'Concealing the crimes of his deputies': Opening statements in Tanaka corruption trial

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Former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Undersheriff Paul Tanaka faces charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

In the summer of 2011, then Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Undersheriff Paul Tanaka "had a scandal on his hands," federal prosecutor Brandon Fox told jurors in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom Thursday afternoon.

Opening statements got underway in the public corruption trial of Tanaka with the prosecution painting a picture of him as a ruthless leader who tolerated and even encouraged misconduct by his deputies.

Fox called it a culture that "defendant Paul Tanaka fostered and created."

"To conceal the crimes of his deputies, Paul Tanaka committed his own crimes," Fox told the jurors. "Instead of just squashing the scandal, Mr. Tanaka created a bigger one than he ever imagined."

Tanaka is on federal trial for conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors said Tanaka and his co-conspirators hatched an elaborate plot to hide an inmate-turned-FBI informant, tamper with witnesses and threaten an FBI agent with arrest.

Tanaka has pleaded not guilty. Seven of his co-conspirators have already been found guilty in the federal probe. Two others, former Sheriff Leroy Baca and former Capt. Tom Carey, have pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for reduced sentences.

Fox attempted to provide a context and history to the events that led to the trial by reaching back as far as 2006, when Tanaka was Assistant Sheriff over the Custody Division.

Tanaka, according to the prosecution, dismissed concerns raised then by the captain at the Men's Central Jail that "deputy cliques" were acting more like gang members and were engaging in excessive force against inmates.

"So, the government went back to events in the jail in 2006, events in one of the stations a number of years before the incidents here, to show that Paul Tanaka, as we've heard in other contexts, encouraged people to work in the gray," former federal prosecutor Miriam Krinsky told ABC7.

Fox told jurors that Tanaka was on notice that the jails and the LASD were in the crosshairs of a federal investigation in the summer of 2011. A "flurry of subpoenas" related to excessive force had just been served on the department.

Fox said Tanaka "couldn't overrule the FBI, but he could undermine them," by leading the conspiracy to hide inmate Anthony Brown from his FBI handlers, convincing deputies to not talk to the FBI, and even going so far as to threaten FBI Special Agent Leah Marx with arrest.

The scheme became known as "Operation Pandora's Box," a reference to the Greek mythology where a box is opened and all the evils of the world spill out. Fox told jurors that Tanaka knew if the FBI investigation was successful, wrongdoing by the LASD would be exposed for all of the world to see.

Fox described how Tanaka became irate after learning the FBI had conducted an undercover investigation - a sting that ensnared a corrupt deputy. That deputy, Gilbert Michel, accepted a bribe to bring a cellphone into the jail to Brown, an inmate-turned-informant.

"F--- the FBI," Tanaka allegedly said over-and-over again to his teams of deputy sheriffs tasked with hiding the informant and uncovering what the FBI was doing inside their jails.

"This is the most important investigation in the 160-year history of the Sheriff's Department," Fox said Tanaka told his subordinates.

Fox said Baca put Tanaka in charge of one side of what had now become dueling investigations by the LASD and the FBI. Brown's name was repeatedly changed, his "records jacket" disappeared, and he was moved to the San Dimas station jail where teams of deputies guarded him around the clock.

A policy was put in place that made it more difficult for FBI agents and other law enforcement agencies to interview inmates inside Los Angeles County jails, which are run by the LASD.

As tensions mounted, a team of deputies swept Tanaka and Baca's office for listening devices or bugs.

Fox told jurors that Tanaka and his co-conspirators "decided to double down" in mid-September of 2011. They put FBI Special Agents Leah Marx and David Lam under surveillance for weeks.

And then, Fox said, "the most aggressive act of obstruction," occurred when two LASD Sergeants went to Marx's home, one with his "blazer off and gun showing."

Raw Video: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department confronts FBI agent Leah Marx
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Members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department confront FBI agent Leah Marx.


Defense attorney Jerome Haig told jurors to focus on the events at issue in the trial, not Tanaka's management style or personality.

"His goal was not to make friends, his goal was to be a good cop," Haig told jurors. Tanaka "lived by a creed... to be honest and forthright."

Haig said the FBI undercover operation to introduce a cellphone inside the jail was inherently dangerous. Brown was a career criminal, then facing 423 years to life in prison.

The FBI had no "real-time monitoring" of the cellphone while it was in Brown's possession, according to Haig, who also said the FBI gave Brown permission to let his cellmate use the cellphone to call his girlfriend.

The FBI's undercover operation was blown when a jail deputy discovered the cellphone hidden inside Brown's bag of potato chips. Brown initially told jail investigators that a nurse had smuggled it into him. Later, he admitted it was Deputy Michel.

Baca learned about the cellphone when the head of the FBI in Los Angeles called him one night in August of 2011. Steve Martinez told Baca that a contraband cellphone found at Men's Central Jail belonged to the FBI and was part of an undercover FBI investigation into civil rights abuses inside the jail.

Martinez told Baca the FBI wanted their phone back. That's when, Haig said, this became a "top level investigation."

Brown needed to be protected, possibly from deputies who might want to hurt him for "snitching" to the feds about alleged deputy misconduct.

"He's not going anywhere," Haig said Baca told his investigators at a high-level Saturday meeting in August of 2011.

Baca gave Tanaka two broad directives; protect the inmate and investigate how the cellphone got into the jail, according to Haig.

"It's not ludicrous to think that, just like a deputy took a bribe, so can others," Haig told the jury.

LASD investigators have testified at previous trials they initially believed it was possible a rogue FBI agent was at work inside the jails.

"Leroy Baca is going crazy," Haig told jurors.

No one could believe the FBI would be so foolish as to smuggle a cellphone into a hardened criminal like Brown, Haig said.

"Only one person cared and that was Lee Baca," Haig stated.

Krinsky said the defense is likely to continue to point the finger at Baca.

"The other prong and fork of the defense is going to be that Lee Baca was really the one behind this all. Lee Baca was calling the shots. Paul Tanaka was simply a loyal soldier following lawful orders," said Krinsky.

The prosecution will call its first witness Friday morning in the trial that's expected to last two to three weeks.

Got a tip? Email Investigative Producer at Lisa.Bartley@abc.com.

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