Tanaka Indictment Shows, Once Again, It's Not the Crime, It's the Cover-Up

Paul Tanaka
Paul Tanaka
via Tanaka for Sheriff

Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was indicted Wednesday by a federal grand jury on charges that he obstructed a federal investigation into inmate abuse in 2011. Tanaka, who was Sheriff Lee Baca's second-in-command, faces federal charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

Also indicted was retired Capt. Tom Carey, who was in charge of the department's Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau. Carey and Tanaka are accused of conspiring to hide a jailhouse informant, Anthony Brown, who was cooperating with an FBI investigation into allegations of corruption and abuse within the L.A. County jails.

The indictment caps a five-year scandal that led to Baca's resignation in January 2014. These specific allegations are not new — they were largely aired during federal trials of seven lower-level deputies last year. At the time, Tanaka was publicly named as a target of the investigation, which loomed over his failed campaign for sheriff.

"It was about time. We knew it would transpire," says Bob Olmsted, the retired sheriff's commander who blew the whistle on inmate abuse, and who also ran unsuccessfully for sheriff last year. "If we had just done our job, and just policed the jails the way it should have been done, this wouldn't have been out of control. It bit 'em in the butt later when they failed to do the right thing and covered it up as opposed to fixing the problem."

Indeed, the indictment proves the old adage that it's not the crime, it's the cover-up. While an independent commission on jail violence blasted Baca and Tanaka for poor oversight of the jails, mismanagement alone likely would not have risen to the level of a criminal indictment. Had the department cooperated with the FBI investigation, it's likely that no high-level executives would have been charged.

"I've always said that the level of violence could not have happened without the tacit assent of the higher-ups," says Peter Eliasberg, the legal director of the ACLU of Southern California. "But that kind of tacit approval would never have resulted in an indictment."

In the years leading up to the exposure of the scandal in 2010 and 2011, the department suffered from "an epidemic of brutal beatings," Eliasberg says.

"The obstruction of justice is awful, but we need to remember what was being covered up, too," Eliasberg says.

He says that since then conditions have markedly improved. "We’re not hearing about broken orbital bones, and shattered teeth and jaws," he says. "There are a lot fewer complaints about violence."

Tanaka and Carey are expected to appear for an arraignment this afternoon.

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