'The many faces of Paul Tanaka': Closing arguments in corruption trial

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Closing arguments were heard in the corruption trial for former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

Paul Tanaka - a Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? The prosecution and defense laid out starkly different portrayals of the former Los Angeles County Undersheriff in closing arguments Tuesday.

Tanaka, 57, is in the final stretch of a corruption trial that could send him to federal prison for a maximum of fifteen years.

Tanaka has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice for his alleged role in a scheme that's already led to the convictions or guilty pleas of nine other Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department officials.

"Motive is critical," says Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor and jail reform advocate who's been following the trial.

"The government has to show not simply that the acts occurred, but why they occurred - that Paul Tanaka and others who were part of the conspiracy weren't simply moving an FBI informant to keep him safe, but they were doing so with the express purpose and motive to obstruct a federal grand jury investigation."

Prosecutor Brandon Fox told jurors about what he called "the many faces of Paul Tanaka," saying the former Undersheriff "overruled and undermined" anyone who got in his way or tried to reform the department.

"All the while brandishing the tattoo of a deputy gang on his ankle, while sitting in his executive office," Fox added, referring to Tanaka's "Lynwood Vikings" tattoo.

Tanaka: "Running the show"

"He was running the show, we knew that from the very beginning," Fox told jurors after playing recordings of LASD investigators' interview with inmate-turned-FBI informant Anthony Brown early on in the investigation.

In that August 19th, 2011 interview, the deputies "laid out what this was all about," says Fox.

DEPUTY GERARD SMITH: "If you got a dirty backyard or a dirty house, do you want someone else cleaning your house or do you want to clean it yourself."

DEPUTY GERARD SMITH: "If someone's coming to my house to clean it up (knocking), they better f---in' knock on my door first."

Tanaka, former Sheriff Leroy Baca and their LASD investigators had learned Brown was feeding information to the FBI about deputy-on-inmate abuse and corruption inside the jails.

Brown's cover was blown when the contraband cell phone was discovered in early August of 2011 and LASD investigators traced his calls to the FBI.

"A cell phone is contraband and it's dangerous for contraband, including a cell phone, to be in the jail," Krinsky tells Eyewitness News. "But you wouldn't have expected a cell phone alone to work its way up to the highest levels of the Sheriff's Department."

But it did. According to testimony throughout the trial, Baca and Tanaka were both "visibly upset" by the revelation that the FBI had targeted their jails for investigation.

"Those Mother-F-----'s," Tanaka said, according to prosecution witness and previously convicted deputy Mickey Manzo. "Who do they think they are? F--- 'em!" yelled Tanaka, according to Manzo. Tanaka has testified he does not recall using that language to describe the FBI.

"Mr. Tanaka wanted to quash it (the FBI investigation) as soon as he could," Fox told the jury.

Fox took jurors through a timeline of key events in the scheme that became known as "Operation Pandora's Box."

Tanaka, he said, ordered his "foot soldiers" to do a lot of the "dirty work," including convincing deputies and inmate Brown not to cooperate with the FBI, hiding Brown at various locations, and keeping FBI agents out of the jails.

A key issue is whether Tanaka, or the LASD, received or knew about a federal writ demanding that Brown be turned over to the feds.

"Paul Tanaka has admitted he saw the writ at some point," Fox told jurors.

The very day prosecutors say the writ - or court order - was served on the LASD, Brown's name was changed and computer records were falsified to make it appear as if he'd been released.

Two days later, Brown was moved to the San Dimas station jail where he was guarded around-the-clock by teams of LASD deputies.

"They were expecting a federal writ that day," Fox contends.

Earlier in the day, during the government's rebuttal case, the prosecution introduced a summary of phone records between Tanaka, Baca and other key members of the alleged conspiracy.

During a critical five-week period, records show only one call between then-Sheriff Leroy Baca and eight other LASD officials who've since been convicted or pleaded guilty.

