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Above the Law

Teflon Sheriff Lee Baca Has a Shadow Leader in Paul Tanaka, Report Says: Jail Beating Problems Lead Back to Him?

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Fri, Dec 9, 2011 at 8:06 AM

click to enlarge Tanaka. - LASD / WITNESSLA
  • LASD / WitnessLA
  • Tanaka.
The decade-long accusations of unjust inmate beatings by deputies at the L.A. County Jail has only recently caught the attention of the man we call the Teflon Sheriff, Lee Baca.

We had our doubts when the elected lawman said he really didn't know what was going on in the nation's largest jail system: Headlines have been coming at him since the dawn of the millennium.

But a new report in the website WitnessLA states that Baca is kept away from bad news like Michael Jackson in a Holmby Hills mansion, and that the jails have been run mainly by his right-hand yes man:

Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

That might explain our moniker for Baca -- the Teflon Sheriff, because bad news doesn't seem to stick.

WitnessLA's Matthew Fleischer reports that Tanaka soaks up the bad news and then decides what to sugar-coat to Baca at weekly Wednesday meetings. That way the sheriff gets to deny he knew about problems like the jail beatings, a source tells Witness.

In an unusual arrangement that seems to subvert the normal chain of command, the site says that a top jail supervisor reports directly to Tanaka and not the man who would be his normal supervisor.

And thus, arguably, chaos in the jails.

The Weekly's Chris Vogel reported in his cover story in May, "Men's County Jail Visitor Viciously Beaten by Guards," that things had gotten so bad in county lockup that even a jail visitor was viciously beaten by guards. That seemed to set off a flurry of renewed reporting on the problems, and in June the Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI had infiltrated the jails for a investigation of its own into the beating allegations.

Witness started a three-part series on problems in the jails in September.

This week's Part 3 gives a rare view of what it describes as the department's true day-to-day shadow leader, Tanaka, who strangely is also the mayor of the city of Gardena.

The report argues that Tanaka is being groomed for Baca's job and that, in the meantime, he has promoted and punished cops in the department depending on whether or not they've supported his political campaigns:

Campaign finance records we acquired from Tanaka's Gardena political campaigns through Public Records Act requests, together with internal Sheriff's Department documents obtained by the LA Justice Report, back our sources' contentions. Tanaka campaign donors--often with troubled or mediocre service records--have found themselves in critical supervisory positions in the department in lieu of more qualified individuals. The result of this in-crowd/out-crowd system is a department beset by violence in its jails, insubordination in its ranks and multiple federal investigations into criminal misdeeds--a large part of which, argue our sources, can be traced to Paul Tanaka's rise.

Yeah, you don't want to be on the wrong end of a nightstick belonging to a Tanaka supporter, sounds like. Conversely, if you're a career criminal who expects to interact with the fine men and women of L.A. County Jail, you could always donate ...

[@dennisjromero / djromero@laweekly.com / @LAWeeklyNews]

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