Candidate for Sheriff admits he is 'subject' of ongoing federal investigation

ByMiriam Hernandez and Lisa Bartley KABC logo
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Tanaka admits he's subject of federal probe
Former LA County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka disclosed new information in the trial of sheriff's Deputy James Sexton Monday.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Paul Tanaka, former undersheriff and current candidate for sheriff of L.A. County took the stand for a second day in the trial of Deputy James Sexton.

Sexton, 29, is the first of seven sheriff's deputies being tried for alleged conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors say the sheriff's deputies hid inmate-turned-FBI informant Anthony Brown after learning that Brown was feeding information to the FBI about possible corruption and abuse inside the jails.

Tanaka testified for the defense on Friday. Monday's headline came in the very first question under cross-examination from prosecutor Brandon Fox: "You are aware you are the subject of an ongoing investigation into obstruction of justice?" Tanaka replied, "Yes."

Fox continued, asking Tanaka if he was aware that these investigations often "proceed from the bottom up." Tanaka answered, "Yes."

Fox then asked Tanaka if he believed his chances of being elected Sheriff would be hurt if he admitted to obstruction of justice. "Yes," replied Tanaka.

Outside court, Tanaka told Eyewitness News that he had only learned he was a "subject" of the federal investigation two weeks ago when he was subpoenaed to testify at this trial.

"I still have the belief that what the people who were charged with did was lawful and within their rights and responsibilities as law enforcement officers," said Tanaka, who added that he received a "non-target" letter from the U.S. Attorney's Office at some point in the past.

"I think it is very clear that I was following orders that I believed were lawful from the Sheriff. And subsequent orders that were passed down from me, I believed were also lawful," said Tanaka.

Tanaka testified he received regular briefings on the operation to hide inmate Anthony Brown, a convicted armed robber who had recently been sentenced to 423 years in prison. Tanaka's contention is that moving Brown around and changing his name was all to safeguard Brown from possible retaliation from other inmates or deputies who might regard him as a "snitch" for cooperating with the FBI.

Tanaka admits that he and Sheriff Lee Baca both received regular briefings from lower-ranking sheriff's department officials who were carrying out the operation, including Lt. Greg Thompson and Lt. Steve Leavins, both of whom have been indicted in this case.

Prosecutor Brandon Fox asked Tanaka about a policy put into place as this all unfolded in the summer of 2011. The policy restricted the FBI's access to inmates at Men's Central Jail. In an email, Lt. Thompson asked Tanaka's aide Christopher Nee if Tanaka would be satisfied if Thompson took all references to Tanaka out of a department-wide email announcing the new policy.

"You didn't want your name on this policy?" asked Fox. Tanaka replied, "That's what it looks like."

Once again, the name and actions of the current defendant, Deputy James Sexton, were rarely mentioned in Monday's testimony. Tanaka told jurors that Sexton was not part of any briefings he attended and had no input on plans for the operation as they were put into place. In fact, Tanaka said he only knew Sexton's name because the deputy's father was a friend and colleague of Sheriff Baca and had just accepted a position at the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

Captain Tom Carey also took the stand in Deputy Sexton's defense Monday. Carey was the captain of the LASD's Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau during the operation. Carey described a meeting convened by Sheriff Lee Baca on Saturday, August 20, 2011, two days after the head of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office notified Baca that the contraband phone belonged to the FBI and was part of their civil rights investigation into the jails.

At that meeting, Sheriff Baca told Carey's ICIB investigators to "get to the bottom of it." He issued an order that anyone who came to the jail to see Anthony Brown needed approval from Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

Captain Carey told jurors that much of the confusion stemmed from Brown's constantly changing stories, saying they were "all over the road map."

Carey confirmed that Sheriff Baca and Undersheriff Tanaka were both being regularly briefed on the progress of the operation. Carey says neither Baca nor Tanaka ever expressed any concern that their actions may be obstructing a federal investigation.

Captain Carey described events leading up to a key moment in the alleged conspiracy: the day two ICIB sergeants went to FBI agent Leah Marx's house and threatened her with arrest. The incident was recorded on video by the Sheriff's Department. Carey says Sheriff Baca OK'd the plan in advance, but told Carey's team to "not put handcuffs on her."

Prosecutor Fox ended his direct questioning of Carey in the same manner he did with Tanaka. "Captain Carey, have you been indicted in this matter?" asked Fox. Carey replied, "No, sir." Carey later added that he has also been informed that he is a "subject" of the federal probe.

Closing arguments in Deputy Sexton's trial will take place Tuesday morning. Six other sheriff's deputies are being tried separately: Lt. Greg Thompson, Lt. Steve Leavins, Sgt. Maricela Long, Sgt. Scott Craig, Dep. Mickey Manzo and Dep. Gerard Smith. Their trial is expected to begin on Wednesday morning.