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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Thursday, December 7, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Attorneys Paint Dueling Portraits of Obstruction in Baca Trial

At one time, convicted ex-LA County undersheriff Paul Tanaka was a rising star, being groomed to be the next sheriff by his then-boss Lee Baca. But as jurors are hearing in Baca’s obstruction trial, things didn’t go according to plan – for either man.

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Five years ago, when then-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca appointed Paul Tanaka as second in command of one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the nation, the Japanese-American lawman became his boss’ confidant and likely successor.

In 1998, Tanaka supported Baca’s campaign for the sheriff rather than backing the incumbent Sheriff Sherman Block. When he took over the day-to-day operations of an agency with nearly 10,000 sworn officers, he was a rising star. With Baca grooming him, Tanaka appeared destined to become the next sheriff.

Things did not go according to plan.

Tanaka is now waiting for a court to rule on his motion for bond pending appeal, after a jury convicted him in April of obstructing an FBI civil rights investigation into brutality in the Men's Central Jail and Twin Towers Correctional Facility.

When Tanaka took the stand to defend himself, he blamed his former boss for the corrupt and idiotic missteps that led to his downfall: the hiding of informant Anthony Brown within the jail system; a threat to arrest lead FBI agent Leah Marx outside her home; and the brazen attempt to have a judge sign off on warrant to search the federal agency’s offices.

According to Tanaka, he was just following orders. Baca kept him out of the loop, he said, furious that the FBI had the gall to investigate his department for blatant civil rights abuses, including the brutal beating and use of a Taser on an unconscious inmate in front of an ACLU monitor.

“He would always ask, ‘What’s going on?’ And I couldn’t answer because I wasn’t involved,” Tanaka testified.

Tanaka’s efforts to shift the blame ended with his conviction and a five-year prison sentence. Now Baca is in court doing some finger-pointing of his own. His obstruction trial began this past week in Los Angeles. Baca has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson described Tanaka as evasive, hostile and combative, and the 57-year old official appeared disinterested and aloof at his trial.

But Baca, 74, is a warm and congenial presence who slouches in his chair with his egg-shaped head tilted and his fingers knitted together. In the run-up to the trial, he was careful to greet Judge Anderson with a “good afternoon, your honor," even while moving to have the judge disqualified from his trial.

The government’s witness, former deputy Mickey Manzo, took the stand on Thursday and Friday and confirmed the two men's contrasting styles. He was part of a coterie of deputies close to Tanaka and Baca, and was convicted for his part in the conspiracy.

Manzo and Gerard Smith were the first deputies to interview Brown after jailers had pulled an FBI cellphone out of Doritos bag in his cell.

In a behind-closed-doors scene reminiscent of something out of the TV drama “The Wire,” Manzo recounted how his superiors had summoned him on his day off to a 2011 meeting after they discovered that Brown was in contact with the FBI.

Baca was present, dressed in an orange shirt and running shorts because he was scheduled to run a 5K race for charity later that day.


During the get-together with several department officials, Tanaka had listened to recorded phone calls Brown made to the civil rights division of the FBI, according to court records. Manzo said that Tanaka and gone ballistic, pounding his hands on the table and yelling “Fuck the FBI.” There were no such outbursts from Baca, Manzo confirmed.

A few days later, Tanaka gave Manzo and other deputies an “ass-chewing” when they made the mistake of allowing FBI agents to walk into Men’s Central Jail to interview Brown. Tanaka had told Lt. Greg Thompson that he would have to tell “the boss” that the FBI had reached Brown, Manzo testified.

“He didn’t lay into him, right?” Baca’s attorney Tinos Diamantatos asked Manzo during cross-examination on Friday morning.

Manzo confirmed Thompson had told him shortly after the meeting that Baca was not upset and had been “understanding.”

If there is a good cop-bad cop dynamic at play in the portrayals of the two lawmen, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox tried to disabuse the jury of the idea at the beginning of the trial.

