Spy vs. counterspy: Secret sweep for 'bugs' and the deputy who stood up to Paul Tanaka

ByLisa Bartley KABC logo
Thursday, March 31, 2016
Spy vs. counterspy: Secret sweep for 'bugs' and the deputy who stood up to Paul Tanaka
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A deputy who stood up to former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka by refusing to forge jail documents regarding FBI informant Anthony Brown took the stand in Tanaka's corruption trial.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- One lone deputy stood up to the powerful then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka in the summer of 2011 as the FBI was closing in - federal agents were searching for the inmate-turned-FBI informant Anthony Brown.

Tara Adams was that deputy -- and on Wednesday she took the witness stand at the federal corruption trial of Tanaka, the former second-in-command of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Tanaka, 57, has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in federal prison.

Adams told jurors about the day in August of 2011 when she faced off with three "Operation Safe Jails" deputies. The deputies wanted Adams to falsify LASD computer records to make it appear as if inmate Anthony Brown had been released from custody.

When Adams refused, the deputies were adamant, telling her, "they had orders to release the inmate and those orders were coming from Paul Tanaka."

"That's fine, but he (Tanaka) needs to put it in writing," Adams says she told the deputies.

Their response? "Are you going to tell Tanaka, no?"

"I said, yes," Adams recounted to the jury.

Adams continued to refuse, but another clerk in the office caved into the pressure. Gus Academia, a civilian, told jurors he complied with the deputies' request.

"I was scared, I was pressured," Academia told the jury.

Adams says one of the deputies also demanded that she hand over Brown's "records jacket," a physical file that's created for each inmate that passes through any LASD custody facility.

That "records jacket" would have contained all of the important information related to a particular inmate, in this case Anthony Brown. The confrontation between Adams and the OSJ deputies occurred on August 25th, 2011, the same day prosecutors say a federal writ - or court order -- was served on the Sheriff's Department to turn Anthony Brown over to federal marshals.

Brown, a convicted armed-robber facing 423-years to life in prison, had been secretly reporting to the FBI about alleged brutality and corruption inside the jails.

"That original records jacket was never seen again," prosecutor Brandon Fox told jurors in opening statements last week.

On cross-examination, Adams admitted she has lawsuit pending against the Sheriff's Department, and Tanaka is named as a defendant.

Tanaka defense attorney Dean Steward asked Adams if she felt ostracized by co-workers after the incident?

"I was the deputy who said no to orders," Adams testified. "You don't say no to Paul Tanaka. Nobody wanted to put themselves up against the potential future Sheriff of the department."

Next up on the witness stand was retired Lieutenant Katherine Voyer, who also testified about that mysterious federal writ. Voyer told jurors about the day in late August 2011 when she walked in on a conversation between two lieutenants at the Inmate Reception Center, which is part of the massive downtown jail complex.

One lieutenant, who she did not recognize, said that "if a writ was served to any custody facility, it was not to be honored and Paul Tanaka's cell phone was to be called, day or night."

That lieutenant then asked Voyer to walk over and personally deliver the message to the watch commander.

"Do not write it down, do not use the phones," Voyer says the lieutenant told her, "because they believed they were tapped."

On cross-examination, defense attorney Dean Steward asked Voyer, who has filed two lawsuits against the Sheriff's Department, if she has "blamed Paul Tanaka for the destruction of her career?"

"I have not," Voyer responded.

Recently retired LASD Commander Ralph Ornelas then took the witness stand. Ornelas testified that he was Captain of the Narcotics Bureau in early 2011 when Tanaka "abruptly transferred" him to Men's Central Jail.

The transfer came after Tanaka reportedly got upset with Ornelas for defying his order to not leave the country. Ornelas says he did leave the country, but it was to take part in law enforcement training in Mexico, and was at the direct request of Sheriff Leroy Baca.

"I f---ing told you, I didn't want you going out of the country," Ornelas says Tanaka told him in a "loud tone of voice."

"You are the worst f---ing captain we have in the department," said Tanaka, according to Ornelas.

And so, Ornelas was sent off to become Captain of Men's Central Jail just a few months before Anthony Brown became the focus of a power struggle between the sheriff's department and the FBI.

Ornelas testified that he was largely kept in the dark about the goings-on with Anthony Brown and the scheme that later became known as "Operation Pandora's Box." He was not informed about Brown's name changes, Brown's move to the San Dimas station jail, or his later return to Men's Central Jail.

Ornelas described his relationship with Tanaka after their blow-up as "business-like." After his testimony, Eyewitness News asked Ornelas if Tanaka's dislike of him turned out to be for the best?

"I was maybe disliked, and maybe that was a good thing," Ornelas said. "Maybe because I stand behind my morals and values."

Ornelas told Eyewitness News, "It's sad that we have young deputies that have been indicted for poor leadership."

Whose poor leadership? "Paul Tanaka," Ornelas answered. "You cannot lead people through coercion and intimidation. That's a dictatorship."

Retired Captain Michael Bornman also took the witness stand on Wednesday. He says a member of Tanaka's team, Lt. Steve Leavins, described the panic that set in as word spread about the federal investigation and inmate-turned-FBI informant Anthony Brown.

"Man, I have never seen Paul so angry," Bornman says Leavins told him. "He is going to make sure they never find that guy."

Leavins, one of seven former deputy sheriffs convicted in 2014 for obstructing the FBI investigation, has been sentenced to 41 months in federal prison. He remains free on bond while his conviction is appealed.

Perhaps the most surprising testimony of the day came from retired LASD Sgt. John Powell, the department's go-to guy for covert surveillance and tracking.

Powell testified that as tensions between the the LASD and the FBI reached a fever pitch that summer and fall of 2011, Lt. Leavins asked him to conduct a "sweep" of key LASD locations for hidden listening devices or "bugs."

"I was asked to conduct countermeasure operations in the Sheriff's office, the Undersheriff's office, the EPC conference room, and a couple other places and some cars," Powell told Eyewitness News after his testimony.

The surprise? Although Powell may have been the closest thing the LASD had to a spy on their department, he was also spying on the LASD for the FBI.

"In 2011, how long had you been providing information to the FBI?" Tanaka defense attorney Dean Steward asked Powell.

"About ten years," Powell replied.

"I worked in two different worlds," Powell told Eyewitness News outside court.

Powell testified that he did not find any covert listening devices and that he tipped the FBI off to the sweep ahead of time.

"I actually contacted them before we did it to let them know if they had anything there, we'd find it," Powell told the jury.

Powell says he was never paid by the FBI for his help and provided information to them out of concern that the department he "loves" and "grew up in" had lost its way.

"It wasn't difficult for me because I thought it was the right thing to do," Powell told Eyewitness News.

Trial resumes Thursday morning with testimony expected from former deputy Gilbert Michel, who was convicted of taking a bribe from an undercover FBI agent to smuggle a cell phone to Anthony Brown behind bars.

Former LASD Captain Tom Carey, who was indicted last year alongside Tanaka, but took a plea deal, may also take the stand.

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