records to falsely strengthen their theory of the case, but the defense presented nothing with which to back-up the accusation, and the jury—which was provided with the charts, and the phone lists—didn’t believe him.
Jurors said they kept coming back to the phone call lists, and the pattern of calls from the main players “after every event. And none were with Lee Baca.”
The jurors also said they were surprised by the fact that they were never bored for a minute of this complicated trial that began on the afternoon of March 24, nearly three weeks ago.
“We understood a lot was at stake,” a juror said, and we really wanted to do our civic duty.
THE MEANING AND THE MESSAGE
“Mr. Tanaka created a culture of corruption seen only in the movies, and certainly nothing that anyone would expect from the nation’s largest Sheriff’s department,” said David Bowdich, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office when he and United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker spoke on the steps of the courthouse after the verdict was announced.
Decker herself talked about what the jury said with its verdict. “Another jury has spoken and sent a clear message that the former leaders of the Sheriff’s Department who abused their positions by encouraging, and then concealing, a corrupt culture, must be held accountable.”
After the verdict was announced, George Hofstetter, President of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS), put the sentiments in similar but even stronger terms.
“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,” Hofstetter said in an official release from the union. “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.”
Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who defeated Mr. Tanaka in the 2014 political race to succeed Lee Baca as head of the scandal scarred department, was more conciliatory.
“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.”
Yet, when I asked members of the jury what, if anything, they learned through the trial regarding the allegations of corruption and brutality that the FBI had been investigating, and that Tanaka and those under his direction seemed intent on sweeping out of sight, they were much less upbeat.
“It was very concerning,” said forewoman Corrine Zemliak as several her fellow jurors murmured agreement. “We have a lot of work to do. A lot of work.”
YES, THERE WILL BE AN APPEAL
United States District Judge Percy Anderson will sentence Paul Tanaka, who is 57, on June 20. Tanaka faces a statutory maximum sentence of 15 years in federal prison.
According to attorney Jerome Haig, Tanaka will certainly appeal the verdict. Among the points Tanaka and his team will make in their pitch for an appeal will be the court’s unwillingness to grant Baca immunity and compel him to testify as they did for one of the prosecution’s start witnesses, convicted former LASD deputy, Mickey Manzo.
“If there is a guilty party, Lee Baca is that guilty party,” said Haig. We wanted Lee Baca to testify, but he wouldn’t testify and we couldn’t force him to testify. We asked the court to force him to testify. The court denied that request.”
Mr. Haig also mentioned what he called former sheriff Baca’s “sweetheart deal” plea bargain, which suggests only a sentence of from 0 to 6 months in federal prison. Judge Anderson will sentence Leroy Baca in May.
In addition to the now ten former department members, Baca and Tanaka included, who have now been convicted of or pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice charges (or in Baca’s case, lying about the obstruction issue), another nine deputies who held various ranks have been convicted on charges related to the illegal use of force, illegal firearms and bribery. Two additional deputies are scheduled to go on trial May 3 in a case alleging an illegal use of force at the Twin Towers jail.