Love & spies: Paul Tanaka corruption trial plays out like a soap opera

ByLisa Bartley KABC logo
Friday, April 1, 2016
Love & spies: Paul Tanaka corruption trial plays out like a soap opera
Testimony during the corruption trial of former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka played out like a soap opera.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- To Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Gilbert Michel, it sounded like easy money. Smuggle a cellphone, cigarettes and food into jail inmate Anthony Brown. In return? Michel could cash in. Brown told the deputy he'd pay up $20,000.

What Michel didn't know? Brown, a convicted armed robber, was also an FBI informant. And Michel had just stepped into the FBI's trap - a sting cooked up to root out deputies taking bribes inside Men's Central Jail.

Michel, now facing up to 10 years in prison for accepting that bribe, took the witness stand Thursday in the federal corruption trial of Paul Tanaka.

Tanaka, the former second-in-command of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, is facing charges he led the conspiracy to block an FBI investigation into deputy corruption and brutality against inmates inside Men's Central Jail.

"Anthony Brown said he'd pay me with a cashier's check and that he'd mail it to me," Michel told jurors. "I gave him my father's address."

Michel never got the promised $20,000 payday. Instead, he collected $1500 in two meetings with Brown's "friend" on the outside. Brown called that friend "CJ", but "CJ" was in fact an undercover FBI agent who came to their clandestine meetings wired up with multiple hidden cameras.

"He handed me the cell phone in a plastic bag," Michel told the jury. "He gave me the money inside a sunglass case and just threw it in my window."

Co-lead FBI Agent on the case Leah Marx described the scene that played out like something from a movie. The FBI had a plane circling overhead, ready to catch Deputy Michel in the act.

"The airplane was videotaping the interaction from above," Marx told jurors, explaining that their recording actually captured "the hand-to-hand exchange."

Michel was nervous, telling jurors he took side streets all the way from South L.A. to his home in Santa Clarita, afraid "CJ" or someone else could be on his trail. He took the phone apart; afraid it might contain drugs or some kind of weapon.

Ultimately, Michel smuggled the contraband phone into the jail hidden inside a rubber glove and tossed it onto inmate Anthony Brown's jail cell bunk. Michel testified that he'd charge the phone at night for Brown, returning it to the inmate day after day.

"At any time did you provide Anthony Brown with drugs or weapons?" prosecutor Brandon Fox asked Michel.

"No," Michel replied.

Origins of the FBI investigation

Special Agent Leah Marx explained to jurors Thursday how the FBI's wide-ranging investigation into the jails began in the summer of 2010 with a letter from an inmate.

Marx's supervisor directed her to "look into it." Soon, she was put in touch with inmate Anthony Brown, a career criminal then awaiting trial for holding up a string of banks and fast-food joints in Downtown Los Angeles.

Brown was signed up as an FBI informant within a month.

The idea to get a phone into the jail was two-fold: Brown could provide real-time updates by using the phone to call FBI agents with inside information from behind bars, and if "something happened, Brown could take a photo with the phone."

Marx admitted that, yes - giving a contraband cell phone to an inmate was risky, but the operation was approved by FBI supervisors both in L.A. and by the higher-ups in Washington, D.C.

"Police corruption is something we take incredibly seriously," said Marx, telling jurors they carefully weighed the risks and got the green-light to go ahead.

BUSTED: Contraband cellphone discovered inside bag of potato chips

Brown's secret cell phone was discovered in early August of 2011 during a routine search of his belongings, stashed inside a bag of potato chips. The revelation set off a chain of events that eventually led to the criminal convictions of seven deputy sheriffs for obstruction of justice. Two others, including former Sheriff Leroy Baca himself, have taken plea deals in exchange for reduced sentences.

Michel knew he was in deep trouble when he got a radio call early one morning just after he arrived for his shift at Men's Central Jail. He soon found himself in a room being grilled by three investigators from the LASD's Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau - or ICIB.