During his opening statement on Wednesday, Fox called Baca the “heartbeat” of a corruption scandal that had torn through the department.

A self-assured litigator with salt-and-pepper hair who goes about his business with Terminator-like efficiency, Fox unloaded both barrels at Baca. The sheriff watched the prosecutor calmly from his counsel’s table, the small sheriff’s badge affixed to the lapel as a sign of his diminished status.

Fox said Baca was the ringleader of the conspiracy to obstruct. While Tanaka was more explicit in his disdain for the FBI, Baca in his own way had shown his contempt for the agency, Fox said.

As sheriff, he had told the anchors of the local Fox show “Good Day L.A.” in September 2011 that it was unlawful for the FBI to get the phone to Brown in the way it had.

When asked if he resented the FBI’s actions he replied, “Oh yeah.”

The anchor followed up: “Well, if you don’t want the FBI in there, then who polices the police,” to which Baca replied, “We police ourselves.”

Fox told jurors that at a meeting in the office of the U.S. Attorney, Baca told the FBI’s Steve Martinez: “I’m the goddamned sheriff and these are my goddamned jails.”

Using language that conjures images of the old West, Baca told Martinez that the sheriff’s department and the FBI could always “gun up” to resolve their differences, according to the government’s trial memo.

In his opening, Baca’s likable attorney Nathan Hochman struck a fiery tone in a courtroom where he has sometimes appeared out of sorts.  When not at the lectern, he has hunched over notes and binders tensing as Judge Anderson routinely rejects his legal teams’ objections.

Hochman said Tanaka had kept Baca in the dark. The undersheriff had said “Yes, sir, no sir,” to Baca’s face but behind his back had “own his agenda,” Hochman said. It was Tanaka, not Baca, who had thwarted the FBI investigation, according to the attorney.

His client was only interested in protecting Brown from crooked deputies as well as inmates who might target a government snitch. He wanted to investigate the presence of the cellphone because it can be used to orchestrate drug deals and hits, Hochman said.

Hochman said the government’s evidence of a conspiracy to obstruct would boil down to six fateful weeks in the summer of 2011. Evidence directly related to Baca amounts to “less than three hours of that,” and in an “avalanche” of email evidence Baca only featured in two emails – communications between Baca and Martinez at the FBI, Hochman argued.

Manzo may have guided the jury to a sympathetic portrayal of Baca as a measured and respectful boss. But the witness made clear that even if Tanaka was prone to giving his subordinates a dressing down, the orders came from the very top.

At the orange shirt and shorts meeting, Baca had ordered Tom Carey – a captain at the department’s internal affairs unit – to investigate and ordered them to report to Tanaka. Baca said Brown should be isolated from the rest of the jail population. Manzo confirmed that Baca had left the room with Tanaka, who returned and told them that he had never seen the sheriff so upset.

Manzo told Fox during redirect on Friday morning that Tanaka had said, “We know what he wants done and we’re going to do it for him.”

The relationship between Baca and Tanaka dissolved after a blue-ribbon commission found that the two men had created a culture in the sheriff’s department that encouraged jailers to mistreat inmates. Heads had to roll. Baca forced Tanaka to resign in early 2013.

Tanaka would run for sheriff but his old boss beat him to the punch by announcing his retirement in 2014, after 48 years at the department. Tanaka lost in a runoff to Jim McDonnell, the current sheriff, in November of the same year.

Sitting upright in his chair Friday, Baca looked sterner than usual as Manzo testified. Perhaps he was jaded by the sheer drudgery of the proceedings or irked by the testimony of a man who was once several rungs lower than him on the totem pole.

Baca had been in charge of close to 20,000 employees at the sheriff's department. Now, in a final reckoning, a jury of six men and six women will decide his fate.

The trial is scheduled to continue Tuesday in Judge Anderson’s courtroom at the new First Street Courthouse.

Categories / Criminal, Regional

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