A program called "Friends of the Sheriff" was open to certain people who applied for jobs with the department, even applicants with questionable backgrounds. But despite its name, Sheriff Lee Baca says he knew nothing about the program.
"I never authorized some organizational structure called, 'Friends of the Sheriff,'" said Baca.
The program has been around for more than eight years, but Baca says he didn't know about it until recently, and he says it has been dismantled.
"I shut it down. I said, 'This is a misleading title. It gives a connotation it's negative,'" said Baca.
The sheriff's statements are backed up by a 2009 report by the Office of Independent Review. It says that applicants in the program were not given preferential treatment. The report goes on to say, "The sheriff himself actually knows virtually none of the individuals on the list. The Friends of the Sheriff's list might more aptly be titled 'Applicants Who Know Someone on the Sheriff's Department.'"
"The sheriff's department has 18,000 employees and we're in a process of taking tens of thousands of applications annually. This isn't something that a person in my position can put his hands on and say, 'OK, I should know every aspect of 10,000 applications plus per year,'" Baca said.
Baca's comments drew sharp criticism from two former high-ranking sheriff's officials who are also candidates for sheriff.
"He is once again attempting to shift the blame to other people," said Paul Tanaka, a retired undersheriff who announced his candidacy earlier this year. "If he is denying knowledge of anything, that is just his way of trying to escape accountability."
Bob Olmstead is a former commander who retired earlier this year from the department. He says his campaign research shows that voters are losing faith in Baca.
"You can only say, 'I didn't know. No one told me,' so many times before people start to look at it and say, 'Come on, the buck stops at the top,'" said Olmstead.
But the 71-year-old Baca, who is seeking his fifth term as sheriff, says his challengers are grasping at straws.
"My opponents don't know how to handle criticism, but even more so, they create problems for the county," said Baca.
Voters still have time to make a decision. The election for sheriff isn't until next November.