Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina expressed concerns Tuesday that campaign contributions to sheriff’s brass by department employees created potential conflicts of interest in personnel decisions.
The board approved a motion by Molina to ask the county’s attorneys to gauge the legality of banning county managers from soliciting such donations within their departments, though employees would still be able to contribute on their own.
Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who is also mayor of Gardena, have over the years accepted thousands of dollars in contributions from department employees.
In an interview, Molina said she has been concerned about the practice for years, most recently after allegations were made in the news blog WitnessLA that donations to Tanaka were affecting promotions. Molina said she knew of no instances in which Tanaka or Baca had solicited donations from department employees. She said she viewed any eventual ban on soliciting donations, which would affect all county officials, as a proactive measure.
“I don’t know if this is going on or not,” she said, “but I’d like to draft an ordinance that would clearly prohibit it.”
For years, allegations of favoritism based on political contributions have dogged the Sheriff’s Department. A 2006 Times analysis found that of the sheriff’s managers who gave to Sheriff Lee Baca, 73% received promotions, while of those who did not contribute, 26% received promotions.
Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore denied that contributions affect personnel decisions. Whitmore, who said he was speaking on behalf of Baca and Tanaka, said the department welcomed Molina’s motion.
Recently, a former jails commander stopped cooperating with a probe into jail management problems because he believed the lead investigator’s contribution to Tanaka put the integrity of the investigation in doubt. The inquiry was launched after retired Cmdr. Robert Olmsted told The Times that sheriff’s brass, including Baca and Tanaka, were either slow to act on his warnings about inmate abuse or ignored them altogether.
Olmsted and others have also said the donations create at least a perception of favoritism when it comes to promotions and work assignments. For example, Olmsted suggested that donations Capt. Daniel Cruz made to Tanaka were part of the reason the former Men’s Central Jail manager wasn’t transferred out of the lockup immediately, despite problems.
Olmsted, however, acknowledges that Tanaka did eventually move Cruz out of Men’s Central after complaints about his management style.
Molina’s motion asks the county’s attorneys to report back in 30 days about banning campaign solicitations by managers.
Molina said that when her staff members have run for office, they have solicited donations from colleagues, but never from subordinates.
“There’s nothing wrong with soliciting colleagues, but from subordinates it’s a whole different kind of thing,” she said.