LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com/AP) — Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and retired Sheriff’s Captain William Thomas Carey pleaded not guilty Thursday in U.S. District Court to charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
Federal prosecutors believe the two went to extreme lengths to hide corruption and abuse within the L.A. County jails.
“The sheriff’s department was involved in this obstruction case all the way up to the second highest ranking member of the department,” Acting U.S. Attorney Stephanie Yonekura said.
Tanaka, who has been the mayor of Gardena since 2005 and retired from the Sheriff’s Department in 2013, was indicted on charges of obstruction of justice.
Carey was also indicted on various charges.
The two 56-year-olds surrendered around 6:30 a.m. Thursday. They were released on bond after entering “not guilty” pleas in court, U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Thom Mrozek said.
The indictment stems from an investigation of civil rights abuses that blossomed into an obstruction-of-justice case when deputies and higher-ups discovered in the summer of 2011 that an inmate with a smuggled cellphone was providing information to the FBI about beatings by deputies. The inmate got the phone from a deputy who took a bribe.
The FBI wanted the informant to testify to a grand jury, but agents couldn’t find him.
“Both men were aware that there was rampant abuse at the jail, and both men were aware that the internal investigations of that abuse were insufficient,” Yonekura said.
Seven other Sheriff’s Department officials have already been convicted for their roles in the case and are serving sentences up to 41 months. Nine deputies still face charges of violating civil rights of inmates and jail visitors, including an Austrian consulate official who was handcuffed and detained with her husband.
Twenty-three members of the department have now been charged with crimes ranging from civil rights violations to gun charges and obstruction of justice. Three deputies, all brothers, were acquitted of a mortgage fraud scheme.
The indictment alleged Tanaka fostered a culture of abuse by minimizing misconduct investigations and encouraging supervisors to let deputies operate in a “gray area” between justifiable conduct and abuse.
“When it comes to the law, there’s black and there’s white,” said David Bowdich, assistant director of the FBI’s Los Angeles office. “There’s no area for gray where he was looking for it.”
Despite being aware of concerns from outside the department about a lack of investigations into abuse, Tanaka advocated chopping the Internal Affairs Bureau from 45 investigators to one, authorities said.
Tanaka retired from the sheriff’s department in 2013 and serves as mayor of the nearby city of Gardena. He ran to replace Baca but lost by a wide margin to Jim McDonnell, who has vowed to reform the troubled agency.
Shortly after McDonnell took office last year, the department agreed to federal court oversight and new use-of-force policies to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by inmates who said they were beaten by guards.
Yonekura said she’ll never know what they might have uncovered if their investigation wasn’t impeded.
When CBS2/KCAL9’s Dave Lopez asked Yonekura if Baca was being investigated she would only say, “Mr. Baca is not charged at this time. We will continue to evaluate thoroughly any evidence that comes to our attention.”
When Lopez asked if Baca’s sudden resignation in 2013 part of a plea bargain, Yonekura said she wouldn’t comment on the issue.
Tanaka’s attorney said he plans on pleading not guilty to the charges he called “baseless.”
Tanaka faces 15 years in prison and Carey faces 25.