Mayor of Gardena and former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was sentenced Monday to five years in federal prison for obstructing an FBI investigation into corruption and prisoner abuse within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD). Earlier this year, former Sheriff Lee Baca pleaded guilty to making false statements to FBI agents and federal prosecutors investigating the obstruction conspiracy.
While investigating numerous allegations of excessive force, misconduct, and sexual assault committed by deputies at the Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) in Downtown Los Angeles, FBI agents recruited an inmate named Anthony Brown to work as an informant. After Brown bribed Deputy Gilbert Michel to smuggle a cell phone into the jail, FBI agents confronted Michel with a video of the deputy accepting the bribe. As Michel began working with the feds, Brown used the smuggled cell phone to record videos of deputies assaulting inmates without provocation.
Caught with the cell phone three weeks later, Brown eventually admitted to the deputies that he was working as an FBI informant recording any instances of police misconduct in the jail. Unable to contact Brown with the cell phone, FBI agents Leah Marx and David Lam arrived at MCJ to interview him on August 23, 2011. As the FBI agents began speaking with Brown, Lt. Gregory Thompson abruptly terminated the interview and had Brown transferred to another facility under a series of false names.
In an attempt to intimidate Agent Marx, Sgt. Scott Craig of the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau (ICIB) confronted the FBI agent at her house on September 26, 2011. Captured on surveillance video, Craig lied to Marx by telling her that she was a named suspect in a felony complaint and threatened to obtain a warrant for her arrest. According to recorded interviews, ICIB Lt. Stephen Leavins and Sgt. Craig attempted to coerce Michel into refusing to cooperate with the FBI investigation. Sergeants Maricella Long and Craig also engaged in witness tampering by convincing Brown to cease working as an FBI informant.
In 2012, Michel pleaded guilty to bribery as multiple investigations conducted by the FBI led to the convictions of at least 21 members of the LASD. On April 12, 2013, FBI agents and federal prosecutors interviewed Sheriff Baca regarding his role and knowledge of the misconduct taking place within his department. Instead of answering honestly, Baca lied at least three times to the federal agents and later pleaded guilty to making false statements.
After Baca retired in 2014, his former undersheriff and sheriff’s captain were arrested a few months later on obstruction and conspiracy charges. Accused of corruptly influencing and impeding the FBI investigation into abuse and bribery within the LASD, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and retired Captain William “Tom” Carey had ordered the deputies to secretly transfer Brown under false aliases and engage in witness tampering. In August 2015, former Capt. Carey pleaded guilty to lying under oath.
Convicted in April for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice, Tanaka was sentenced Monday to five years in federal prison, a $7,500 fine, and two years of supervised release following his prison term. During Tanaka’s sentencing, Judge Percy Anderson denounced his arrogance and “gross abuse of public trust.”
“Not only did he fail to identify and address problems in the jails, he exacerbated them,” Percy stated. The judge also described the former undersheriff as “evasive, combative, and not credible” on the stand.
“His actions harmed the sheriff’s department, harmed law enforcement everywhere and the good men and women who strive every day to uphold their oaths and serve justice,” said U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker following the sentencing.
As Tanaka’s attorneys take steps to appeal the decision, Baca is scheduled for sentencing on July 11. The former sheriff faces a maximum sentence of six months in federal prison.