Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was testifying in the case of a deputy charged with obstruction of justice earlier this year when the prosecutor asked if he was familiar with a common investigative tactic: Start with low-level criminals, then go after their bosses.
The judge barred the question, but the implication was clear. While the FBI's sweeping probe into alleged corruption and brutality at the L.A. County jails had so far only resulted in charges against lower-level officials, investigators were continuing to examine the actions of top sheriff's brass.
On Tuesday, federal prosecutors won guilty verdicts against six sheriff's deputies for their roles in a scheme to stymie the investigation and hide an FBI informant to prevent him from talking to agents. The question now is whether prosecutors can leverage those convictions to build cases against Sheriff's Department leaders.
The defendants insisted they were merely following orders.
With the prospect of spending up to 15 years in prison, legal experts said, some defendants may now want to cooperate with authorities and implicate their superiors in exchange for reduced sentences.
"Now is the prime time for producing ... incriminating evidence on higher-ups," said Dane Ciolino, a professor at Loyola Law School in New Orleans, where the former mayor was indicted for public corruption three years after the first of his underlings was charged. "That's the most valuable thing [the defendants] can provide any prosecutor now."
In order to bring cases against the higher-ups, Ciolino said, prosecutors will need to prove that the top officials had criminal intent rather than simply being present at various meetings.
"The issue boils down to what did they intend, did they intend to be complicit in the conspiracy or did they not?" he said.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors declined to say whether any deals were currently in the works.
Prosecutors have revealed that Tanaka and a captain, William "Tom" Carey, remain under scrutiny in the FBI's ongoing grand jury investigation. Tanaka, Carey and former Sheriff Lee Baca have all denied any wrongdoing.
The case stems from a 2011 undercover operation in which the FBI used inmate Anthony Brown to investigate alleged brutality and other misconduct by jail guards. Once jailers found Brown with a cellphone provided by the FBI, the undercover operation was blown and an interagency turf war erupted.
During trial, the six sheriff's officials argued they were simply following orders from Tanaka and Baca, who wanted to make sure that the inmate informant was kept in a secure location and out of reach of his FBI handlers.
Baca, they said, wanted them to interview and investigate the FBI agent who had arranged for the phone to be smuggled to Brown at Men's Central Jail.
Baca publicly accused the FBI of wrongdoing in carrying out their sting operation. He later backed down and said he welcomed scrutiny of his jails. He abruptly resigned in January, and has said he has previously been told he was not a target of the investigation.
Tanaka, now a candidate for sheriff, denied directing the six defendants to take specific steps, but said he did not believe their actions were inappropriate. He testified that his prime concern had been keeping the informant safe from the corrupt and abusive deputies he was informing on.
In court, defense attorneys and witnesses highlighted how the defendants took direction from their superiors.
A detective testified that when FBI agents were given access to Brown despite orders from Tanaka and Baca, Tanaka was furious at Lt. Gregory Thompson, one of the defendants.
"He was irate," recalled the detective, who said he overheard Tanaka's tirade while in the hallway of sheriff's headquarters. "Every cuss word he could think of."
Email exchanges presented at trial painted Thompson as eager to please Tanaka and other top bosses.
"I'm good for the butt chewing, it was the 'You failed me' that hurt me," Thompson wrote to Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo in an email following the FBI interview. "The last thing I want to hear from you, [Tanaka] or the sheriff are those words."
"He still loves you, as do I. Believe me, it hurt him to emote on you that way," Rhambo wrote in his reply.
One defendant, Lt. Stephen Leavins, testified that after learning of the FBI's phone in the jails, Baca summoned a meeting at sheriff's headquarters on a Saturday morning.
"I remember because I was not too happy to work on a Saturday," he testified. At another meeting, he recalled, "Baca gave the order .... He ordered me to relocate Anthony Brown safely and approved that location to be a station jail."
Leavins said it was also at Baca's direction that Sgts. Scott Craig and Maricela Long approached the lead FBI agent, Leah Marx, at her home — which prosecutors argued was an intimidation tactic to get the FBI to back off.
"The sheriff instructed us to contact Marx at her residence and conduct an interview on the introduction of the cellphone," he said.
Leavins' boss at the time, Capt. Carey, was present during interviews of Brown at which sheriff's officials allegedly discouraged Brown from cooperating. Carey also testified that he did not believe his deputies' conduct was criminal.
Through his spokesman, Baca declined to comment. Tanaka's attorney, Ronald Nessim, also declined to comment.