Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, the #2 person in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department command structure right under Sheriff Lee Baca, announced his resignation on Wednesday during the sheriff’s Executive Planning Committee.
For most Los Angeles residents the announcement of the undersheriff’s exit was of little consequence. People were, of course, very familiar with LA’s popular—if now beleaguered—Sheriff Lee Baca, but Tanaka—the sheriff’s right hand man and longtime consigliere—had always flown largely under the media radar.
Yet for those inside and close to the nation’s fourth largest policing agency, the departure of the undersheriff was of enormous significance. The big question for Tanaka’s supporters and detractors, was what exactly did this abrupt leave-taking mean?
To begin with, according to department sources, the announcement was stunningly unexpected, and was greeted by most among the executive group who first heard it with genuine shock.
The official press release, which was put out hastily at mid-afternoon on Wednesday, did little to answer any questions. It began:
Undersheriff Paul Tanaka today announced his retirement to the Sheriff and the Department’s executive staff. His retirement will be effective August 1, 2013….
Then the release ticked off some of the undersheriff’s postings and accomplishments during his 33 years on the job with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and little more.
Those familiar with county employment rules guessed that the August 1 exit date was likely picked because it is shortly after the undersheriff’s 55th birthday in July. And fifty-five is the magic age for LA County employees who wish to get their full retirement.
But of course the real question was not so much when Mr. Tanaka was leaving, as it was why?**
THE MOST POWERFUL MAN IN LOS ANGELES YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF
It is hard to find a more polarizing figure in contemporary Los Angeles law enforcement than Paul Tanaka.
Until recently, Tanaka has been viewed as a sort-of shadow sheriff, the person behind Sheriff Lee Baca whom many saw as holding the real power in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
WitnessLA’s Matt Fleischer first broke the news in December 2011 that the largely unknown Mr. Tanaka wielded a startling amount of control in the LASD, which—-with 18,000 employees—is the largest sheriff’s department in the world, and runs the nation’s largest jail system.
Since our report, Tanaka has come under scrutiny by the FBI for his part in what has been described as a culture of violence inside Men’s Central Jail, and he may also be the focus of a federal grand jury probe into allegations that LASD management ordered jails personnel to hide an FBI informant from his handlers by moving the man in secret from place to place inside the county jail system, using a string of phony names and false inmate ID numbers.
Starting in early 2012, WitnessLA issued a series of additional reports on what was widely perceived inside the department as a system of patronage run by Mr. Tanaka, in which loyalty and, in many cases, cash donations to Tanaka’s political campaigns, were rewarded when it came to promotions—instead of merit.
(NOTE: Along with being the LASD undersheriff, Tanaka is the mayor of the city of Gardena.)
(See reports on alleged pay-to-play here, here and here.)
In February, the reports caused Supervisor Gloria Molina to introduce a motion to prohibit county supervisors from asking for or accepting campaign contributions.
As the year wore on, the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence—which included four federal judges and a chief of police—delved further into the undersheriff’s practices as they investigated the jail violence in general. In their final report, issued in September 2012, the commission stopped just short of ordering the sheriff to fire Tanaka, but they critiqued what they saw as the undersheriff’s mismanagement and misconduct in the harshest of terms, and strongly advised that he be removed from any oversite of the custody division, and even suggested—albiet delicately, as it was outside their mission—that the same prohibition apply to any Tanaka oversight of street patrol. Here is a snippet of what they wrote:
“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. The Commission learned about his ill-advised statements and decisions from a wide array of witnesses and sources. Over the course of several years, the Undersheriff encouraged deputies to push the legal boundaries of law enforcement activities and created an environment that discouraged accountability for misconduct. His repeated statements that deputies should work in an undefined “grey” area contributed to a perception by some deputies that they could use excessive force in the jails and that their aggressive behavior would not result in discipline”
The 194-page report went on in that vein, including a description of the “belief,” among deputies regarding the unaccountably powerful undersheriff who seemed to skip, at will, over the department’s paramilitary chain-of-command, “that patronage and favoritism matter more than merit.”
Shortly after the report was delivered, the sheriff forced into retirement several of those who who had some responsibility for the deputy-abuse-of-jail-inmates scandal—most notably Assistant Sheriff Marvin Cavanaugh, and Chief of Custody Operations. Dennis Burns. Yet Baca seemed stubbornly disinclined to hold his second-in-command accountable, telling the Citizen’s Commission during his testimony last year, that he had no intention of disciplining or getting rid of the undersheriff, that he was too crucial, particularly when it cames to balancing the department’s $2.5 billion budget.
“Paul Tanaka is uniquely suited to be the undersheriff,” Baca said. “When you go through two recessions, you need a CPA.”
(Among his other skills, Tanaka is a certified public accountant.)
Nevertheless, in a nod to the commission’s allegations, the sheriff announced that the department had launched an internal affairs investigation into the undersheriff’s conduct. He also insisted that, from there on out, the undersheriff would mostly be the department’s CFO, applying his magic to the budget, but would no longer have any control over the jails or the patrol divisions, or over the investigative bureaus like internal affairs, which Tanaka had taken over for a period.
