SAN FRANCISCO — A federal prosecutor told jurors Monday that former Danville police Officer Stephen Tanabe set up men for drunken driving arrests on three occasions in exchange of 3.5 grams of cocaine and an expensive Glock pistol.
“To put it more bluntly, he sold his badge,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Kearney said in his opening statement at the trial for the four-year Contra Costa County sheriff’s deputy, ¿who was arrested in the wake of a 2011 police corruption scandal centered around former Concord private investigator Christopher Butler and ex-Contra Costa Narcotics Enforcement Team commander Norman Wielsch. Both are serving time in federal prison.
Tanabe, 50, of Alamo, is charged with seven conspiracy and extortion counts for allegedly taking bribes from Butler, the government’s star witness at Tanabe’s trial. Butler told a judge last fall he took money from women eager to set up their estranged spouses for DUI arrests for leverage in messy divorce and child custody cases. Butler & Associate employees, often assertive, attractive women, would get their targets drunk, encourage them to drive, and then tip off local police to their location on the road. They called them “dirty DUIs.”
Tanabe, who befriended Butler when they both served on the Antioch police force in the mid-1990s, knowingly participated in the scam three times in late 2010 and early 2011, Kearney said.
It is true Tanabe had an active role in those three arrests, said defense attorney Tim Pori, but at no point did Tanabe take a bribe — drugs, guns or otherwise.
Pori painted Tanabe as a family man and hardworking officer for Danville, where police services are provided by the sheriff’s office under contract and DUI arrests are a late-night patrol officer’s bread and butter.
The Danville police force gives its officers “performance objectives” in which they are rewarded for DUI arrests, Pori said, and Tanabe had a duty to make such arrests himself or to alert his fellow officers to drunks on the road when he himself was off duty.
The government has more than 25 people on its witness list, including Butler and his former employees integral to the setups, whom Pori told jurors cannot be trusted. He listed the witnesses’ past transgressions, some illegal, others unethical.
Tanabe, Pori said, was thrown under the bus by Butler, “a master manipulator” who was caught on video selling stolen drug evidence. Butler needed to name names to the government to shave years off the stiff sentences he was facing. “The government’s case is going to fall on its face when you hear the cross-examination of these witnesses,” Pori said.
The U.S. attorney’s office¿ tried to convict Butler for the dirty DUIs as well, but the charge didn’t stick because Butler, unlike Tanabe, wasn’t a sworn officer when they were carried out.
The first prosecution witness takes the stand Tuesday.
Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley.