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Top Baca aide, pushed to quit, offers harsh appraisal of sheriff

Paul Tanaka, the Los Angeles County undersheriff accused of fostering a culture of jailhouse abuse, offered a searing critique of his boss Sheriff Lee Baca, calling him a confused and erratic leader who cares more about politics than public safety.

In his first extensive comments since being pressured to step down, Tanaka told The Times that Baca pushed subordinates to hire his friends and relatives and undermined public safety to settle political spats. For example, Tanaka said Baca demanded that all sheriff's deputies be removed from joint crime-fighting operations with the FBI as payback for a federal investigation of the jails — an order Tanaka said he refused to carry out.

Tanaka, who is considering a run against Baca in 2014, said he was speaking out because he feels he has been made a scapegoat for many of the agency's problems. Indeed, a blue-ribbon report last year blamed him and Baca for an abusive atmosphere inside the agency's jails. Several current and former sheriff's officials publicly singled out Tanaka for creating a climate in which aggression was prized, loyalty was placed above merit and discipline discouraged.

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

Tanaka said his reputation was unfairly tarnished by sheriff's officials who were upset that he was holding lazy supervisors accountable.

"They're not used to that," said Tanaka, who will remain on the county payroll as undersheriff until August. "In this organization, they're used to the higher you go, the less responsibility."

For years, Tanaka was one of Baca's most trusted advisors, rising in the ranks to run day-to-day operations as Baca's second in command. He said he and others kept the department running while Baca paid little attention to the agency and took numerous international trips that brought little benefit to Los Angeles County. Baca, he said, would boast about how "he gets to see the world without paying anything."

LIVE CHAT at 9 a.m.: Former top aide's critique of Sheriff Lee Baca

Tanaka said that after years of being a detached boss, Baca — in the face of scandal — has now become an unpredictable micromanager whose fits of anger have scared subordinates into inaction.

As a result, he said, the Sheriff's Department is a "house of cards that's on the verge of crumbling."

Baca's spokesman declined to discuss Tanaka's allegations in detail but said "the sheriff finds it very sad that his former undersheriff has raised these false charges motivated apparently by his personal disappointment and ambition. None of these allegations were made while he served as undersheriff. He raises them only now as he contemplates a run for sheriff."

Tanaka said he did not do so because Baca specifically ordered him and others not to speak to The Times.

Tanaka said Baca frequently gave subordinates contradictory or foolish orders that they had to ignore because they violated department policy or common sense. A few months ago, for example, he said Baca was in a meeting with command staff, talking about the department's budget shortfall, when he asked a subordinate to study the cost savings that would come from eliminating the agency's community policing unit.

A week later, at another meeting, that captain began discussing his findings about cutting the unit, when Tanaka says Baca interrupted.

"He stops and he says 'What did you say? What are you talking about?...I would never do anything like that,' " Tanaka recounted Baca as saying.

Tanaka said he had to call the sheriff later and remind him that the captain was "following your orders and you... embarrassed him."

Tanaka said the sheriff was silent on the other end of the phone, before meekly saying "Oh."

At other times, Tanaka said, the sheriff pressured underlings to be unethical for his benefit.

The Times has reported on two recruits, both with connections to Baca, who were hired under unusual circumstances. In one case, an applicant with ties to Baca's son was hired during a hiring freeze. In the other, Baca's nephew was hired although background investigators noted a fight with San Diego police, theft and arrests on suspicion of drunk driving and burglary.

In both cases, Baca said he wasn't involved in the hirings.

"I know he said he wasn't, but that's not true," Tanaka said, accusing Baca of pressuring subordinates to put both recruits through the academy.

In the case of Baca's nephew, Tanaka said a background investigator flagged the fight with police, but Baca took his nephew's side, saying it was the officer who was overly aggressive. (Since being hired, Baca's nephew has had a checkered career as a deputy, and he is being criminally investigated over force he used on an inmate in an incident caught on tape.)

"The sheriff treats this organization as his own personal employment agency. He brings in people he meets, these consultants, and he says 'Paul, I want them to have a contract, I want them to have a job,' " Tanaka said. "We're constantly over the years scrambling around trying to get people employed."

If he runs against Baca, Tanaka, who confirmed that he was pushed out, said he would focus on crime reduction and fiscal responsibility. He said he wanted to replicate his successes reducing the crime rate in Compton throughout the rest of the county.

He said the county commission examining jail abuse that slammed him last year relied on dishonest witnesses.

Richard Drooyan, the panel's general counsel, denied that characterization. "I stand by what's reflected in the report," he said. "It's up to ... the public to evaluate his comments and the timing of his comments."

One of the jail commission's primary witnesses against Tanaka, Capt. Patrick Maxwell, rejected Tanaka's assertion that the testimony was inaccurate: "If I told any lies in that commission, I could have been fired and I stand by my testimony."

Since the jail abuse scandal broke out, Baca has begun implementing a sweeping set of reforms to improve oversight, accountability and jailer conduct. The sheriff hired an outside corrections expert to take over his jails — and some critics praised his decision to push Tanaka out.

Tanaka also said that the sheriff played an intimate role in the department's handling of an inmate who was found to be secretly collecting information on allegedly abusive and corrupt jail deputies for the FBI. After a phone he was using to call his FBI handler was discovered, blowing his cover, sheriff's officials changed the name under which the inmate was being held and transferred him to a different jail.

A federal criminal grand jury has been investigating whether sheriff's officials were hiding the inmate and the phone from the FBI, or whether they were protecting the inmate from retaliation by jail deputies he was "snitching" on, as a sheriff's spokesman has said.

Tanaka said Baca ordered subordinates to keep the inmate from the FBI until the department finished with him. He said the sheriff explicitly denied a request from a federal official to return the phone.

"I want the inmate interviewed. I don't want him leaving our custody. I want the phone, all of the information removed from it and I don't want the phone to go anywhere," Baca said, according to Tanaka.

Asked if the sheriff was obstructing the FBI investigation, Tanaka said that he and other subordinates "had to really weigh" Baca's orders to avoid "cross[ing] the line of doing anything wrong."

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

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