Paul Tanaka is a Republican, and he's running for sheriff on a “law and order” platform with an emphasis on fiscal restraint. So he must have expected to get a warm reception when he went on “The John and Ken Show” on KFI AM 640 last night.
It didn't work out that way. Tanaka was interrogated for 30 minutes on his involvement in the department's jail scandals, his membership in a deputy clique, and his close connection to Sheriff Lee Baca. Tanaka seemed unprepared for the onslaught, and had little to say in his own defense.
It was a disaster.
Tanaka was a key member of Baca's inner circle going back to Baca's first election in 1998. In 2011, he ascended to undersheriff – the No. 2 job in the department. Tanaka's decision last year to run against Baca was one of the factors that forced Baca to resign earlier this month.
But Baca's withdrawal has left Tanaka in the unfortunate position of being the candidate with the closest connection to Baca's litany of scandals. And while much is known about Tanaka's troubled tenure in Baca's administration, many questions remain. That's not a good position to be in as you're attempting to introduce yourself to voters.
John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, the hosts of “The John and Ken Show,” began by asking Tanaka a number of questions about the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the sheriff's handling of an FBI informant. Last month, seven deputies were indicted on charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice for allegedly attempting to thwart the FBI's investigation of jail violence. Federal investigators are still looking into the case, and many people believe that Tanaka remains a target.
On the radio, Tanaka refused to answer most of the questions about the probe, saying it was an ongoing investigation. That's an excuse that police often give for refusing to talk about a case – but it's not often heard from the suspects.
Tanaka is, of course, perfectly free to defend himself in whatever venue he chooses. If he decides to clam up, it's probably because his own lawyer told him not to say anything that could get him in further trouble. That's good legal advice, but it's not great political advice, as the following exchange makes clear:
KOBYLT: We've got a huge scandal that forced Baca out. You were his No. 2 guy while this scandal was unfolding. You don't want to talk about it but you expect us to trust you as the next sheriff?
TANAKA: Thirty-three years in this business, if I could finish –
KOBYLT: Yeah, it's a pretty checkered 33 years.
Most of the interview was like that. Tanaka had very little to say for himself, other than that he had been in law enforcement for 33 years and it would be inappropriate to comment on anything else.
Tanaka bobbed and weaved when asked about the Vikings, the group of deputies once characterized by a judge as a white supremacist gang. Tanaka was a member of the group – he still has his Vikings tattoo – but does not believe it was a gang.
“I was never a member of a gang,” he said.
When asked about some of the abuses that the Vikings were accused of, Tanaka again clammed up, repeatedly saying that he was not a party to the lawsuit. Kobylt wasn't buying it.
“You're pretending you have no memory of this,” Kobylt said. “What kind of game are you playing here?”
Unfortunately for Tanaka, it doesn't end there. If he comes up with explanations for this stuff, he may still find himself answering questions about Hong Pyo Lee, the 21-year-old motorist that he and other deputies shot to death in 1988. The county ended up paying $999,999 to the Lee family to settle a civil rights lawsuit. Even with half an hour of airtime, John and Ken didn't have time to get to that.
Chiampou ended the interview by asking Tanaka to come on again, “if you can hang in this race… this is just the beginning, Paul, of these kinds of questions.”
After Tanaka left, Kobylt said, “I don't think he answered a single question directly.” He also noted that “one of Tanaka's aides was livid” about the interview.