Paul Tanaka wasn’t surprised to find himself in a room with a group of FBI agents.
“I knew this day would come,” said Tanaka, then the second-in-command at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “I hoped it wouldn’t.”
An FBI agent told him his “name has come up throughout the investigation.... You’re a popular guy.”
For the next four hours, as part of their investigation into Sheriff’s Department corruption, the agents questioned Tanaka on a range of allegations, according to a recording of the November 2012 interview reviewed by The Times.
At that time, it appeared that Tanaka’s future within the department was dim.
Once considered former Sheriff Lee Baca’s heir apparent, Tanaka was facing heavy criticism that he shared responsibility for some of the scandals that have plagued the department. Eventually, Baca forced him out of the department.
Undeterred by the setbacks, Tanaka returned to the spotlight and has launched a forceful run for sheriff.
He has raised the most money of any candidate, earned endorsements from a long list of local officials and attracted celebrities such as supermodel Cindy Crawford to his events.
Tanaka argues that his decades within the Sheriff’s Department, experience as mayor of Gardena and training as a certified public accountant make him ideally suited to run the department.
But his record has been a frequent target for his rivals in the race. A county commission concluded that he helped foster problems with brutality inside the jails. And the FBI is investigating allegations that he played a role in obstructing their investigation into the abuse.
Tanaka has defended his tenure at the Sheriff’s Department but has focused his campaign on issues beyond the jail scandal, such as lowering crime and improving cooperation with other police agencies. He has promised to give people who are lawfully qualified permits to carry concealed weapons in public, calling himself “a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment.”
Supporters say his reputation has been unfairly tarred by former subordinates whom Tanaka cracked down on for being lazy or inept. They describe him as hard-working, good at managing budgets and hyper-focused on lowering crime.
“If you’ve worked hard, he liked you.... If you were lazy, didn’t do your job, he didn’t give you the time of day,” said sheriff’s Capt. Louie Duran.
Tanaka declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, he said, “I have never condoned or tolerated excessive force or deputy misconduct but have required every employee to be held to a level of accountability that coincides with the highest standards of conduct and character.”
As a student at Loyola Marymount University, Tanaka was required to go on a ride-along for a class. The experience made him realize he wanted to go into law enforcement.
After graduating, he became a cop, first in El Segundo, then with the Sheriff’s Department.
“I thought the tan and green was the best,” he said in the recording. “I just always had this thing about them.”
Tanaka rose quickly within the department, but not without controversy. As a sergeant, he was assigned in the late 1980s to the Lynwood station, which was plagued with allegations of brutality. 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. The shooting sparked angry protests, and 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 to work on Baca’s campaign. During Baca’s tenure, Tanaka rose rapidly through the ranks.
Away from the department, Tanaka got into local politics. After winning a seat on the Gardena City Council in 1999, he helped turn the city’s finances around and successfully ran for mayor six years later.
“When he took over, the city was kind of in turmoil. We were in debt,” Councilwoman Tasha Cerda said. “Now we’re in the plus.”
Supporting his political career in Gardena were sheriff’s colleagues and subordinates who donated more than $100,000 to his four Gardena election campaigns, stirring a belief that loyalty to Tanaka was essential to a department career, according to a county commission.
His dual role brought other problems.
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 odd transaction, which did not become publicly known until 2013, did not result in charges.
Eventually, Baca’s loyalty to Tanaka eroded.
After a sergeant pointed a gun at another sergeant at the sheriff’s Compton station, Tanaka and other top officials ignored a recommendation to demote the supervisor, instead giving him a 15-day suspension. Baca was upset, stripping Tanaka of his role in making discipline decisions.
Their relationship continued to strain after a blue-ribbon commission created by the county to examine inmate abuse found in 2012 that Tanaka had helped foster a culture of misconduct. The commission recommended that Tanaka be stripped of most of his authorities. Baca listened, and months later took it a step further, pushing his undersheriff to step down.
Tanaka has since gone on the offensive, saying that the sheriff’s officials who spoke out against him were former subordinates he had cracked down on for subpar work.
In his interview with federal agents, Tanaka gave an example. He recalled making a surprise visit to a sheriff’s station. There, in the middle of the work day, he found the lieutenant in charge not in uniform, but rather in shorts, T-shirt and sneakers.
According to Tanaka, the lieutenant greeted him, then said: “I was just getting ready to go to softball practice. You need me?”
“He gets in his car like an idiot and drives away,” Tanaka recalled. “I call his chief and I say, ‘I want him gone.’”
That lieutenant later spoke before the jail commission and accused Tanaka of mismanagement.
Tanaka’s lack of mercy for subpar employees, his supporters say, is exactly why he’s such a polarizing figure within the agency.
Tanaka’s campaign says he’s trying to rise above the criticisms of his record and focus on the future.
“Despite constant attacks from his opponents and media outlets regarding old issues, Paul continues to focus on how to improve the county,” a campaign spokesman said.