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Sheriff Baca accused of retaliating against department officials

Several captains say they were transferred to other jobs for publicly backing one of Baca's challengers in the 2014 election.

October 24, 2013|By Seema Mehta
  • Of the nine captains who have publicly backed former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, left, in his bid to replace Sheriff Lee Baca, right, four were transferred to other jobs.
Of the nine captains who have publicly backed former Undersheriff Paul… (Los Angeles Times )

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department officials who have backed a rival of Sheriff Lee Baca in next year's election claim they are being retaliated against with reassignments to distant locales or less desirable duties, according to interviews and documents.

One, Capt. Louis Duran, has filed a complaint against Baca with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, a precursor to a possible lawsuit. Of the nine captains who have publicly backed former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka in his bid to replace Baca, four were transferred to other jobs earlier this month, according to documents obtained by the Times.

Attorney Brad Gage, who represents Duran and other members of the department claiming to be victims of retaliation, said he expected to sue the Sheriff's Department next month.

"There are a number of individuals who have been well-known Tanaka supporters over the years. The ones that are most loyal to Tanaka have been the subject of improper internal affairs complaints, sometimes criminal allegations without merit, transfers from favorable assignments to those assignments known to be dead ends … and 'freeway therapy,' which is being transferred a long distance from home," he said.

A representative of Baca said any transfers were driven by the department's needs and the employees' performance.

"There is absolutely no retaliation. This is politics at its lowest form, and the facts will bear that out," said spokesman Steve Whitmore. "The Sheriff's Department must be managed, and Sheriff Baca is going to do that regardless of an election or no election. He's going to do what's right. People are moved all the time in the Sheriff's Department and regrettably, people have been moved because they haven't been doing their jobs."

Baca has previously been accused of retaliating against political adversaries. In 2010, the Sheriff's Department agreed to pay almost $1 million to Patrick Gomez, who claimed that he was passed up for promotions and targeted for an internal inquiry after he ran against Baca in 2002. The settlement was reached shortly after a federal jury found the department liable for retaliation in a lawsuit brought by Gomez, who is a retired lieutenant who is also running against Baca next year.

Tanaka said the recent transfers show why the county needs a new sheriff and said Baca should be "ashamed of himself."

"It is completely outrageous that decorated senior commanders would be reprimanded for using his or her First Amendment right to support a political candidate," he said.

The early tussling points to what is likely to be a bitter contest in the runup to voting next June. Baca has been sheriff for 15 years and is seeking a fifth four-year term. But in recent years he has been buffeted by a series of scandals. The FBI is investigating allegations of abuse and other deputy misconduct in his jails. In a separate investigation, federal authorities found that Baca's deputies in the Antelope Valley harassed and intimidated blacks and Latinos.

In addition to the federal investigations, Baca has had to explain questionable hires, giving allegedly special treatment to friends and supporters and the existence of aggressive, unsanctioned cliques of deputies in the agency's ranks.

Tanaka, a one-time Baca ally and mayor of Gardena, also has been controversial. Amid the scandal involving alleged inmate abuse, Tanaka was accused of fostering a climate in which aggression was prized, loyalty was placed above merit, and discipline was discouraged. Tanaka has said he was scapegoated by sheriff's officials upset by his efforts to hold lazy supervisors more accountable.

Also campaigning for sheriff are Bob Olmsted, a retired sheriff's commander who played a role in exposing abuses inside the agency's jails; Lou Vince, an LAPD detective; and Gomez.

Duran said in a phone interview that he was a long-time supporter of Baca's who decided to back Tanaka because of his work righting the budgets of both Gardena, where Duran grew up, and the Sheriff's Department.

The 33-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department said his career has suffered since summer, when he publicly backed Tanaka. He said he first was removed from his post of five years, as a captain of the Aero Bureau, and assigned to the vehicle theft program, which he said resulted in a "considerable" loss of salary. Earlier this month, he said he was transferred again, to the office of the assistant sheriff, where he has no assignment, no staff, no office, no desk and no chair.

"There is no job for me there. There's nothing. Lately I've been so disheartened, I've been burning time, I just haven't been going in," he said. "It's basically purgatory."

Duran was in the public eye in 2012 after The Times reported allegations that officials in the aviation unit were abusing aircraft privileges, purposely delaying emergency calls to make the case for more overtime pay and possibly manipulating time sheets. A county audit found that managers improperly used department aircraft but found no evidence to support other accusations. Duran publicly alleged misconduct by an Aero Bureau supervisor during a Board of Supervisors meeting, prompting an investigation to determine if Duran improperly disclosed officer disciplinary records.

Whitmore said he could not comment on the results of the investigation because it is a personnel matter.

Seema.mehta@latimes.com

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