Bob Olmsted Blew the Whistle on Sheriff Lee Baca. Now He Wants Baca's Job | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

Bob Olmsted Blew the Whistle on Sheriff Lee Baca. Now He Wants Baca's Job 

Thursday, Nov 14 2013

Bob Olmsted has an odd hobby: He enjoys restoring vintage gas pumps. He picks them up at flea markets and outfits them with period decals. He watches a lot of American Pickers, the History Channel's reality show about antique hunters, so he knows something about the market. He says the pumps are worth a lot of money.

When Olmsted retired from the L.A. County Sheriff's Department three years ago, that's what he figured he'd spend most of his time doing. That, and traveling to minor league ballparks to watch his son pitch.

It has not worked out that way. Olmsted, 62, is now an unlikely candidate for sheriff, running a long-shot campaign against the entrenched incumbent, Lee Baca, as well as Baca's former top lieutenant, Paul Tanaka. Both Tanaka and Baca have years of political experience and deep networks of support. Both also have spent years running the department.

click to flip through (2) PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Bob Olmsted's retirement plans did not include running for sheriff.
  • Bob Olmsted's retirement plans did not include running for sheriff.

Olmsted has none of that. What he has is a story.

He was a whistle-blower. He was the highest-ranking person to expose abuse of inmates in Baca's jails — a scandal that has battered the department and tarnished Baca's reputation.

Olmsted agonized about blowing the whistle. He had considered Baca a mentor. But once he decided to do it, he committed all the way. He first went to the FBI. After that, he went public, telling everything he knew to reporters. When the county held hearings on jail violence last year, Olmsted was a star witness.

Baca was wounded but showed no intention of stepping aside. Olmsted had hoped someone else would run against him. But the only one who stepped up was Tanaka, who Olmsted believed was even worse. Baca merely ignored the problems; Tanaka caused many of them.

So Olmsted decided he would have to run himself. So much for the gas pumps, the minor league baseball games and the quiet retirement.

"It's almost a duty at this point," he says.

But it's one thing to blow the whistle on wrongdoing. It's quite another to run for office. Olmsted's candidacy is sort of like Edward Snowden deciding to run for president of the United States.

Olmsted is a political neophyte. But even most neophytes have spent more time planning to run for office than he has.

"His Rolodex is not huge," says John Thomas, his political strategist. "He's scrambling."

On a recent Monday, Olmsted has an appointment at the Jonathan Club, the downtown refuge for the city's most fortunate. He's addressing about 30 men — mostly retirees — who belong to a service organization called the Vikings.

Olmsted has long been involved with the group, but so has Baca. He has to be careful.

"I'm not here to bash Lee," he says at the outset. "I love Lee Baca."

There are no mass rallies in local politics. Ten million people live in the county, but only a few dozen of them can be expected to show up at any given time and place to hear a political speech. People have other things to do.

After 15 years as sheriff, Lee Baca is the master of this style of campaigning. His life is a succession of ribbon cuttings, funerals, chicken dinners and swearing-in ceremonies for small-town politicians. It's not even campaigning. It's just what he does. No matter how minor the occasion, Baca can be expected to show up, in uniform, often with an official scroll under his arm.

It's all new to Olmsted, though, and he's still trying to get the hang of it. As the Vikings dig into their pork chops, he tries to tell his story in a way that will connect.

"Have you ever had to go outside your organization to accomplish goodness?" he asks.

Apparently no one has.

"That's a hard thing to do," he continues. "I lost about three days of sleep before I decided to go to the feds."

With his white cop mustache, Olmsted has the manner of a friendly DARE officer. He talks about the scandal, and how the culture of violence within the jails can have a lasting effect on deputies when they go out into the streets. But he's a little vague on what needs to be done to fix it.

"The only way to bring a change to the internal culture of the organization is we need to change the heart of the people in the organization," he says.

That's not really a plan, but the audience doesn't seem too interested in changing the culture of the jails anyway. Instead, when the questions come, they focus on the expense of housing inmates (too much) and the amount of time that inmates serve (not enough).

One questioner asks about addressing overcrowding in the jails through outsourcing to private facilities, and Olmsted latches onto it.

"You can't not look at privatization," he says. "If private industry can do it at a better cost, then that's something we need to explore."

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