Michel confessed right away, and within minutes asked the investigators if they were "aware that the FBI is involved in this already?"

Michel explained that FBI agents had, at that point, already confronted Michel for taking the bribe and smuggling the phone into inmate Brown.

LASD investigators feigned ignorance of the FBI's involvement, and in audio recordings played for the jury on Thursday, ordered Michel to not talk to the FBI.

Sgt. Scott Craig: "Okay, and while we're on that subject, um, Sergeant Long and I, and our Lieutenant, I'm, I'm ordering you not to discuss this with anyone period."

Deputy Gilbert Michel: "Yes, sir."

Sgt. Scott Craig: "That's your girlfriend, that's the FBI, that's anyone, OK?"

Deputy Gilbert Michel: "Yes, sir."

In that same recorded interview, the investigators tell Deputy Michel that the FBI is lying to him, threatening and blackmailing him.

Sgt. Scott Craig: "I call bull----, I call bull----. That's what I call. Not from... I'm not saying what you're telling us is, I call their threats and their blackmail and their... it's all bull---, OK?"

Deputy Gilbert Michel: "Another thing that..."

Sgt. Scott Craig: "Because you don't know, because they're trying to scare you."

Prosecutors say that's witness tampering - and part of the larger scheme to obstruct the FBI's investigation. The issue at this trial? How involved was Paul Tanaka?

What did Tanaka know and when did he know it?

The prosecution team has introduced evidence and testimony throughout this trial that suggests Tanaka was deeply involved in the scheme that became known as "Operation Pandora's Box." Phone records displayed to jurors Thursday show a flurry of calls between Tanaka and his co-conspirators at key points during the events of August and September of 2011.

Special Agent Marx created a "phone summary" chart that shows a spike in calls between Tanaka, his aide Christopher Nee, Lt. Greg Thompson and Cpt. Tom Carey after then-Sheriff Leroy Baca was first notified by the FBI that the phone was part of a federal civil rights investigation; after an interview the FBI conducted with Brown on August 23rd; after a federal writ for Brown was faxed to the LASD; after Brown's records were falsified to show he'd been "released," and after LASD Sergeants threatened to arrest Agent Marx outside her home.

Prosecutors played a video for jurors that showed that confrontation between the two LASD Sergeants and Agent Marx on the evening of September 26th, 2011.

Sgt. Scott Craig: "Did you know that you are a named suspect in a felony complaint?"

Later that night, the two LASD Sergeants received a frantic phone call from an FBI supervisor who asked the investigators what charges they planned to file against Marx.

Sgt. Maricela Long: "OK, you're going to have to speak to the Undersheriff, and that's Mr. Paul Tanaka."

Prosecutors also showed jurors the federal writ - or court order - served on the LASD that required the department to turn Anthony Brown over to federal marshals.

"Did the LASD ever turn Anthony Brown over to the federal government?" prosecutor Brandon Fox asked Special Agent Marx.

"No," she replied.

"Did the LASD ever allow the federal government to interview Anthony Brown?" Fox asked.

"No," she replied again.

In fact, Anthony Brown turned against the FBI after spending weeks hidden away in various locations. He'd been booked under a series of fake names, his fingerprints and social security number wiped from the LASD computer system. Special Agent Marx testified that despite their best efforts, the FBI and the US Marshals Service simply couldn't find Brown. He'd vanished.

"The FBI has left me for dead," Brown wrote in a handwritten letter shown to jurors on Thursday. Brown wrote to LASD investigators that he no longer wanted to cooperate with the FBI.

The Defense

Defense attorneys for Paul Tanaka are expected to begin presenting their case on Friday. In opening arguments, defense attorney Jerome Haig told jurors this was a legitimate, lawful investigation. Haig says Tanaka was simply following orders from the very top - then-Sheriff Leroy Baca - who'd tasked Tanaka with protecting inmate Brown and investigating how the contraband cell phone got into their jail.

Tanaka himself is expected to take the witness stand on Friday.

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