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.