Federal authorities continued their winning streak in uprooting corruption in the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department when a federal judge today sentenced former second-in-command Paul Tanaka to five years in prison — serious time.
The question now, however, is whether Tanaka's influence at the department has created a cancer of bad cops who remain on the job.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson today said the former undersheriff “perpetrated an environment of excessive deputy conduct” and recruited members into his “clique” who remain in “positions of authority” at the department.
He said Tanaka had largely been successful at shielding deputies from scrutiny. Anderson castigated him for “the incalculable harm you have caused this community.”
A Sheriff's Department spokeswoman had no comment.
Tanaka, strangely, is still the elected mayor of Gardena. Gardena's city attorney previously told L.A. Weekly that Tanaka would be forced to resign post-sentencing under city rules, with the town's four other council members getting 60 days to appoint a replacement or call a special election.
The ACLU of Southern California, which had been a thorn in the side of the department via a civil rights lawsuit and damning reports about jail abuses, hailed the sentencing but cautioned that this might not be over.
“There are likely people in place in the department, because of the way Tanaka behaved, who don't have the values and integrity they should have,” says ACLU legal director Peter Eliasberg.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell, the former Long Beach chief and ex-brass at the Los Angeles Police Department, beat Tanaka for the top job in a 2014 election. The former No. 2 was brazen enough to run for the job while under federal investigation.
McDonnell ran on a reform platform, and he has indeed shaken things up.
In April, Tanaka was found guilty of conspiring to obstruct justice and of obstructing justice. Prosecutors said he helped to orchestrate a scheme to hide a jailhouse informant, who was working with the FBI, from his federal handlers.
The inmate was moved to a Sheriff's patrol station jail under a false name, they said, after deputies found a smuggled phone he was using had been linked to the FBI.
The feds were looking into allegations that inmates were being abused and beaten.
“During his time as an executive, defendant [Tanaka] threatened to discipline supervisors who frequently referred deputies to Internal Affairs, transferred captains who tried to reduce deputy abuse and break up cliques, instructed deputies to work in the ‘gray area’ of law enforcement, and expressed his desire to gut Internal Affairs,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum. His “actions caused deputies to believe that they could act with impunity, which, unfortunately, they did much too frequently,” the memo stated.
The 2011 investigation ended up leading to the top of the department. Tanaka was described in a federal statement today as “the head of a broad conspiracy to obstruct the federal investigation.”
During the FBI's jail probe, two Sheriff's sergeants went to the home of the investigating agent and threatened her with arrest, prosecutors said. Sheriff's officials also tried unsuccessfully to get an L.A. Superior Court judge to make the feds turn over investigative information in the jail probe. An FBI supervisor was even told his agent's arrest was imminent.
Turns out the feds didn't take too kindly to this.
Tanaka's defense team has described him as a fall guy. He was the department's second in command until 2013, when he was forced out by former Sheriff Lee Baca, who later resigned under the same cloud of suspicion.
Baca pleaded guilty in February to lying to federal agents about what he knew. Namely, he claimed that he wasn't aware his underlings were going to approach the FBI agent.
As part of a plea agreement, Baca faces a maximum of six months behind bars. So far, however, Anderson has been tough on the lawmen involved in this scandal. Baca's sentencing is scheduled for July 11.
“Based on what he's [Anderson] done so far, I don't think he sees himself bound by that deal,” Eliasberg says.