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Seven Set Sights on Becoming the Next Los Angeles County Sheriff

Longtime Sheriff Lee Baca retired in January while under fire for deputy-on-inmate violence in county jails and charges of corruption within his department.

Patch file photo.
Patch file photo.

By ELIZABETH MARCELLINO
City News Service

Seven candidates are waging a competitive battle to take on the tough task of overhauling the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which has been under fire over the management of the jail system -- leading to federal indictments and the retirement of Sheriff Lee Baca.

Long Beach police Chief Jim McDonnell, Gardena Mayor and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, Assistant Sheriffs Todd Rogers and James Hellmold, LAPD Senior Detective Supervisor Lou Vince, retired sheriff's Cmdr. Bob Olmsted and retired sheriff's Lt. Patrick Gomez are all fighting for the chance to be the county’s top lawman.

Baca, a four-term sheriff, retired in January while under fire for deputy-on-inmate violence in county jails and charges of corruption within his department. Eighteen sheriff's deputies were indicted in an ongoing federal investigation that has implicated at least two additional deputies to date.

Baca's surprise departure cleared the field for others, including McDonnell, who had earlier declined to face off against the incumbent.

McDonnell, now one of the front-runners based on his endorsements and fundraising, is a 29-year LAPD veteran and the only candidate who has never worked for the Sheriff's Department.

"The Sheriff's Department is at a defining moment in time and needs capable, new leadership to move it forward and rebuild fractured relationships with, and the confidence of, our community," McDonnell said.

McDonnell is endorsed by Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer and California Attorney General Kamala Harris. He also has the backing of four of the five county supervisors who control the department's budget: Michael Antonovich, Gloria Molina, Zev Yaroslavsky and Don Knabe, who appointed McDonnell to serve on the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence in 2011.

Tanaka, who spent more than 30 years in the Sheriff's Department and was second-in-command to Baca, was blamed by that commission in a 2012 report for promoting an environment in which aggressive deputies went undisciplined for violence against inmates.

Tanaka, who retired from his post in 2013, has called the commission's findings an attack on his character and said its sources lied to prevent Tanaka from becoming sheriff. He, like all of the contenders, positions himself as a reformer.

"I have never condoned nor encouraged excessive force or deputy misconduct. In fact, in the past I have been highlighted as a strict no- nonsense disciplinarian," according to Tanaka. "Many of my accusers feared the standard of accountability they would be held to should I become sheriff."

When a federal prosecutor confirmed in late May that Tanaka was the subject of an ongoing federal probe, some of his rivals called on him to step out of the race. Tanaka refused, saying he'd leave the choice to voters.

The former undersheriff has outstripped other contenders in fundraising, with more than $900,000 in his war chest, according to the latest campaign filings.

Tanaka filed to run when Baca was still in office, giving him a head start in campaigning, and nearly half of his campaign cash was raised prior to this year. McDonnell has bested Tanaka in 2014 contributions and Hellmold has also been a formidable fundraiser, reporting roughly $440,000 in contributions through the last filing period.

Hellmold and Rogers were both encouraged to run by Baca, who named them during his retirement announcement as capable candidates.

Hellmold cites his 25-year tenure in the Sheriff's Department as an asset in understanding how to best make changes to the troubled department. Calling himself a crimefighter rather than a politician, Hellmold has highlighted his interest in trying to mend fences between the department and minority communities, where he has drawn support from civil rights advocates and local clergy.

"Public trust means total openness and transparency, the highest ethical standards and professionalism, objective oversight centered on real problem solving, youth and community outreach," Hellmold said.

Rogers, a 29-year veteran, notes that changes are already under way and also believes that an insider can be most effective.

"This is my department," Rogers said. "I know how to fix it and I will reform it."

Olmsted presents himself as a whistleblower who went to the FBI and the media in an effort to force Baca to change a culture of violence within county jails. As a commander responsible for Men's Central Jail, Olmstead said he was frustrated with the unwillingness of higher ups to make changes.

Olmsted boasts many retired senior members of the Sheriff's Department among his supporters, but his whistleblower status doesn't seem to play well with those still serving. He has been among the most outspoken in his attacks on Tanaka.

"Paul Tanaka cannot be trusted," Olmsted said while calling on other candidates to demand that Tanaka step down. "He lied to voters, saying he was following Sheriff Baca's order, when the reality is that Sheriff Baca said Tanaka was 'more in the loop than he was' on the operation to hide the FBI informant and obstruct justice."

Vince and Gomez have been less successful in garnering endorsements and raising cash, but no candidate can be counted out in a primary with so many contenders and a likely voter turnout of about 1 million residents.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a November runoff election will be held between the top two vote-getters, leaving Interim Sheriff John Scott in the post until December.


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