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Officials call for probe of sale of bulletproof vests

An L.A. County supervisor wants an audit into whether officials broke laws by shipping the equipment to Cambodia. And a Gardena official wants a probe into why the city was used as an intermediary.

February 12, 2013|By Jack Leonard and Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times

Local officials Tuesday called for investigations into the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department funneling hundreds of bulletproof vests to Cambodia through the city of Gardena.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas requested an audit to determine whether officials violated the law in shipping the vests a decade ago to the Southeast Asian country. A Gardena official also said she would be asking for an investigation into her city being used as an intermediary for the unusual transaction.

The announcements Tuesday were prompted by a Times investigation published over the weekend that found that sheriff's ballistic vests were shipped to Cambodia and not declared to customs officials, as required by federal law. Instead, they were stuffed inside one of a number of patrol cars that the Sheriff's Department was shipping directly to Cambodia, avoiding the rigorous vetting process the U.S. government requires to prevent body armor from getting into the wrong hands abroad.

Sheriff's media representatives gave The Times differing accounts about the transaction, initially denying any sheriff's officials were involved in sending the vests to Cambodia, then offering explanations contradicted by records and interviews. The officials involved in the transaction refused to discuss it.

"Federal, state and local statutory, legal and policy violations may have occurred with these transactions," read a motion by Ridley-Thomas.

Gardena Mayor Pro Tem Rachel Johnson said she was troubled by the alleged role that the city's mayor, Paul Tanaka, played in the sales. Tanaka is the second-in-command at the Sheriff's Department.

She said she also wanted to know why her city manager approved the transaction. Records showed the city manager pledged under the penalty of perjury that the vests were intended for Gardena, despite later telling federal authorities he knew they would be diverted to Cambodia.

"I'm concerned about the appearance of a cover-up," Johnson said in an interview with The Times.

It is not unusual for U.S. law enforcement agencies to donate used or obsolete equipment to other departments, including foreign ones. But in this case, the vests were shipped using an intermediary and were not declared on their way out of the country. The vests were ostensibly sold to Gardena, but were never claimed by the city before being shipped to Cambodia.

The U.S. Customs Service launched an investigation into the sale of the vests in 2002, and federal agents were told that the transactions were coordinated by Tanaka, according to records obtained by The Times. A sheriff's spokesman called Tanaka's role minimal, saying it was a former undersheriff who called the Gardena city manager to coordinate the sales.

Customs agents decided not to seek criminal charges, concluding that there wasn't enough evidence to show that anyone involved in the transactions knew the relevant export laws. One expert told The Times that that rationale was "curious" because authorities don't have to prove knowledge of the law to press charges.

After closing the case, federal authorities referred the matter to sheriff's investigators, but the department did not conduct its own investigation. But a sheriff's spokesman said the department did nothing wrong and sent the vests through Gardena because they were under the mistaken impression that county rules prevented them from dealing directly with foreign nations. Prompted by The Times' inquiry, Sheriff Lee Baca asked the county auditor-controller's office to examine the sale, and Baca's spokesman called that review "a complete vindication." But Baca only told the auditor-controller that the vests were sold to Gardena, not that Gardena was a go-between to get the vests to Cambodia.

The audit Ridley-Thomas proposed would include that, and determine if any sheriff's or Gardena officials committed "any fraudulent or illegal activity." If his motion is approved and the audit is launched, the final report would be forwarded to county and federal prosecutors for further action.

Johnson, who is running to replace Tanaka as mayor of Gardena, said she was a city clerk at the time of the transactions and never knew about them. "I'm very disappointed that [Tanaka] has involved our city manager, our city resources in these questionable practices," she said.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said that both Baca and Tanaka do not object to the new probes: "Don't forget this has been looked at by the feds and they said nothing was wrong."

jack.leonard@latimes.com

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

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