At Wednesday night’s debate between those in the race for the office of LA county sheriff, an event put on by the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council, the six candidates who showed up began taking swings at each other right from the beginning.
Those present at this first public debate* prior to the June 3 primary were retired LASD lieutenant Pat Gomez, former undersheriff Paul Tanaka, Long Beach Chief of Police Jim McDonnell, LAPD detective Lou Vince, assistant sheriff Jim Hellmold, and former LASD commander Bob Olmsted.
(Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers was absent, due to a prior commitment to be interviewed by Warren Olney for Which Way LA?)
The questions that the council volleyed at the six men were largely thoughtful, but they were also general. Nobody directly challenged any of the candidates in their areas of vulnerability.
The candidates themselves, however, attempted to fill in that gap.
For example, when asked about what he would do to fix the corruption in the department, Bob Olmsted—the retired custody commander who was up first—fired off the night’s most frequently quoted soundbite.
“The fish rots from the head down,” he said, as the local news cameras rolled.
Then he ticked off a list of the LASD’s highest profile recent scandals including the fact that 20 department members have been indicted in the wake of an ongoing FBI probe into violence and corruption in the LASD. “None of this occurred in a vacuum,” he said. “It occurred with the knowledge and the acceptance of people on the department…..I will not tolerate dishonesty, civil rights issues, malfeasance…”
For anyone conversant with the various players on the candidates’ panel, this was a slam first and foremost against Paul Tanaka, (whom the Citizen’s Committed on Jail Violence had criticized harshly in its 2012 report) but also against the two assistant sheriffs, Jim Hellmold and the absent Todd Rogers.
In that same vein, Olmsted talked about a “continuous catastrophic failure of leadership and internal corruption” that “cost the taxpayers of Los Angeles over 100 million [in lawsuits} in the last three years."
Hellmold, who sat next to Olmsted and so was next in line to answer, countered immediately. "He was in charge when all of this occurred, so he already has tolerated malfeasance,” Hellmold said with a nod Olmsted's direction, characterizing his neighbor on the panel as "an ineffective leader."
This precipitated a cheer from the 50 or so Tanaka supporters who jammed the back of the room wearing red or white t-shirts emblazoned with their guy's name.
Hoping to head off such outbursts the council president, George Thomas, who was moderating the debate, had cautioned audience members to hold any applause and the like until the event's end. He now fixed the noisy Tanaka-ites with an enforcement stare.
Jim McDonnell also used the phrase "catastrophic failure of leadership", and poked at those candidates who are or were recently at the top of the department.
"We heard over and over again," he said, "'I didn’t know, I don’t recall. Nobody told me.' We didn't need to have one deputy indicted" he said. "If they had been held to a high standard, their families would be intact. Their freedom wouldn't be at stake."
With a clear swipe at pay-to-play accusations against Paul Tanaka, McDonnell also announced that he was the only candidate who had sworn not to take any money from those working for him or from members of the LASD.
(In fact, Jim Hellmold too has made the same pledge.)
Pat Gomez leveled similar criticism when he said that he would request that the FBI do a forensic audit of the department's finances. "Mr. Tanaka talked about being a CPA," he said. "Yet the auditor released a report in January and said that $138 million in funds were mishandled from special accounts within this department. Who's responsible for that?"
Tanaka struck back at various points citing what he characterized as the inexperience and, in the case of McDonnell, the outsider status of his rivals. "As a 31 year veteran of the department I'm the only candidate who has the institutional knowledge that will be critical for restoring trust and credibility to the organization. The job of sheriff is too big and too important for on the job training."
GETTING IN A RUNOFF
One of the debate's undercurrents was the fact that, due to the large number of hopefuls in the race, it is unlikely that the June primary will produce a winner.
The matter is intensified by the the fact that some election watchers suggest Jim McDonnell---with his extensive resume and his list of high profile endorsements---is the closest thing to a frontrunner in the contest. If that is so, he will occupy one of the slots in the runoff, leaving only one up for grabs between the rest.
Thus it may not be enough for the remaining candidates to merely impress voters with their own stellar qualities. They also must to find a way to knock a couple of others out of the running---or at the very least, dirty them up a bit.
A few of the questions pertained to specific LASD policy issues---things like the use or misuse of red light cameras (most of the candidates were at least moderately for the cameras, with the exception of Gomez and Vince, who disliked the things), and what the candidates would do about issuing concealed weapons permits, or CCWs, which California's 58 county sheriffs and the state's police chiefs are authorized to grant,
The topic of CCWs has heated up in recent weeks following the decision last month by the 9th circuit Court of Appeals in which the court made it much easier to get the permits. (The 9th Circuit's ruling has been appealed to the US Supreme court.)
Paul Tanaka, who of the group has consistently been the strongest proponent for CCWs, talked about the Second Amendment. "I support that being able to possess a CCW is a right not a privilege."
McDonnell said he thought it prudent to wait to see what SCOTUS did in order to avoid future lawsuits, as did Olmsted, who added that he would require those to whom he granted CCWs to go through a rigorous certification and training equal to that of active deputies.
Lou Vince was another CCW enthusiast. "Right now the only people who have guns are the crooks," he said. "And that's just not fair."
Only Hellmold said that, in fact, he's in favor of anything that limits CCWs. "In 2005 when I arrived in Compton, there were over 400 shootings where our young men in Compton were struck by gunfire. I do not want more firearms in the street. If each of these candidates for the sake of perhaps getting the NRA to support them says that they would issue CCWs...how many hundreds of thousands of CCWs would you issue? Or are you just saying it for the for the soundbite? You know who it impacts? It impacts our young kids in some of the inner city areas...."
On other issues, Vince had a list of specifics as to how he'd lower the ever-problematic population of the LA County jails, including a pre-trial release risk assessment strategy that could help insure that people awaiting trial were not unnecessarily clogging the jail system simply due to an inability to pay their bail.
When it came to what kind of oversight the various candidates thought the department required, five of them described the various ways they embraced civilian oversight, whereas Gomez called the existing watchdogs, including the newly appointed inspector general, a waste of money. Tigers with no teeth. "[The IG] has no authority to do anything. So that’s a waste of taxpayer dollars,” he said.
As to who won the debate, in a quick poll of some of the council members found their opinions to be all over the place. They would have to wait and see, most said. But this was a good beginning.
PS: IF YOU WANT TO LISTEN TO ROGERS ON WHICH WAY LA? You can find the podcast here.
*Most of the candidates participated in a private forum last month organized by the LASD deputies’ union, ALADS (Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs).
AND IN OTHER NEWS….AN INTERVIEW WITH U.S. ATTORNEY ANDRE BIROTTE
The LA Times’ Patt Morrison interviewed US Attorney Andre Birotte, and it’s definitely something you’ll want to read.
Here are some relevant clips:
Do you expect more sheriff indictments?
The investigation is ongoing. We go where the evidence takes us.
Are all of those indicted going to trial?
This is high-stakes litigation. When we charge cases, we go in with the assumption that it’s going to trial. We make sure we dot our I’s, cross our Ts and say how is this going to play out to a jury?
Some deputies have volunteered information to your office. Why?
Some think it’s the right thing to do. I think there are some who thought these kinds of matters would not be looked at very seriously by other officials, and I’m speculating, but I gather there may be some who, once the indictments were announced, realized the government was serious and decided maybe it is time to come forward and tell the truth as to what they observed or may know.
Was any kind of deal discussed for or with then-Sheriff Lee Baca?
I can’t comment as [to how] it relates to Sheriff Baca’s sudden and unexpected [retirement]. We have an ongoing investigation; I can’t say more than that.