By Chris Zoukis
Paul K. Tanaka, 57, the former second-in-command of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) and the elected mayor of Gardena, California, was found guilty on federal charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice in April 2016. Accused of being the “ringleader” of the conspiracy, he was sentenced to five years in prison on June 27, 2016.
The federal investigation into corruption in the nation’s largest sheriff’s department was recounted in PLN’s March 2016 cover story. Tanaka’s conviction closes the book on the wide-ranging investigation, which revealed beatings, brutality and misconduct by sheriff’s officials in the Los Angeles County jail system. More than 20 people were indicted on federal charges as a result of the investigation.
Gilbert Michel was among the deputies who were prosecuted. “We thought that we ran the jail,” he told reporters about the culture of abuse and impunity in the LASD. “It’s a little arrogant to think that you own that. You don’t. The people of Los Angeles County own that jail.” Michel pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and received a six-month sentence.
The corruption extended all the way up to then-Sheriff Lee Baca. Pursuant to a plea deal, Baca admitted to lying during the federal investigation and agreed to resign in exchange for a maximum sentence of six months in federal prison – though the district court rejected his plea bargain in July 2016 and postponed his sentencing.
What began as an investigation into civil rights abuses in the LA County jail system quickly became a drama that could have come right out of Hollywood. The main whistleblower who prompted the FBI probe was Bob Olmstead, a former captain at the Men’s Central Jail and a commander in the LASD. For years he supplied damning evidence of misconduct to federal investigators and the media.
Confidential informant Anthony Brown, an LA County jail prisoner, was provided with a contraband cell phone by the FBI which he used to surreptitiously gather evidence of abuse. When jail officials became aware of the phone and Brown’s status as a federal informant, they hatched a hair-brained scheme dubbed “Operation Pandora’s Box.” Pursuant to the plan, Brown was shuffled among various jail facilities and booked under different names so FBI agents couldn’t find him. Tanaka was directly involved in approving the scheme.
And in perhaps the most bizarre part of the plan, sheriff’s deputies went to the home of the lead FBI investigator and threatened her with arrest for having the cell phone smuggled into the jail for Brown.
According to David Bowdich, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, “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.”
Tanaka took the stand to defend himself at trial, claiming he wasn’t aware of the cover-up scheme, but the federal jury found overwhelming evidence of his involvement in efforts to obstruct the FBI’s investigation.
U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said the convictions of Tanaka and other jail officials sent a message that corruption within law enforcement agencies will not be tolerated, “particularly when it comes from the very top of those organizations.”
In addition to Tanaka, seven LASD employees have been convicted of obstruction of justice in connection with the FBI investigation, including former Captain Tom Carey, who accepted a plea deal in exchange for his cooperation with federal prosecutors.
Sources: www.latimes.com, www.wdhd.com, www.scpr.org, https://ktla.com/, www.laweekly.com, https://witnessla.com/, https://abc7.com/
This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News in August 2016.