Once L.A. County Sheriff's Department star, Paul Tanaka now defined by scandal

Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka's career became defined by jail abuse scandal

Paul Tanaka, the mayor of Gardena, was once considered the heir apparent to his boss, Sheriff Lee Baca.

But Tanaka’s 31 years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department came to be increasingly defined by the scandals that plagued the department. The retired undersheriff faced allegations that he played a starring role in the mounting scandals.

In 2012, a blue ribbon commission issued a searing critique of Baca, Tanaka and others, accusing them of fostering a culture in which deputies beat and humiliated inmates, covered up misconduct and formed aggressive deputy cliques in the county jails.

On Thursday, Tanaka, 56, surrendered to authorities after being indicted by a federal grand jury investigating excessive force and corruption in the jails. Also indicted was a retired sheriff’s captain, William “Tom” Carey.

Peter Wallin, Gardena's city attorney, said the indictment did not require Tanaka to step down as mayor.

Wallin said he has known Tanaka for years and "he's been a great mayor."

But in a statement, the city said that Tanaka was going to ask the Gardena City Council for an "excused leave of absence as he deals with these legal matters." 

 

Tanaka -- who lost by a large margin in the November runoff for sheriff against former Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell -- was forced out of the Sheriff’s Department by Baca in 2013 amid criticism over the jail abuse scandal.

It was a stunning reversal for a man once considered Baca's confidant.

Tanaka decided to go into law enforcement as a student at Loyola Marymount University, where he was required to go on a ride-along for a class. After graduating with an accounting degree, he became an officer in El Segundo before joining the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

“I thought the tan and green was the best,” Tanaka said of the huge department’s colors in a November 2012 interview with FBI agents. “I just always had this thing about them.”

Tanaka rose quickly in the department, but not without controversy. As a sergeant, he was assigned in the 1980s to the Lynwood station, which was shadowed by allegations of excessive force. There, he was tattooed as a member of the Vikings, an unsanctioned group of hard-charging deputies.

In 1988, Tanaka was named in a wrongful-death lawsuit after he and four deputies fatally shot an unarmed motorist -- a shooting that sparked angry protests. The county paid the dead man’s family almost $1 million to settle.

When Baca first ran for sheriff in 1998, Tanaka broke ranks with the incumbent, Sherman Block, to work on Baca’s campaign. After Baca was elected, Tanaka ascended through the ranks.

Outside the department, Tanaka jumped into politics in Gardena, where he has lived for more than four decades. He won a seat on the Gardena City Council in 1999 and successfully ran for mayor in 2005. He was reelected to four-year terms as mayor in 2009 and 2013.

On the Gardena City Council, he was credited with helping to turn the city’s finances around.

“When he took over, the city was kind of in turmoil. We were in debt,” Gardena Councilwoman Tasha Cerda told the Los Angeles Times last year. “Now we’re in the plus.”

Sheriff’s colleagues and subordinates donated more than $100,000 to his Gardena election campaigns, raising concerns that loyalty to Tanaka was essential to a career in the Sheriff's Department, according to a county commission.

In 2003, Tanaka drew federal scrutiny for helping funnel hundreds of sheriff’s bulletproof vests to Cambodia through Gardena without declaring them to customs officials. The transaction, which became publicly known only 10 years later, did not result in charges.

Tanaka and Baca’s relationship became strained after the blue ribbon commission released its findings three years ago. The commission recommended that Tanaka be stripped of most of his authority.

Though Tanaka was not directly responsible for overseeing the jails, the commission concluded that he influenced their operations. Tanaka had said previously that he was focused on reducing crime and the department’s budget and wasn’t in the jail system’s chain of command during the period of alleged problems.

In March 2013, Tanaka retired from the Sheriff’s Department under pressure from Baca. Tanaka launched a run for sheriff, planning to compete against his former boss.

Facing a tough battle for reelection amid the growing scandals, Baca announced his retirement in January 2014, a month after federal prosecutors announced criminal charges against numerous low-ranking sheriff’s officials accused of beating inmates and jail visitors, of trying to obstruct the FBI and of other crimes.

Tanaka squeaked into the runoff election for sheriff against McDonnell. In November, McDonnell trounced Tanaka by a wide margin, becoming the first outsider in a century to helm the department.  

Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in good governance, said she does not expect Tanaka to step down as mayor.

"In this case, history has indicated that Paul Tanaka is not going to go quietly into the night. My guess is it's going to take a lot of political pressure for him to step down,” she said, stressing that controversy has not stopped him from seeking public office in the past .

Levinson said that it’s unlikely voters in Gardena, who elected Tanaka even as controversy swirled around him, are unaware of his history. As a result, she said, it remains to be seen whether an indictment would be enough to create a major push among residents to pressure the mayor to step down.

“There have been rumors and discussions and chatter of serious wrongdoing for a very long time, so it cannot be that the voters of Gardena were utterly oblivious to that,” Levinson said. “And they elected him anyway. My guess is that he has a lot of loyal voters who might think he was wronged and might say they want to see the process play out." 

Still, she said, "there is no jurisdiction in the world in which a federal indictment is a political boon. Legally innocent until proven guilty is different than public opinion. Just because he's not legally guilty of anything doesn't mean he's not in a politically very different position."

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

1:12 p.m.: This article has been updated with comments from legal expert Jessica Levinson.

11:20 a.m.: This article has been updated with comments from Gardena City Atty. Peter Wallin.

This article was originally published at 11:01 a.m.

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