Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka testifies in downtown L.A.… (Francine Orr, Francine…)
Despite publicly defending his second-in-command for months amid an abuse scandal in the Los Angeles County jail system, Sheriff Lee Baca pressured Undersheriff Paul Tanaka into stepping down, several sources said.
The Sheriff's Department has repeatedly portrayed Tanaka's decision to retire earlier this month as a move Tanaka initiated. But sources said Baca met with Tanaka and told him he should retire. The conversation, they said, stunned his once-trusted confidant.
One source close to Tanaka said the undersheriff believes Baca views him as a political liability and is trying to use him as a scapegoat for the jail's problems as the sheriff seeks reelection to a fifth term. That same source, who has spoken with Tanaka, said Tanaka has not ruled out running for sheriff himself, challenging his boss in the 2014 election.
Jim McDonnell, the police chief of Long Beach, is already considering a run against Baca in 2014, and Tanaka's entry into the race would pose the most serious electoral challenge the sheriff has faced in his 14 years of leading the agency.
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said Sunday that both Baca and Tanaka insist that the undersheriff's retirement was voluntary and had nothing to do with Baca's reelection campaign. Whitmore said he spoke to both men Friday afternoon and that they said Tanaka independently decided to step down. The source close to Tanaka said Tanaka never told Whitmore that on Friday.
Tanaka's departure comes as Baca tries to lead a reform effort at the troubled department, which is the focus of an FBI investigation into allegations of jailers beating inmates and visitors. Baca last week introduced a new head of the jail system, a Sheriff's Department outsider with a reputation for reform.
This month's announcement that Tanaka was retiring was met with praise from some department critics, who said they hoped it signaled a serious effort to fix the agency. Baca and Tanaka were harshly criticized in a blue-ribbon report last year that blamed their leadership for many of the woes facing the Sheriff's Department. The Times reported last year that a federal grand jury has asked about Tanaka as part of its investigation.
Tanaka has long been a controversial figure in the department. Along with his affiliation with a deputy clique, current and former sheriff's officials have accused him of creating a climate in which aggression was prized, loyalty was placed above merit and discipline discouraged. Tanaka has denied those accusations, saying they are politically motivated.
Publicly, the sheriff has described Tanaka as an invaluable administrator, trained as a certified public accountant who has helped steer the agency's budget through difficult financial times. Baca dismissed critics who complained that his top aide had undermined jail supervisors and fostered a corrosive culture in the jail.
Privately, however, Baca has recently been less supportive of Tanaka, according to the sources, who all requested anonymity out of concern of reprisals.
Before Tanaka's March 6 announcement that he would be leaving the department after 31 years, he had had two private meetings with Baca. In the first, sources said, the sheriff told Tanaka it was time for him to step down. Tanaka initially did not accept the suggestion, sources said. A source close to Tanaka said that during the second meeting, Tanaka agreed to do so but felt he had no choice.
One high-ranking sheriff's official said that Baca's displeasure with Tanaka mounted after The Times reported that Tanaka had previously helped funnel hundreds of sheriff's ballistics vests to Cambodia through Gardena. At the time the vests were sold, Tanaka served as a Gardena councilman. Today, he is mayor of the city. The official said Baca was angry about the latest in a long string of controversies involving his second-in-command. "There was a sense that 'The sheriff has got to do something now,' " the official said.
A source close to Tanaka confirmed Baca expressed anger that Tanaka did not tell the sheriff about the sales. Tanaka has publicly said he played a minimal role in those transactions.
Tanaka, the source said, has told others he feels betrayed by Baca, particularly because he says Baca had told him privately for months that he was doing a good job.
On the day he announced he was retiring, Tanaka told the Daily Breeze he wasn't leaving because of the jail scandal or the unusual sale of ballistic vests to Cambodia, saying instead he needed a break after "working two jobs since I was 15." He added that he wanted to spend more time with his family. His retirement takes effect Aug. 1.