Former L.A. County Undersheriff Indicted, Suspected of Impeding FBI Jail Abuse Investigation

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A high-profile former second-in-command at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department — who last year ran unsuccessfully for sheriff — has been indicted for allegedly overseeing a scheme to disrupt an FBI investigation into the abuse of inmates at county jails.

Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who is the mayor of the city of Gardena, was indicted Wednesday on federal charges after a monthslong grand jury proceeding. Alongside Tanaka, former sheriff's Capt. William “Tom” Carey was also charged.

Paul Tanaka, shown in 2014, surrendered to authorities May 14, 2015, after being indicted by a federal grand jury investigating excessive force and corruption in L.A. County jails. (Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Paul Tanaka, shown in 2014, surrendered to authorities May 14, 2015, after being indicted by a federal grand jury investigating excessive force and corruption in L.A. County jails. (Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The two men surrendered to the FBI at the federal building near Westwood Thursday morning, when the 25-page indictment was unsealed and distributed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“The allegations in this indictment include cover-ups, diversionary tactics, retribution and a culture which is generally reserved for a Hollywood script,” said David Bowdich, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, at a Thursday morning news conference.

“No one is above the law,” Bowditch said.

The alleged plot to quash the federal investigation into corruption and civil rights abuses at county jails began in summer 2011, when sheriff’s officials learned that a jail inmate was an informant to the FBI, federal authorities said. Sheriff’s Department deputies moved the man around in the jail system, hid him, altered records and attempted to prevent investigators’ access to him, according to federal prosecutors.

Seven other former sheriff’s deputies were convicted last year of participating in the plot, which was centered at the Men’s Central Jail and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles. They were all convicted of obstruction of justice.

A total of 21 sheriff’s officials have been charged.

The indictment — a result of the latest case in the FBI jail probe — indicates the scheme ran to nearly the highest level of the Sheriff’s Department.

“The leaders, who foster and hide the corrupt culture of their organization, will be held responsible, just like their subordinates,” said Stephanie Yonekura, acting U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, at the news conference.

Former Sheriff Lee Baca, who resigned in disgrace in early 2014 after 15 years in office, was not charged.  

“We charged the individuals we believe we can prove the case on beyond a reasonable doubt,” Yonekura said. “We will continue to fully consider any evidence that comes to our attention.”

Tanaka and Carey were well aware of rampant abuse at the jails and that internal investigations into deputies' crimes were insufficient, Yonekura said. Tanaka was told about “problem deputies” at jails some 10 years ago, she said.

“In spite of this knowledge, Tanaka later told deputies that they should be acting in the gray area of the law,” Yonekura said.

Tanaka and Carey, both 56, were both charged with one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice and one count each of obstruction of justice.

They both pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court downtown on Thursday afternoon and bailed out of custody. They were ordered not to leave California, use firearms, or talk to each other or others involved in the case except with counsel present.

The indictment details a series of abuses allegedly committed by the two men.

Carey was present during one interview his subordinates conducted with the FBI informant, according to the indictment. Tanaka allegedly met with jail deputies to discuss the informant's cellphone, and also met with deputies who planned to pose as the informant's cellmate, the indictment states.

The charges against Tanaka were called "baseless" in a statement his attorney, H. Dean Steward, sent to the Los Angeles Times. Tanaka planned to "aggressively defend" himself, according to the statement.

“At all times, Mr. Tanaka dedicated himself to serving the residents of Los Angeles County honorably, ethically and legally,” Steward said, according to the Times. “After all the facts come to light, we are confident he will be exonerated of any wrongdoing.”

Carey oversaw the department’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, “the very unit that was supposed to root out the crimes that were being investigated in the federal probe,” Yonekura said.

He reported directly to Tanaka, according to the indictment.

Carey was charged with two counts of making a false statements during May and June 2014 court testimony in the trial of his alleged co-conspirators.

Three individuals who were on Carey’s staff — Lt. Stephen Leavins, Sgt. Scott Craig, Sgt. Maricela Long — have been convicted. The two sergeants threatened to have an FBI investigator arrested.

Four others who were convicted worked in the jails: Lt. Greg Thompson and deputies Gerard Smith, Mickey Manzo, and James Sexton.

Their criminal behavior stemmed from commanding officers who “indoctrinated subordinates” that illegal actions in the jails were acceptable, Bowdich said. He lauded those from within the department who tried to report abuses.

"This case should set an example for anyone who suspects corruption by law enforcement officials in their organization. You are not alone, you can report it, and the FBI and the U.S Attorney’s Office will investigate it," Bowditch said.

The prosecution, he said, should work to restore public confidence in the jails and the department’s thousands of deputies.

The cases have prompted “significant steps” toward reform within the department, Yonekura said.

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