The Downfall of Sheriff Baca

Lee Baca fancied himself a visionary. His number two, Paul Tanaka, considered himself a force to be reckoned with. Together they allowed one of the nation’s most powerful law enforcement agencies to drift into a morass of scandal that compelled both to retire. How did things get so bad?


In the summer of 2011, when Anthony Brown’s identity was discovered, causing Operation Pandora’s Box to be set in motion, Baca’s reelection looked like a lock. No L.A. County sheriff had been unseated by a challenger since at least 1932, and with Baca’s nearly bottomless war chest, his formidable political machine, and his years of tarnish-resistant approval, it seemed unlikely that any serious candidate would bother to oppose him. “Back when the Brown thing happened,” a retired department commander told me, “he and Tanaka believed that they were untouchable.”

It was not an irrational perspective. Over the years some layers of nominal oversight of the vast empire that is the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department have been put into place—specifically Special Counsel Merrick Bobb and the Office of Independent Review’s Michael Gennaco. Both men work for organizations that churn out regular reports on what the LASD may be doing wrong or right during any given period. But neither entity has any legal authority. As a consequence, if Baca—or any other L.A. County sheriff—didn’t agree with their suggestions, he or she was free to ignore them.

“Time and again, it has been shown that the power to control an elected sheriff is a near impossibility, to the frustration of many,” wrote Bobb in his September 2013 semiannual report. “…At the end of the day [the supervisors] lack the power to order the Sheriff or the Undersheriff to run a constitutional jail, whether directly or through a blue ribbon commission or a civilian commission or Special Counsel or OIR or an Inspector General or otherwise. It may be that the federal government needs to be added to the mix.”

In the sheriff’s department it was widely understood that Baca and Tanaka had agreed that the sheriff would run again in 2014 but that he would step aside after a year and name the undersheriff as his successor. Exactly when Baca began to rethink his agreement with Tanaka is unclear, but the CCJV complicated matters considerably when on September 28, 2012, it delivered a 194-page report that repeatedly referred to a failure of leadership.

“The fact is that the sheriff does not seem to be someone, as a manager, who wanted to hear about problems,” said commission member and former federal judge Robert Bonner as he stood before the TV cameras to read his individual statement. “Like the proverbial ostrich, he seems to have had his head in the sand, happy to deal with other issues, ones that perhaps interested him more, but not minding the store when it came to running the jail in accordance with lawful and sound use of force policy.” Bonner, who had overseen the federal Drug Enforcement Administration under President George H.W. Bush and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency under Bush 43, went on to say the sheriff claimed that “…subordinates did not inform him of problems relating to the use of excessive force, of cliques of deputies operating in the jail, of inadequate training and supervision, of a culture of aggressiveness, [yet] no one has been disciplined, no one demoted. As someone said, ‘no heads have rolled….’ ”

The commission saved its harshest criticism for Baca’s second-in-command. “The troubling role of Undersheriff Tanaka cannot be ignored,” wrote the commission in part. “Not only did he fail to identify and correct problems in the jails, he exacerbated them…. Over the course of several years, the Undersheriff encouraged deputies to push the legal boundaries of law enforcement activities and created an environment that discouraged accountability for misconduct. His repeated statements that deputies should work in an undefined ‘grey’ area contributed to a perception by some deputies that they could use excessive force in the jails and that their aggressive behavior would not result in discipline….”

In response Baca said he was “fully committed’ to implementing the commission’s 63 recommendations but that he didn’t agree with the scathingly critical findings that prompted the recommendations. “I’m going to do my own investigation,” he told reporters. In a subsequent interview with KPCC’s Larry Mantle, Baca went further. “I will go out and find out whether the facts support the findings,” he said. “I’m not convinced that the individuals being blamed for the problems are the cause of the problems….”

It was only in October—after reporter Matt Fleischer from WitnessLA, the online news site I edit, ran a story about Tanaka’s alleged pay-to-play scheme of promotions—that the sheriff began to hint his undersheriff might be a liability. By December the disenchantment had grown. “He’s never going to be sheriff,” Baca told Olmsted at a holiday benefit. “I’ve got other people in mind as my successor.”

That Tanaka had recently filed for a third term as mayor of Gardena seemed to add fuel to the pay-to-play stories. When the sheriff expressed his displeasure about the mayoral run to his second-in-command, Tanaka withdrew his candidacy. But he did so too late to have his name removed from the ballot and coyly informed the press that if perchance he were elected, he would serve. On March 5, 2013, Tanaka breezed to an easy victory.

