YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Top Baca aide, pushed to quit, offers harsh appraisal of sheriff

Calling the Sheriff's Department 'a house of cards,' Paul Tanaka says Baca was a disengaged leader who used it as 'his own personal employment agency.'

April 30, 2013|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
  • Former aide Paul Tanaka, right, calls Sheriff Lee Baca's department a "house of cards that's on the verge of crumbling."
Former aide Paul Tanaka, right, calls Sheriff Lee Baca's department… (Los Angeles Times )

Paul Tanaka, the Los Angeles County undersheriff accused of fostering a culture of jailhouse abuse, offered a searing critique of his boss Sheriff Lee Baca, calling him a confused and erratic leader who cares more about politics than public safety.

In his first extensive comments since being pressured to step down, Tanaka told The Times that Baca pushed subordinates to hire his friends and relatives and undermined public safety to settle political spats. For example, Tanaka said Baca demanded that all sheriff's deputies be removed from joint crime-fighting operations with the FBI as payback for a federal investigation of the jails — an order Tanaka said he refused to carry out.

Tanaka, who is considering a run against Baca in 2014, said he was speaking out because he feels he has been made a scapegoat for many of the agency's problems. Indeed, a blue-ribbon report last year blamed him and Baca for an abusive atmosphere inside the agency's jails. Several current and former sheriff's officials publicly singled out Tanaka for creating a climate in which aggression was prized, loyalty was placed above merit and discipline discouraged.

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

Tanaka said his reputation was unfairly tarnished by sheriff's officials who were upset that he was holding lazy supervisors accountable.

"They're not used to that," said Tanaka, who will remain on the county payroll as undersheriff until August. "In this organization, they're used to the higher you go, the less responsibility."

For years, Tanaka was one of Baca's most trusted advisors, rising in the ranks to run day-to-day operations as Baca's second in command. He said he and others kept the department running while Baca paid little attention to the agency and took numerous international trips that brought little benefit to Los Angeles County. Baca, he said, would boast about how "he gets to see the world without paying anything."

LIVE CHAT at 9 a.m.: Former top aide's critique of Sheriff Lee Baca

Tanaka said that after years of being a detached boss, Baca — in the face of scandal — has now become an unpredictable micromanager whose fits of anger have scared subordinates into inaction.

As a result, he said, the Sheriff's Department is a "house of cards that's on the verge of crumbling."

Baca's spokesman declined to discuss Tanaka's allegations in detail but said "the sheriff finds it very sad that his former undersheriff has raised these false charges motivated apparently by his personal disappointment and ambition. None of these allegations were made while he served as undersheriff. He raises them only now as he contemplates a run for sheriff."

Tanaka said he did not do so because Baca specifically ordered him and others not to speak to The Times.

Tanaka said Baca frequently gave subordinates contradictory or foolish orders that they had to ignore because they violated department policy or common sense. A few months ago, for example, he said Baca was in a meeting with command staff, talking about the department's budget shortfall, when he asked a subordinate to study the cost savings that would come from eliminating the agency's community policing unit.

A week later, at another meeting, that captain began discussing his findings about cutting the unit, when Tanaka says Baca interrupted.

"He stops and he says 'What did you say? What are you talking about?...I would never do anything like that,' " Tanaka recounted Baca as saying.

Tanaka said he had to call the sheriff later and remind him that the captain was "following your orders and you... embarrassed him."

Tanaka said the sheriff was silent on the other end of the phone, before meekly saying "Oh."

At other times, Tanaka said, the sheriff pressured underlings to be unethical for his benefit.

The Times has reported on two recruits, both with connections to Baca, who were hired under unusual circumstances. In one case, an applicant with ties to Baca's son was hired during a hiring freeze. In the other, Baca's nephew was hired although background investigators noted a fight with San Diego police, theft and arrests on suspicion of drunk driving and burglary.

In both cases, Baca said he wasn't involved in the hirings.

"I know he said he wasn't, but that's not true," Tanaka said, accusing Baca of pressuring subordinates to put both recruits through the academy.

In the case of Baca's nephew, Tanaka said a background investigator flagged the fight with police, but Baca took his nephew's side, saying it was the officer who was overly aggressive. (Since being hired, Baca's nephew has had a checkered career as a deputy, and he is being criminally investigated over force he used on an inmate in an incident caught on tape.)

Los Angeles Times Articles