As he campaigns for Los Angeles County sheriff, Paul Tanaka is making a pitch to the gun-rights community by promising to reform the way the department handles permits for concealed weapons, or CCWs. In a statement on his campaign website, Tanaka calls himself "a strong supporter of the Second Amendment," and laments that L.A. is one of the toughest counties in the state in which to get a permit.
Tanaka also alludes to allegations that Sheriff Lee Baca, his opponent and former boss, takes a more liberal approach to issuing permits when the applicant happens to be a friend or supporter — allegations covered by the Weekly last year ("Sheriff Lee Baca and the Gun-Gift Connection," Feb. 15). As sheriff, Tanaka said, he will issue permits "without favoritism."
Yet Tanaka's record of handling concealed weapons has been more complicated. For a two-year period when he was Baca's undersheriff, Tanaka was in charge of issuing concealed-weapons permits. In that time, he denied the vast majority of applications he received. Of the few he approved, one went to a billionaire movie producer who is now a key supporter of his campaign.
Tanaka declined to be interviewed for this story. At a campaign event in Azusa on Nov. 21, he turned and walked away rather than discuss the issue.
However, he did respond in writing to a series of emailed questions, stating in part that when he worked for Baca, he was implementing Baca's policies, not his own. "During my time as Undersheriff, my handling of the CCW permits was a direct reflection of the policies I was responsible to uphold by my former boss," he wrote.
Steve Whitmore, Baca's spokesman, takes issue with that.
"How long before Mr. Tanaka takes responsibility for anything?" Whitmore asks. "Or is it always going to be 'I was only following orders?' "
The sheriff's policy is to issue permits only to individuals who face a "clear and present danger" that cannot be handled by police. Judges and prosecutors typically can obtain permits without much difficulty, but for everyone else it is a hard standard to meet.
In practice, the undersheriff essentially has total discretion over which permits are issued.
That policy worked to the benefit of longtime sheriff's supporter Ryan Kavanaugh, CEO of Relativity Media. Tanaka defended issuing a permit to Kavanaugh, saying it was in response to threats the CEO had received.
In August 2012, Kavanaugh was one of six executives who received extortion letters from an out-of-work actor. The letters included threats to kill family members unless the victims wired millions of dollars to an offshore account. The actor, Vivek Shah, was promptly arrested and later sentenced to seven years in prison.
In September 2012, Kavanaugh sent Tanaka an email advising him of the extortion plot and asking about the procedure for obtaining a concealed-weapons permit. Kavanaugh then filed a formal application.
Tanaka granted Kavanaugh's application in January 2013, authorizing him to carry a concealed Smith & Wesson .380-caliber Bodyguard and a Sig Sauer .40-caliber handgun.
In his email to the Weekly, Tanaka said that granting the permit was consistent with the department's policy. But at the time Kavanaugh applied for the permit, he was hardly facing "clear and present danger": The man who'd threatened him was already in custody.
What Kavanaugh had instead was a cozy relationship with the Sheriff's Department, which included raising more than $150,000 for the Sheriff's Youth Fund.
Applicants without such ties found their applications rejected.
Csaba Palfi, a criminal defense attorney who handles gang cases, says he received an extortion threat, in which an anonymous person threatened to kill him unless he paid some amount of money. He called the police, but the suspect was never identified.
As an attorney representing gang defendants, he also has received veiled threats from clients over the years.
The extortion incident prompted Palfi to try to get a concealed-weapons permit. Tanaka denied his application.
"I think the entire process is arbitrary and capricious," Palfi says. "It's just unfair. There's no other way to describe it. It's not like I'm going to walk around being Roy Rogers."
Lawrence Dupre, who owns a limousine service, said he has been trying for some time to get a CCW permit. He has been robbed twice, he says — once at gunpoint and once with a knife. He also does some security work, and said he and his family have received anonymous threatening letters.
He was turned down twice, once by Tanaka and again by Todd Rogers, the assistant sheriff who now handles permit requests. Dupre has a permit from Utah, which is recognized in many other states, though not in California.
"In the state of California, L.A. is the toughest," Dupre says. "They deny 'em before you put 'em in."
As Kavanaugh learned, even getting a permit is no guarantee of keeping it. In February, Kavanaugh angered some department members by landing his helicopter at a sheriff's facility when arriving for a meeting with Tanaka.
Rules for keeping a concealed-weapons permit stipulate that the carrier must not "impede law enforcement officers in the conduct or performance of their duties." The fateful landing took place during the manhunt for Christopher Dorner. The Sheriff's Aero Bureau believed Kavanaugh had violated the rules regarding landing rights, Whitmore says.
At the time, Tanaka's relationship with Baca was fraying. Tanaka had been singled out in a report of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence as one of those responsible for creating a harmful culture within the department — a culture that ultimately led to last week's indictment of 18 sheriff's employees on charges of abuse and obstruction, and to the U.S. Attorney's assertion that misconduct had become "institutionalized."
The department went so far as to launch a criminal investigation of Kavanaugh for obstructing police activity, though the district attorney declined to file charges. The executive's attorneys have alleged that the investigation was Baca's revenge for Kavanaugh's support of Tanaka.
Tanaka announced his retirement in March. On July 1, Rogers sent Kavanaugh a letter advising that his concealed-weapons permit was being revoked "because you failed to abide by the terms for carrying a concealed weapon" — a reference to the helicopter incident, Whitmore says.
Another reason cited by Whitmore, however, was that Kavanaugh was no longer in danger because the person who tried to extort him was behind bars. Of course, that man was also in custody when Tanaka issued the permit.
Kavanaugh's attorney wrote another letter protesting the revocation and demanding to know the reason for it. No explanation was given. (Kavanaugh's spokesman declined comment.)
In his email to the Weekly, Tanaka called the revocation "suspicious." If elected, he wrote, "I would reinstate the permit if a valid reason still existed."
The CCW issue gives Tanaka a way to differentiate himself from the man he's challenging. Like Baca, Tanaka is a Republican. But unlike his longtime boss, he's campaigning on a conservative message — a sharp contrast to Baca's record of promoting a more liberal social agenda.
At the campaign event in Azusa, Tanaka vowed to "get back to basics of what you ... pay cops to do for a living ... fight crime, take the bad guys to jail and make every community safer."
He continued: "We have to get back to that business of focusing on our core mission, nothing else. We can't be getting sidetracked by issues that don't relate."
Among gun-rights advocates, his message may well resonate, says Chuck Michel, a Long Beach attorney who represents the National Rifle Association.
"We would support any candidate who wants to move the ball downfield on making it easier to get a license to carry a firearm in public," Michel says. "Tanaka's policy is a step in the right direction, and gets away from the cronyism and politics of the current process."