Tanaka remains lightning rod in LA Sheriff’s race

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Several candidates for Los Angeles County sheriff sought to turn up the heat on one of their leading rivals during a debate Wednesday night at the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association. They called on former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka to drop out of the race in light of revelations earlier this week that he is the subject of an ongoing federal investigation into the Sheriff’s Department.

“He needs to step aside,” former Sheriff’s Commander Bob Olmsted said. Olmsted also directly addressed his former colleague, who stood a few feet from Olmsted inside the crowded cafeteria at Notre Dame High School.

“You perpetuated the code of silence for years by hiding the malfeasance and the criminal wrongdoing,” Olmsted said to Tanaka. Olmsted is among a handful of department officials who complained about problems at the agency to the FBI.

The primary election is June 3. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes, the top two finishers advance to a November runoff.

Related: Read and listen to all of KPCC's coverage of the sheriff's race

Another candidate, Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers, said Tanaka is “the common denominator with all these scandals” at the department. A federal grand jury has indicted 20 deputies on corruption or civil rights charges. A separate federal probe found deputies engaged in racial profiling in the Antelope Valley. In addition, Sheriff’s Department officials have admitted to hiring dozens of unqualified deputies.

Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell called the FBI investigation into Tanaka “a major distraction to being able to move forward…and begin the healing process” at the department. McDonnell reiterated he is best qualified to make changes at the agency because he has no affiliation with it. Opponents have said his lack of knowledge of the sprawling department is a liability.

During the debate, Tanaka, who has raised the most money among the seven candidates, sought to rise above the criticism.

“Certainly the usual attacks occurred,” Tanaka said. “We are fighting for the top cop job in the county, and this is politics.”

He said he had “a lot of respect” for the other candidates and urged voters to consider his qualifications – Tanaka spent 33 years with the department before rising to second in command under former Sheriff Lee Baca. Baca resigned abruptly in January amid mounting troubles.

“As you go to the polls, I would ask that you look beyond these attention grabbing statements,” said Tanaka, who also serves as mayor of Gardena.

In addition to the FBI’s interest in him as someone who may have been involved in misconduct, the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence said Tanaka condoned or failed to stop inmate abuse at Men’s Central Jail.

“In 33 years of law enforcement, never once did I ever condone, encourage or tolerate abusive behavior or misconduct,” Tanaka said during the debate.

Tanaka was the only candidate in attendance who said he did not support the immediate creation of a civilian review panel to serve as a watchdog of the department. He said he’d prefer to see how the newly appointed inspector general works out.

“We need to give him an opportunity to succeed,” he said.

The moderator of the debate asked Assistant Sheriffs Rogers and James Hellmold why voters should chose someone from inside the troubled agency to lead efforts to reform it.

“That’s a fair question,” said Hellmold, who once served as Baca’s personal driver. “What I want to bring to the Sheriff’s Department – and where Mr. Baca was lacking – is clear expectations and holding people accountable for misconduct.”

“Not all of us were complicit in the corruption and the mismanagement that was going on,” Rogers said.

Many of the people who showed up at the debate said they were having a difficult time picking a a favorite candidate in a race that hasn't received a lot of news coverage.

"Its been hard because of the number of candidates and not knowing a lot about them," said Harlan Peterson. "I think I've narrowed it down to a couple."

Two candidates who have raised the least amount of money did not participate in the debate: Retired Sheriff’s Lieutenant Patrick Gomez and LAPD Sgt. Lou Vince.

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