Paul Tanaka Accused of Shielding LA Sheriffs Abuses

A federal sting to uncover abuses leading to high levels of deputy violence against prisoners in the Los Angeles County Central Jail has implicated Undersheriff Paul Tanaka in a scheme to foil the operation by hiding an informant from the FBI, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The cat-and-mouse game between the Sheriff’s department and the FBI began in August 2011. During a cell search deputies found a phone in the possession of Anthony Brown. The phone contained records of calls to the FBI, leading to the conclusion that he was an FBI informant.

Brown had been using the phone to take photos and to document the use of excessive force inside the Men’s Central Jail, according to an interview he gave to the Los Angeles Times. He had been providing the names of corrupt and abusive deputies to the FBI agents who had regularly visited him in court and in jail. Brown is currently serving 423 years to life in prison for armed bank robbery.

As soon as the FBI learned in August that Brown’s cover had been blown, agents rushed to the jail to visit him, he said. But before the meeting could get under way a sheriff’s investigator came into the cell and said, “This visit is over,” Brown said.

After that the Sheriff’s department began moving him to various facilities, each time using a different name to identify him. Brown was also grilled by deputies about what he had seen and whether he planned to testify in the federal probe.

“I didn’t know it then, but they were hiding me from the feds,” said Brown.

The decision to hide Brown from the FBI was made at a meeting attended by Tanaka, according to unnamed sources within the Sheriff’s department cited by the Times article. As the third highest-ranking official in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), Tanaka was the ranking official present at the meeting.

A number of people familiar with the workings of LASD have characterized Tanaka as the real power who controls every decision of significance, from the allocation of its $2.4-billion annual budget to every promotion, according to an in-depth investigative piece written by Matt Fleischer and published last year in the social justice site WitnessLA called “Dangerous Jails, Part 3: The Prince”.

“The Prince” of the title refers to Tanaka, the man Fleischer depicts as actually running the sheriff’s department. Tanaka is a licensed CPA who had been doing the taxes of Lee Baca since before he was elected Sheriff in 1998 after former Sheriff Sherman Block died days before the election. Tanaka had been an early supporter who had been managing Baca’s campaign funds.

By 2002 Baca had promoted Tanaka to chief of the Administrative Services Division which controls the department’s $2.4 billion budget. By 2005 Tanaka was promoted to assistant sheriff, number three in the department’s official pecking order.

Even before his swift rise up the department, Tanaka had been enjoying success in his own political career. In 1999 he won a seat on the city council of Gardena, a city long known for its large, well established Japanese American community as well as its poker clubs.

Tanaka apparently felt no qualms about using his clout in the Sheriff’s department to help along his political career. His campaign finance records show that by 2002 he was receiving generous donations from dozens of LASD deputies. Thanks in part to those donations, he was able to raise over $100,000 for his successful 2005 mayoral campaign, according to the Fleischer article for which Tanaka had declined to comment.

Tanaka, 53, is portrayed as have created a secretive and exclusive club within LASD that rewards members with rapid promotions and shields them from the consequences of their abuses of police authority. Membership in this inner circle is marked by a “challenge coin” that Tanaka personally hands out. It confers admission to the Ramona Blvd Smoking Patio in Monterey Park, a large, well-equipped air-conditioned tent in which members are said to light up cigars.

Those who have been admitted to Tanaka’s inner circle can get away with gross violations of departmental rules and procedures, including, literally, murder, according to the Fleischer piece. That’s because internal probes of abusive violence toward prisoners are delayed for so long that legal or disciplinary action within the statutory one-year limit becomes nearly impossible. All such paperwork must flow, or not, through Tanaka.

Part of Tanaka’s power within the department appears to spring from Baca’s hands-off approach toward running the department. He makes frequent trips overseas in his capacity as a self-styled “Sheriff to the World”, a kind of American law-enforcement goodwill envoy. He is also thought to feel indebted to Tanaka for saving the department from much of the budgetary pains that governmental entities have been suffering these past four years, especially in California. Some even suspect Tanaka of holding some dark secret over Baca, so absolute is his apparent power within the department, routinely overriding the authority of those who are nominally his superiors.

