Jury selection is scheduled to begin Wednesday in the trial of former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. He was the second in command at the Sheriff’s Department under former Sheriff Lee Baca. Tanaka is accused of obstructing a federal investigation.
In this week’s edition of “Olney in LA,” Warren looks at what lead to the charges against Tanaka. He spoke with editor of WitnessLA Celeste Fremon and President of the Professional Peace Officers AssociatLieutenant Brian Moriguchi, the President of the Professional Peace Officers Association, a group which represents the rank and file sheriffs deputies.
Paul Tanaka was interviewed in November of 2013 by Warren shortly after a damning report was released. The Report of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence looked at the culture of violence at Men’s Central Jail and pointed the finger at the leadership in the Sheriff’s Department. At the time, Tanaka had retired from his position as Undersheriff, was serving as Mayor of Gardena (a position he still holds) and was planning to run against Baca for Sheriff.
When asked about his part in the culture of jailhouse violence, Paul Tanaka, in that 2013 interview did some finger pointing of his own, “first of all it’s very convenient and unfortunate that the sheriff has resorted to something he’s become very accustomed to and that is pointing the fingers and absolving himself or attempting to avoid any blame.”
Ultimately, former Sheriff Lee Baca stepped down from his position in 2014 and took some of the blame. On February 10, 2016, Baca pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents and federal prosecutors who were investigating the beatings of inmates and visitors at the nations’s largest jail system.
Celeste Fremon says federal agents had decided to launch an undercover investigation using an inmate informant who was given a cell phone, “and just by accident the jail personnel discovered the existence of this informant and then Sheriff Baca and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka learned of the existence of this undercover investigation and the informant.”
The government accuses them of engaging in a deliberate plan to thwart the undercover investigation. Fremon says those obstruction of justice charges came because they allegedly “took this inmate informant and hid him from his FBI handlers, sent two members of the sheriff’s department out to question and threaten one of the FBI Special Agents.”
Lt. Brian Moriguchi says he’s not excusing Tanaka’s actions or those of the other deputies. “But let’s look at what this really is. This is a power struggle between the federal government and local law-enforcement. The FBI smuggled a cell phone into the jail and give it to a hard-core criminal. That places officers who work in the jails at risk, significant risk. By allowing an inmate to have access to a cell phone and be able to call their friends on the outside there’s all sorts of reasons why that’s a dangerous practice.”
The entire investigation led to numerous charges, trials and convictions of seven lower level members of the sheriff’s department. Lt. Brian Moriguchi says it’s taken a toll on current members of the department, “of course the whole thing is embarrassing to deputies.” A recent morale survey by The Professional Peace Officers Association had surprising findings according to Moriguchi, “we found the morale is lower today than it was when Baca and Tanaka were in charge. I attribute that largely to an expectation (Sheriff) McDonnell was going to make changes for the better and we haven’t seen many changes to date.”
Warren asked Lt. Moriguchi what changes could have been made by the new regime that hadn’t. Moriguchi says Sheriff McDonnell “should’ve brought in people from the outside. Clearly we had a culture of issues under Baca and Tanaka that needed to be cleaned up. And people coming from the outside having fresh eyes, but still understanding what law enforcement does and what our function is, would have been beneficial. Instead he’s got much of the same people running the department.
When Paul Tanaka goes on trial one of the questions will be whether his former boss will be called to testify. Baca’s plea agreement doesn’t require him to testify at Tanaka’s trial and if Baca is called, he is expected to assert his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination and refuse to testify. Lt. Brian Moriguchi feels like the punishments levied aren’t equal, “something just doesn’t match up there, that the lower end people who are following orders of the higher end people got severe punishment and the one giving the orders have not really been held accountable today.”
The transcript and audio of Warren’s 2013 interview with Paul Tanaka are here.