Undersheriff Paul Tanaka speaks out against Sheriff Lee Baca


Tanaka and Sheriff Lee Baca are two longtime, close associates who now seem to be turning into fierce opponents.

"We used to have this saying amongst the top executives that our greatest job is to manage the sheriff and make sure that he doesn't do anything that we can't clean up," Tanaka said.

Tanaka was Baca's right-hand man for years, running the day-to-day operations of the largest sheriff's department in the country. But that close relationship ended after a storm of negative publicity and federal investigations. Tanaka said the sheriff suddenly became concerned about holding on to his office.

Tanaka said Baca asked him to step down from his position.

"He believes that he served my head, the highest-ranking head on a platter, to the detractors," Tanaka said, "He thought that would save him."

After years of working alongside Baca, Tanaka says he's now considering running against him. With that, it describes a largely disengaged sheriff who is suddenly trying to run the day-to-day operations. According to Tanaka, Baca is doing it poorly with orders that are inconsistent or worse.

"It's either improper or it's unethical or it just doesn't make any sense, so basically you have people doing their own thing, trying to do the best they possibly can," Tanaka said. "We're almost in a state of paralysis."

Tanaka claims Baca is "obsessed" by three things.

"He talks about it all the time," Tanaka said. "Playing politics is more important than being the sheriff. He is desperate to get re-elected, that's all he talks about. No. 3, he's obsessed with living to be 100. We sit in command staff meetings, you have very high-paid people, 15-20 of us, and these are the lectures we get for two or three hours on those very topics."

"The sheriff is just not going to get into a bickering discussion, if you will, with a soon-to-be, seems-to-be-angry, ex-employee making allegations that seem to be fueled by rumor and innuendo, trying to exact some form of revenge for imagined slights," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore, speaking on behalf of the sheriff.

Is Tanaka credible?

The sheriff acknowledges that Tanaka has been masterful with the budget. In tough economic times, Tanaka kept the department on track. He has a similar record as the mayor of Gardena, helping the city avoid bankruptcy, keeping it solvent and easily winning re-election.

There are, however, skeletons for Tanaka. There was a controversial shooting in 1988 and membership to an infamous gang of deputies called the Vikings.

Perhaps Tanaka's biggest scandal is Baca's as well: the handling of prisoners at the Men's Central Jail. A citizen's commission on jail violence report singled out Tanaka. It said, "The troubling role of Undersheriff Tanaka cannot be ignored. Not only did he fail to identify and correct problems in the jails, he exacerbated them."

"I did not have responsibility for the jails during this particular period of time that they are speaking of," Tanaka said in response to the report.

Baca faces serious scrutiny as well.

"I get a phone call from the sheriff on my cellphone and he was very upset - and that's to describe it mildly. He's upset because he wanted to know if we had confiscated a phone in our jails, a cellphone," Tanaka said.

According to Tanaka and other sources, that cellphone was given to an inmate by the FBI and that the inmate was an informant. The FBI was investigating the jails and those who run it.

"He said, 'I want you to make sure that thing is locked up and that thing is not going anywhere. Period. And I want that inmate interviewed and I don't want him to go anywhere,'" Tanaka said.

For a time, sheriff's officials changed the name of the inmate so he couldn't be found in the system. Even the FBI couldn't find him. The inmate ended up in state prison.

The federal investigation is still under way. So far, there have not been any indictments from that grand jury.

Baca respond to specific questions from Eyewitness News on the investigation. He did say he is fully cooperating.

Tanaka's last day with the sheriff's department is Aug. 1.

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