Yet, at the same time, as recently as late last October, Baca continued to defend Tanaka both in public and in private.
As the year came to a close, however, Baca’s attitude reportedly took a measurable turn. Sources inside and close to the department tell us of “an uneasy rift” between Mr. Tanaka and the sheriff in the last few months, which became “very noticeable” before Christmas 2012.
“I think that all the things began to add up for the sheriff,” said one source. “The talk of pay-to-play, the cigar club, the whole thing of working the grey, the way the federal investigations were handled, the problems in the jails, and all the rest.”
Another source said that Baca was also upset when Tanaka, who had promised the sheriff that he would not run for mayor of Gardena again, pulled out of the race after first registering and scaring off most other candidates, but pulling out so late that his name had to remain on the all-ready-printed ballot. Then, although he professed non-interest in running, he allowed fundraising and a surrogate campaign in his behalf to be launched by the Gardena Police Department, reportedly complete with clusters of Tanaka yard signs blooming on lawns all over the city.
Tanaka was easily re-elected mayor of Gardena on Tuesday. His retirement was abruptly announced on Wednesday.
SO WHO LEFT WHOM?
Counter to what sources inside and close to the department tell us, according to Sheriff’s department spokesman Steve Whitmore, the decision to leave was Tanaka’s alone, that he simply felt it was time to move on, and that the sheriff himself only learned of the undersheriff’s retirement plans on Tuesday, the day before the announcement.
Mr. Whitmore said that Tanaka has chosen to retire in order to spend more time with his family. “When I talked to him about it,” said Whitmore, “he pointed to a picture of his three-and-a-half year old son that sits behind his desk and told me, ‘That’s why!’ You have to remember,” said Whitmore, “the undersheriff is 54, so he didn’t become a father until he was past 50.”
The department “is losing a dedicated public servent,” said Whitmore. “He will be sorely missed. His departure leaves a big hole.”
When queried, Whitmore said that the internal affairs investigation into allegations against Tanaka will continue, despite the undersheriff’s announcement.
He also said that, in Tanaka’s time remaining on the job, he will shepherd the department’s budget to its completion date in June.
WHAT EFFECT WILL TANAKA’S DEPARTURE HAVE?
If Paul Tanaka’s resignation/retirement leaves a hole, as Steve Whitmore suggests, what does that newly-opened gap portend?
Miriam Krinsky, the Jail’s Commission’s executive director, reiterated the “troubling reports” about Tanaka that the commission uncovered in the course of its investigations, and characterized the undersheriff’s exit as very welcome news that is potentially favorable for the department.
“I certainly hope,” she said, “that the decision of the undersheriff provides the department with the opportunity to look for someone who can help create a new and really positive culture in the jails.”
Peter Eliasberg, the legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, was also surprised and pleased by the news.
“Any time you’re talking about changing the culture of a large organization, a big part is making sure that the right people are in charge and the wrong people aren’t. The change of one person like Tanaka isn’t a silver bullet, but I think it’s potentially quite significant.
Both Krinsky and Eliasberg emphasized that much will depend on who replaces Paul Tanaka.
According to Steve Whitmore, however, Sheriff Baca is “not considering any replacement” for the departing undersheriff, at least not for a while.
It has long been actively rumored that much of Paul Tanaka’s management style has been aimed at gathering a base of power in order to succeed Lee Baca as sheriff of LA County.
Last summer, in fact, former LASD Commander Robert Olmsted told me that Tanaka had unapologetically confided to him that the reason he needed to ensure that the “right” people were in supervisory positions in the department, was so that those loyalists were in place when he, Tanaka, became sheriff. “He said Waldie (who was then the undersheriff) Cavanaugh and the Sheriff are all old, and that they would be retiring very soon, and he expected to hold the position after Sheriff Baca, ‘for the next fifteen years.’”
Unbelievably, even with the storm of scandals ever-quickening around Tanaka, as recently as the past few months, the undersheriff was reportedly working behind the scenes to make sure “his” people were elected to crucial positions on the boards of the two LASD unions—ALADS and PPOA—plus LA county’s law enforcement fraternal organizations like BPOA (Black Peace Officer’s Association of Los Angeles County) and HAPCOA (Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association)—all organizations that, if they lined up behind a single candidate, could have a significant influence.
On Wednesday, however, Mr. Tanaka told Daily Breeze reporter Sandy Mazza that he has no plans to run for Los Angeles County Sheriff.
But then again, Tanaka also said repeatedly that he was not running for Mayor of Gardena. Yet, on Wednesday, the day he announced his retirement, he officially accepted the post for a third term.
LINKS TO TANAKA TESTIMONY: When I was on Warren Olney’s Which Way LA? on Thursday, there was discussion about testimony given by Undersheriff Paul Tanaka at the Jail’s Commission hearing, and some dispute about what the undersheriff said and in what context. With those questions in mind, here’s a link to the transcript from the hearing and also a link to the audio from that same hearing. In addition to providing some excellent background information into the problems inside the jails that were being investigated, this hearing in particular is great theater.
** This section of this story was expanded on March 10, 2013