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Indicted Paul Tanaka expected to ask for leave as mayor of Gardena

Paul Tanaka expected to ask for leave as Gardena mayor after indictment in L.A. County jail abuse scandal

Paul Tanaka, the former Los Angeles County undersheriff and current mayor of Gardena, is expected to ask the City Council for a leave of absence as he deals with a federal indictment, the Gardena city manager said.

Tanaka, 56, surrendered to authorities Thursday after being indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly obstructing an investigation into excessive force and corruption in the jails.  

Mitchell G. Lansdell, Gardena's city manager, said in a statement that Tanaka will ask the City Council for an “excused leave of absence as he deals with these legal matters, and he hopes to remain on the elected panel to continue to fulfill his responsibilities to his fellow citizens as the case against him proceeds.”

“Importantly,” Lansdell said, “these charges arise from allegations that have absolutely nothing to do with his work on behalf of the city of Gardena.”

Tanaka was indicted along with former sheriff’s Capt. William “Tom” Carey. The indictment outlines a litany of orders that Tanaka and Carey allegedly gave in the summer of 2011 to sheriff’s deputies working to conceal from FBI agents the whereabouts of an inmate the FBI was using as an informant.

Tanaka and Carey face charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

As undersheriff, Tanaka was the second-highest ranking official in the department. Once considered the heir apparent to his boss, Sheriff Lee Baca, Tanaka’s 31 years with the department came to be increasingly defined by the scandals that plagued it.

Outside the department, Tanaka jumped into politics in Gardena, where he has lived for 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.

“Both as a city councilman and a mayor in a city he has called home for nearly 50 years, Mr. Tanaka has been an effective elected official and a strong advocate for Gardena citizens -- and we know he will continue to be,” Lansdell said.

Reached by phone Thursday morning, 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 that “he’s been a great mayor.”

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,” she said. “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."

Twitter: @haileybranson

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