Baca was enraged. The next day, after he directed everyone in the executive offices of the LASD headquarters to take lunch, he and Tanaka disappeared behind the closed door of the sheriff’s office. Shouting was overheard. That afternoon department spokesperson Steve Whitmore announced Tanaka would be retiring on August 1 to “spend more time” with his family. But when Baca met with the editorial board of the L.A. News Group, which includes such publications as the Daily News, he let drop that he had managed to “finesse” the undersheriff out the door.

“For years people had warned Baca that Tanaka was siphoning off his big donors and that one day this was going to matter,” former LASD commander Joaquin Herran told me. “His wife warned him. But he wouldn’t listen. He thought Paul would never do that kind of thing to him.”

For the next few weeks Tanaka didn’t show up at LASD headquarters. On April 30, 2013, however, he surfaced in a lengthy interview with the Times. Tanaka described the sheriff’s administrative style as erratic and impulse driven—by turns disengaged and focused only on his pet projects, then aggressively micromanaging. He accused Baca of demanding that the department hire his friends, family, and whatever acquaintances had recently caught his attention, other times issuing whimsical orders only to forget that he’d ever issued them. And though he admitted that the hiding of Anthony Brown could have been questionable, he said Baca ordered the operation.

On top of everything else Tanaka announced that he would likely run for sheriff. For months he had been meeting with affluent campaign donors, many of whom had once supported the sheriff. “For years people had warned Baca that Tanaka was siphoning off his big donors and that one day this was going to matter,” former LASD commander Joaquin Herran told me. “His wife warned him. But he wouldn’t listen. He thought Paul would never do that kind of thing to him.”

Until the Times interview, Tanaka had been steadfastly press averse throughout his career with the LASD. Now he was suspected of slipping documents to reporters that led to some of the recent news stories most damaging to the sheriff. “And it was only going to get worse,” said a source close to Baca.

Nevertheless, the odds of winning the election remained in Baca’s favor. The sheriff’s highest profile threat, Jim McDonnell, had already said that he had no plans to run. Along with having served on the commission that all but censured Baca, McDonnell was the well-respected chief of the Long Beach Police Department and had twice been short-listed to run the LAPD. Tanaka, while well recognized in law enforcement and certain other circles, was still a relative unknown to the public, save for the spate of negative press following the CCJV report. The two other candidates who had declared—an LAPD detective named Lou Vince and Pat Gomez, a retired 31-year LASD veteran who had lost to Baca twice before—had far less name recognition.

Illustration by Matt Mahurin

In fact, Tanaka wouldn’t even announce his candidacy until a day after Bob Olmsted, the commission’s star witness, formally declared his. “My dad always said if you name a problem, you own it until it’s solved,” he told me a few days before entering the race. The former jails commander hired the hotshot campaign consultant John Shallman, who’d recently run Mike Feuer’s successful campaign for city attorney. So when Tanaka threw in, Baca was faced with more of a serious challenge to his reelection than he expected.

The former undersheriff was actively working to prove wrong the picture painted of him by the CCJV and the press. He had “never condoned or encouraged excessive force or deputy misconduct,” he told me and other reporters, adding that he hadn’t been in charge of the jails during the worst years of the violence. According to his critics, this was precisely the problem. They said that even when Tanaka didn’t directly oversee some part of the department, he often controlled decisions anyway. But Tanaka has contended he was being blamed for Baca’s mistakes. Regarding Anthony Brown, for instance, he said that Baca gave “two direct orders” in the matter. While Tanaka did admit to implementing “some aspects” of the orders, he said his name was often invoked by subordinates without his knowledge. “At the end of the day,” he told me in an e-mail, “the buck stops at the Sheriff’s desk. He is the top public safety official in the county and there has been a severe lack of accountability for decisions he has made.”

On the morning of December 9, the first round of federal indictments against 18 members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department were unsealed by U.S. Attorney Birotte. Among those charged were seven members of the teams that hid or questioned Anthony Brown. Lieutenant Greg Thompson—Rathbun and Sexton’s boss—was indicted along with Gerard Smith and Mickey Manzo. So were Scott Craig and Maricella Long, the two sergeants who had pressured FBI agent Leah Marx, as was their boss, Lieutenant Steve Leavins.

The last indictment of the Brown group was a surprise to many: James Sexton, the deputy who with Mike Rathbun had told the FBI everything he knew about Operation Pandora’s Box. A second-generation cop whose Alabama sheriff father was Baca’s friend and a recent department hire, Sexton had known the sheriff since he was 11 years old. Now he and the other six were charged with obstruction of justice and criminal conspiracy for their parts in the Brown affair. If convicted, they could draw sentences of 10 to 15 years in federal prison.

Twenty-nine days later, after a $1,000-a-head campaign fund-raiser and after repeated assurances to friends that he was not leaving the race, Lee Baca resigned. He announced through his press guy, Whitmore, that he loved the department so much, he planned to become a reserve officer. Yet in many ways, as far as the LASD was concerned, Baca was the walking dead.

