Prison-Bound Paul Tanaka Is Out as Mayor of Gardena

Prison-Bound Paul Tanaka Is Out as Mayor of GardenaEXPAND
Photo by Ted Soqui

Paul Tanaka, once the heir apparent to Sheriff Leroy Baca, was convicted today of two felony charges for conspiracy and obstructing an FBI investigation into jail abuse. He faces up to 15 years in federal prison.

Though the conviction brings to a close the corruption scandals that plagued the last years of Baca's administration, it does not have much practical impact on the current Sheriff's Department. Tanaka, who had broad authority as Baca's undersheriff, was forced to resign three years ago. The new sheriff, Jim McDonnell, crushed Tanaka in the 2014 election, and Tanaka's influence there is now largely a historical matter.

Where the conviction will have a major impact is in the city of Gardena, where Tanaka has served on the City Council for 17 years, the last 11 as mayor.

Once he is sentenced, on June 20, Tanaka will be forced to resign, according to Peter Wallin, the Gardena city attorney. The other four council members then have 60 days to appoint a replacement or call a special election.

Regardless of how he was seen in the rest of the county, Tanaka was popular in Gardena. He won re-election in 2013 even though he did not campaign, and despite widespread controversy over his involvement in the sheriff's jailhouse abuse scandal. Gardena was the only city that voted for Tanaka in the sheriff's race.

Gardena is a diverse, working-class suburb of about 59,000 people. Its best-known landmark is probably the Hustler Casino. The politics tend to be pretty sleepy. The part-time council meets once or twice a month. Aside from passing a budget and approving the occasional development, not much of note happens.

Tanaka defeated Mayor Terrence Terauchi in 2005, relying heavily on canvassing and phone-banking from sheriff's deputies. Tanaka was later accused of showing favoritism at the department to deputies who contributed to his campaign.

As mayor, Tanaka ran a tight ship. Meetings tended to be brief. Terry Kennedy, a veteran Gardena council watcher, once told the Weekly that council members would apologize to Tanaka for speaking longer than three minutes.

"He doesn't broker extraneous conversation," Kennedy said. "They know who's boss. He's the boss. He's in charge."

When he was charged with obstructing an FBI investigation into jail abuse last year, Tanaka announced he would take a leave of absence from the council. However, he never did. He continued to run meetings without any apparent objection.

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