Mayor of Gardena and former L.A. County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was convicted of conspiracy and obstruction charges on Wednesday by a federal jury for directly interfering with an FBI investigation into abuse and corruption within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD). Although Tanaka’s defense attorneys primarily blamed former Sheriff Lee Baca for orchestrating the crimes, witnesses recalled Tanaka issuing most of the illegal orders.
While investigating allegations of brutality and misconduct within the LASD, an FBI informant named Anthony Brown bribed Deputy Gilbert Michel in exchange for smuggling a cell phone into Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) in Downtown L.A. After using the phone to record prisoner abuse and other illicit activities, Brown was caught a few weeks later with the smuggled phone and eventually admitted his involvement with the FBI investigation.
Instead of allowing the FBI to continue their inquiry unimpeded, Baca gave Tanaka free reign to actively obstruct the federal investigation by hiding Brown under a series of aliases and sending deputies to the home of a female FBI agent in order to threaten and intimidate her. After Deputy Michel pleaded guilty to bribery in 2012 and began cooperating with the FBI, Baca impelled Tanaka to retire the following year. Although Baca had planned to run for re-election, he decided to retire amid the exposure of numerous corruption and abuse scandals within his department.
Accused of corruptly influencing and impeding an FBI investigation into abuse and bribery within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and retired Captain William “Tom” Carey were indicted in May 2015. Carey pleaded guilty to lying under oath in August 2015, while Baca pleaded guilty to making false statements to FBI agents and federal prosecutors earlier this year.
During Tanaka’s trial, prosecutors pointed to his violent past as a member of the Lynwood Vikings, a racist gang of deputies who operated out of the Lynwood station in the late-1980s and 1990s. As a sergeant stationed at Lynwood, Tanaka received a Viking tattoo in 1987 and later admitted under testimony that he refuses to have it removed. A year after receiving his tattoo, Tanaka was named in a wrongful death lawsuit in which the department eventually settled for $1 million.
Although Tanaka’s defense attorneys tried to place the blame on Baca while portraying their client as an innocent victim who was unaware of the sheriff’s illicit activities, several phone calls and witnesses placed Tanaka at the center of the conspiracy. Former deputy Mickey Manzo, who was convicted in an earlier trial for his involvement in obstructing the FBI, testified about attending meetings where Tanaka screamed profanities against the FBI while directly issuing unlawful orders. With phone records revealing that Tanaka was in constant communication with his co-conspirators, Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox disproved Tanaka’s claims that he had no knowledge of his subordinates’ crimes.
Spending less than two hours deliberating, the jury found Tanaka guilty on Wednesday of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice. Tanaka faces up to 15 years in federal prison, and his sentencing is scheduled for June 20. Despite his recent conviction, Tanaka currently serves as mayor of Gardena.