For the first time in decades, the race to become the sheriff of Los Angeles County was wide open. In the subsequent two weeks, three more candidates entered the sheriff’s race: two out of the LASD’s four assistant sheriffs, Jim Hellmold and Todd Rogers, and Long Beach police chief Jim McDonnell.

Baca seemed determined to fade from view. He declined my repeated requests for an interview, even when I saw him at a small, private retirement celebration. The most powerful sheriff in the nation left office on January 30, 2014, and John Scott, the interim sheriff chosen by the board of supervisors, was sworn in. Scott is a large man with a snow-colored mustache and a forthright demeanor who left the LASD in 2005 because he “felt it was headed in the wrong direction.” On loan from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, he said after his ceremonial oath-taking that he was “not going to be a place-holder” but planned to “restore dignity to the department.” Eight days after Scott’s swearing in, U.S. Attorney Birotte announced the indictment of two more LASD deputies.

I’m going to start a model educational program inside the jails,” Baca whispered to me on the night of April 24, 2010. “It’s going to change the way we incarcerate. I’m not kidding.” We had each gotten up from our respective dinner tables and were circulating at Homeboy Industries’ annual fund-raiser, held that year at Union Station. In a few minutes Baca would be honored as an important national law enforcement reformer by Homeboy’s famous founder, Father Greg Boyle, the Jesuit renowned for his success in helping gang members turn their lives around. Among those present at the dinner were future mayor Eric Garcetti, L.A. County supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Zev Yaroslavsky, juvenile justice advocate Carol Biondi and her former studio head husband, Frank, along with a cluster of Hollywood activists such as Martin Sheen, Anjelica Huston, and Scott Budnick. They were there to celebrate the sheriff as a unique individual who had advanced the definition of what policing could accomplish for the public good.

That night he was bursting to talk about this new passion, hence his enthusiastic aside to me. Never mind that he’d be announcing everything publicly in a few minutes. Baca said the program would offer jail inmates a traditional academic curriculum combined with instruction in life skills and decision-making. He was confident that inmates who graduated from the program would fare better when they were eventually released. “Education makes people feel good about themselves,” he said. “It helps them understand they have value.”

Baca told the audience much of the same after a starstruck homeboy introduced him and he took the stage. “Education is the ultimate form of crime fighting…” Baca said. “It should be the point of any kind of detention…. Public safety is based upon dealing with the human condition….”

The crowd clapped like crazy as the sheriff strode back to his table, his face radiant with purpose.

In the summer of 2012, Baca’s promised Education Based Incarceration Bureau—or EBI, as it became known—was launched inside Men’s Central Jail. By the end of 2013, approximately 2,000 inmates a week were reportedly receiving instruction in the academic portion of the program. “And we’re changing lives,” Captain Michael Bornman, EBI’s commanding officer told me. “I see it right in front of me every day.”

When Baca first asked Bornman to oversee EBI, he said that, out of everything, it was for this program that he wanted to be remembered. “The sheriff told me, ‘This isn’t professional to me, it’s personal,’  ” said Bornman. “He said, ‘I want this to be my legacy.’ ”

Instead it’s more likely that the sheriff will be known for overseeing a jail system that while rehabilitating some prisoners, mistreated others with merciless abandon. And there are the rest of the LASD scandals that still bloom monthly with little sign of abatement. Even to people who admired him, Baca’s best qualities cannot help but be sullied by the growing pall. He was a leader who could inspire, a man who undeniably wished to do good, but he proved to be perplexingly unable or unwilling to see the vast chasm between his goals and the ghastly dysfunction into which large parts of the department in his care had fallen.

EBI was initiated a year and a half before the first federal indictments against the LASD arrived. Which means the program that so delighted Baca was lifting off right about the time Rathbun and Sexton were talking to the FBI. Yet before they contacted the feds, each man had first gone to the sheriff to explain what he knew. Baca declined to believe them—even Sexton, whom he had known for half the deputy’s life. Instead he said, “That’s not what goes on in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.” When Rathbun tried to reach him again in subsequent months, Baca no longer took his calls. He took Sexton’s call out of deference to his father, then ordered the deputy’s superior to transfer him out of the jail unit. Sexton was causing problems, the sheriff said.

Celeste Fremon, editor of the Web site WitnessLA, is the author of G-Dog and
the Homeboys: Father Greg Boyle and the Gangs of East Los Angeles.

This feature originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine. It has been updated to reflect a correction. We reported that one of Baca’s opponents in what would’ve been this year’s election was named Pat Maxwell. His name is Pat Gomez. We also reported that Gomez was a 28-year veteran of the LASD. He is a 31-year veteran.

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