As for Tanaka's phone records? There were "about 70 calls" between the Undersheriff and those same co-conspirators, according to Special Agent Leah Marx.

Prosecutor Fox says Tanaka and his team decided "to go nuclear" as word of the trouble began to leak out to the media and the public in late September. That's when Tanaka, Fox says, sent two LASD Sergeants to FBI Agent Leah Marx's home where they threatened to arrest her.

Later that night, one of those sergeants told Marx's FBI supervisor that he'd have to "speak to the undersheriff, and that's Mr. Paul Tanaka," if he wanted more information about the potential charges against her.

Fox says the intent was clear, "scaring the FBI," and crucially, Special Agent Leah Marx for daring "to make the case against the deputies Paul Tanaka protected."

"Mr. Tanaka was the director of this movie," Fox told jurors. "You get to write the ending though," Fox said as he asked them to find Tanaka guilty of the "crimes charged in the indictment."

The defense: "Baca was the driving force"

"Ladies and gentlemen, it's not a crime to be a strong leader," Tanaka defense attorney Dean Steward told jurors as he took the podium for closing arguments.

Tanaka may have "ruffled some feathers," but that's not a crime either. Steward portrayed Tanaka as a leader who was "blunt" and "didn't suffer fools." All he did was demand excellence from his subordinates, some of whom resented his "meteoric rise" in the LASD.

"This was really a case that put Paul Tanaka, the Undersheriff, the manager, the leader on trial," Krinsky tells Eyewitness News. "We heard from the defense the version that he was simply a strong leader who ruled with an iron fist."

As for the string of prosecution witnesses who described Tanaka as vindictive, cut-throat and foul-mouthed? These were people who "were either jealous or had it out for him," according to the defense.

"You could feel the spite," Steward said of several former LASD captains and commanders who testified Tanaka had transferred them after they criticized the powerful undersheriff.

Steward argued there was "no corroboration" for several of the allegations made by prosecutors. Tanaka, he says, isn't actually sure he saw the federal writ and the only identified person who could back up a retired lieutenant's testimony, is dead.

"They don't have the proof," Steward told the jury. "I maintain it (the writ) never got to the Sheriff's Department."

Sheriff Leroy Baca was "simmering and seething" as the events played out in the summer and fall of 2011, according to Steward.

"It's unique, it's unparalleled, it's never happened before," Steward said of the dueling LASD and FBI investigations. LASD investigators initially believed Brown's false story that the FBI had also smuggled drugs into the inmate.

"It was their responsibility and right to investigate," Steward insisted.

"The minute they found out, they should have picked up the phone and started cooperating and working together," says Krinsky.

Krinsky says top leaders of the LASD, including Tanaka and Baca, had a choice to make. They could cooperate with a sister law enforcement agency, or "they could circle the wagons."

"Baca was the driving force behind all of this," Steward told jurors. Tanaka, he says, could not have "criminal intent" because he believed the orders to investigate how the phone got into the jail were lawful and legitimate.

Steward contends that deputies "were just using Paul Tanaka's name" to convince a clerk to falsify records. Prosecution witness and former Captain Steve Roller "is full of baloney."

Retired LASD Sergeant John Powell, who testified about conducting a sweep for bugs or listening devices in Baca and Tanaka's offices, "has seen too many '007 movies."

Steward finished with a flourish, telling jurors "he's not guilty," and that all the defense team's evidence is "Paul Tanaka's way of saying, 'Damn it - I didn't do this!'"

Jury deliberations end early

Jurors got the case shortly after noon, but only deliberated for a little over one hour. One juror had a doctor's appointment, so the panel went home at 1:30pm.

Deliberations resume Wednesday at 8 a.m.

Got a tip? Email ABC7 Investigative Producer Lisa.Bartley@abc.com.

Related Topics:
los angeles county sheriff's departmentcorruptiontrialcourt caseFBIinvestigationDowntown LALos Angeles
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