“He had a unique talent of doing exactly what I wanted done,” former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said of his former second-in-command Paul Tanaka — in a video obtained exclusively by Eyewitness News.
Prosecutors had the video, from a civil deposition, on stand-by to present in the federal corruption trial of Baca, presumably to demonstrate a key theory in their case — that Baca often issued orders but left the details to Tanaka.
ATTORNEY BRADLEY GAGE: And how long term of a relationship did you have with Paul Tanaka?
LEE BACA: Long.
ATTORNEY BRADLEY GAGE: And can you tell us the nature of that relationship?
LEE BACA: Kind of like father and son.
ATTORNEY BRADLEY GAGE: Extremely close then, correct?
LEE BACA: Correct.
ATTORNEY BRADLEY GAGE: You thought of yourself as a mentor grooming Paul Tanaka to rise through the ranks – is that accurate?
LEE BACA: Not thought of. In fact, did raise him through the ranks.
But that “father and son” relationship fell apart when scandal roiled the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department following an FBI investigation into brutality and corruption inside the jails. Baca and Tanaka pointed fingers at one another, each claiming he was “out of the loop” for actions taken to thwart the FBI probe.
Nine former LASD officials, including Tanaka, have either been sentenced or pleaded guilty in connection with the obstruction of the federal investigation. Their sentences range from 18 months to five years in prison. Tanaka has been ordered to begin serving his term at a federal prison camp in Colorado next month.
Jurors in Baca's trial have now deliberated for more than two days without reaching a verdict – a marked departure from the swift verdicts in related jail obstruction trials. Guilty verdicts for Tanaka and former LASD deputy James Sexton both came in under two hours.
What's the difference with Baca's case?
“There was much more direct evidence against Tanaka and Sexton,” said Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School. “But against the sheriff, it has been very circumstantial.”
On Wednesday, jurors requested a read-back of trial testimony from former LASD Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo, who testified for both the prosecution and the defense.
Levenson believes the jurors may be wrestling with a core issue – Baca's mindset. Was it illegal to hide the jail inmate exposed as an FBI informant, and to direct deputy sheriffs to approach – or intimidate — an FBI Agent to thwart the FBI's investigation? Or did Baca truly believe the FBI had committed a crime by arranging for the smuggling of a contraband cellphone into the jail as part of an undercover sting operation?
“Intent is always the hardest issue in any case,” Levenson told Eyewitness News. “You have to get inside the defendant's head. And unless you have a direct confession or somebody on tape, then what you have to do is say – 'what's logical?'”
Ultimately, federal prosecutors in Baca's ongoing criminal trial did not present the video deposition of the former sheriff discussing his relationship with Tanaka. That case involved eight LASD deputy sheriffs who won a civil lawsuit against Los Angeles County and Baca. The deputies claimed Baca retaliated against them for publicly supporting Tanaka in the lead-up to Tanaka's campaign for sheriff in 2014.
The retaliation, said plaintiffs' attorney Bradley Gage, “included transferring employees to less desirable locations, denying them promotions, giving them what's known as 'freeway therapy,' making them go long distances each day for work.”
The final judgement in that retaliation case? More than $2 million. Baca himself was found personally liable for about $480,000 in punitive damages. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has the discretion to decide whether Baca should pay those punitive damages out of his own pocket – or cover the bill with taxpayer money.
Jurors weighing Baca's fate will resume deliberations on Thursday morning.
Got a tip? Email ABC7 investigative producer Lisa.Bartley@abc.com