Paul Tanaka. Photo via Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department
Paul Tanaka. Photo via Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department

Prosecutors are seeking a five-year prison term for the former second-in-command of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, who was dubbed the “ringleader” of a multi-faceted conspiracy to thwart a federal probe of misconduct in the jails, according to court papers obtained Tuesday.

Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, 57, was convicted in April of felony charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice. U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson scheduled sentencing for June 27.

“After several trials and tens of convictions of Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials, one thing is abundantly clear: defendant Paul Tanaka is responsible not only for obstructing justice, but also for fostering the culture that led to the significant problems in the Los Angeles County jails,” federal prosecutors wrote in pre-sentencing papers filed with the court.

“While defendant claimed at his and three previous trials that he had only limited involvement in the conspiracy, the evidence showed instead that he was the ringleader from the beginning,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox wrote.

Tanaka’s attorney, Jerome Haig, did not immediately reply to a request for comment. The defense sentencing position has not yet been made public.

Tanaka, who remains the mayor of Gardena despite the conviction, faces a maximum of 15 years in federal prison. Although prosecutors are seeking five years’ imprisonment, the ultimate decision is up to the judge.

Tanaka was the ninth sheriff’s official convicted of criminal conduct based on the circumstances surrounding the hiding of inmate-informer Anthony Brown, a scheme that also involved witness tampering and the threatened arrest of an FBI special agent assigned to the jails investigation.

Former Sheriff Lee Baca pleaded guilty to a federal charge of lying to investigators during the probe. Anderson has set a July 11 hearing, at which time he will either accept or reject a plea agreement that calls for a sentence ranging from probation to six months behind bars.

Another deputy, Gilbert Michel, pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and has admitted that he abused inmates while working as a guard at the Men’s Central Jail. His sentencing hearing is set for Monday.

If Tanaka is sentenced to 60 months in federal prison, it would be the longest stretch of any co-conspirator in the Brown case.

Seven former sheriff’s lieutenants, sergeants and deputies convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice received prison sentences ranging from 18 to 41 months. Their appeal is scheduled to be heard by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena on July 5.

The jury deciding Tanaka’s case deliberated for less than three hours over two days before reaching a decision.

Haig previously said he will appeal, calling the verdict “only another step in the process.”

During the trial, prosecutors argued that Tanaka directed co- conspirators in a scheme to derail the 2011 investigation into allegations of excessive force within the jail system.

The case stemmed from events five years ago when a cellphone was discovered in the hands of an inmate at the Men’s Central Jail. Sheriff’s deputies quickly tied the phone to the FBI, which had been conducting a secret probe of brutality against inmates.

At that point, sheriff’s officials “closed ranks” — at the direction of Tanaka — and began an attempt to halt the formerly covert investigation by concealing inmate-informant Brown from federal prosecutors, who had issued a writ for his grand jury appearance.

The charges included a host of “overt acts” — including allegations of witness tampering and attempting to threaten an FBI case agent with arrest.

Defense attorneys, however, argued that much of the prosecution testimony was motivated by jealousy, delivered by retired sheriff’s officials with grudges against Tanaka.

During two days of testimony, Tanaka denied remembering details of his communications with his now-convicted colleagues.

George Hofstetter, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents deputies, called Tanaka’s conviction the end of “the era of corruption” in the department’s upper management.

“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,” Hofstetter said. “The Baca- Tanaka era created leadership failures that left the sheriff’s department and ALADS members with real scars from rising assaults on deputies, and emotional scars from diminished morale as deputies struggled to perform a dangerous and difficult job under a cloud they didn’t create.”

—City News Service

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