Even before the recent scandal over what appears to be uncontrolled violence by deputies, and long before he came to enjoy so much clout, Tanaka has figured in media scandals over deputy violence. In March of 1988, while still working on the streets, Tanaka and four other deputies fired 15 bullets into a 21-year-old Korean immigrant named Hong Pyo Lee whose car was cornered in a dead-end alley after a car chase. One Long Beach police officer who witnessed the incident called it an “execution.” The County settled the case with the Hong family for $999,999 but Tanaka and fellow deputies were cleared of all charges.

What made the matter more scandalous, at least from the media’s perspective, was that Tanaka was found to have a tattoo signifying his membership in a deputy clique that one federal judge had labeled a “neo-Nazi white supremacist gang.”

This time Tanaka is likely to be a focal point of a federal grand jury investigation into whether LASD officials moved Brown from jail to jail to hinder an FBI investigation into alleged jail abuses. The hearings so far suggest that the probe will go beyond the actions of deputies working in jails to ferret out the roles played by high-ranking members of the department. So far only a single charge has been brought against a deputy who pleaded guilty to bribery for taking money to smuggle the cellphone to Brown, the FBI informant.

If the jury is able to kick loose enough testimony, and if all the suppositions about Tanaka’s unofficial clout and hands-on control over the conduct of deputies prove out, he may find himself facing federal charges for conspiring to obstruct justice.

So far at least one witness testified that moving the inmate and changing his name was an attempt to hide him from federal agents, and that top officials, including Tanaka, participated in the plan, according to unnamed sources cited in the Times article.

The LASD is taking the position that moving Brown around was an effort at protecting him from other deputies, not at hiding him from the FBI. Spokesman Steve Whitmore is denying that the FBI visit Brown claimed was cut short by deputies ever happened. No federal agents asked to visit Brown. Had they done so, they would have been given access, said Whitmore.

“He was frightened not of inmates but of deputies because he was snitching on deputies,” Whitmore told the Times. “We were moving him around to protect him from any kind of retaliation.”

The breach between the FBI and LASD has already turned into a public feud.

After deputies discovered last August that the FBI was using an inmate informant to conduct a probe of county jails, Sheriff Lee Baca accused an FBI agent of possibly committing a crime by smuggling a phone to the informant. He even sent investigators to the agent’s home before concluding the case was “not worthy of pursuing.”

The Feds aren’t the only source of pressure on Tanaka. A county commission created to examine the jails accused Tanaka of contributing to the problem by encouraging deputies to push legal boundaries and discouraging supervisors from disciplining deputies involved in misconduct.

While Tanaka did accept some of the blame, he denied deliberately ignoring abuses. Instead he accused those testifying against him of pushing personal agendas by misinterpreting his actions.

But so far Tanaka has faced nothing resembling disciplinary action. Lt. Greg Thompson, who was in charge of the jailhouse intelligence team, was placed on leave in November.

The FBI, the US Attorney’s office, Tanaka and Thompson have all declined to comment on the story.

Paul K. Tanaka was born in 1959 at the Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles. When he was seven his family moved to Gardena where he has lived since. He graduated with an accounting degree from Loyola Marymount University and is a licensed Certified Public Accountant.

He began his law enforcement career in 1980 when he joined the El Segundo police department. He transferred to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 1982 and earned his sergeant stripes in 1987. In that same year Tanaka was tattooed as a member of the Vikings deputy gang while serving at the Lynwood station. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1991, captain in 1999, commander in 2001 and chief in 2002.

On January 7, 2005 he became the first Japanese American assistant sheriff in Los Angeles County. In June 2011 he was promoted to his current position of undersheriff. Within the LASD Tanaka has gained a reputation for being short-tempered and profane in his speaking style. He has also been notably publicity-shy, especially for a public official and a politician.

Tanaka is chief financial officer for the Japanese American Go For Broke Foundation and the East West Players. He also serves on the board of the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law. He and wife Valerie have 2 children.