Sheriff Candidate Bob Olmsted On Why He Exposed The Department's 'Culture Of Corruption'
Since Sheriff Lee Baca announced his retirement last Tuesday, the race for sheriff was blown wide-open. Despite all the allegations levied against Baca—the abuses at Men's Central Jail, the accusations of nepotism, the hiring of employees who had serious allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct on their records, and millions of dollars in lawsuits due to excessive force by department employees—he was still considered the front-runner, the "teflon sheriff" with the connections, the cash and the incumbent status.
Now the two names mentioned the most in the sheriff's race are former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who resigned back in August following allegations of jail mismanagement, and retired Commander Bob Olmsted, a whistleblower who retired in 2010.
LAist talked to Olmsted about why he went to the feds about jail abuses, the "culture of corruption" that Baca had presided over and what he plans to do as sheriff.
LAist: You have built a reputation as a whistleblower, and you went to the FBI and the press in an effort to expose the abuse that was going on in the jails. What were your reasons for blowing the whistle?
Bob Olmsted: When I saw the corruption that was going on in the jails, my recommendation was that we needed to remove the captain who condoned all this. Subsequently I was proved right two years later when he ended up being punitively sued for $35,000 on one case and $75,000 on another case. I wouldn't be surprised if the feds may be looking at him for failing to manage a supervisor's unit and on future indictments. I went to report all these issues up to Mr. Baca and Mr. Tanaka and they all ignored me, they said "No, we're not going to [remove the captain]." In fact, Mr. Tanaka said they were going to promote him to commander. I said, "You've got to be kidding me!" How do you promote incompetence? It does not make sense.
During that time, my wife was terminally ill. I left the department in July 2010 and took care of her until she passed. At that point I decided that it's not worth going back. I knew I couldn't make any more changes in the department and I decided to retire.
I saw Baca at a Christmas event and it was at the same time they had the fight between the deputies at the Quiet Cannon. The fight at the Quiet Cannon was over a policy of allowing visitors at Men's Central Jail to see their children or family members who were incarcerated. And the Three Thousand Boys [referring to the reported gang of jail employees on the third floor, or 3000th floor, of Men's Central Jail] were not allowing visitors to the inmates. And so, with a little bit of alcohol, these guys fought, and I said, "This can't happen, this is wrong." As a matter of fact, Baca's response to the fight in the media was, "Oh, they just need to man up." He didn't even take a look at the reasons why they fought, who participated in the incident, et cetera. Well, at this charitable event, I corralled Baca a second time and I said, "Lee, you need to talk to me. We got significant problems about force and lack of supervision. See me after this event, I have to tell you what's going on."
And he didn't see me, he just turned around and walked away. So at that point, I knew that I was bumping my head against the wall. The issues were still occurring in the jail, and out of a sense of goodness I decided to go outside of the organization and report it to the FBI. I want to say it was almost three years ago this week that I went to the FBI and the L.A. Times to report this wrongdoing that was going on.
I say that because it wasn't easy to do. I was in the U.S. Army, I was in the Coast Guard Reserve, I worked for a paramilitary organization here with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department for the first three years, I went to military school. I knew I had to go within the organization and handle the problem, but once I couldn't handle the problems inside, I had to go outside.
LAist: You have been quoted as saying, "[Baca] can run from the job, but he can't hide from the culture of corruption he oversaw. It's like cleaning up after a hurricane. The storm is gone, but the damage remains. It's time to clean house, implement major reforms and restore honesty and integrity to this department." How will you change the culture? What type of major reforms do you have in mind for the department?
Olmsted: Here's the problem: for three years now this culture of corruption has permeated to a point where we hid the inmates from the FBI and committed obstruction of justice, we had the beatings going on in the jails, we had the Department of Justice in June of 2013 finalize their report on North County that talked about how deputies were violating the 4th and 14th amendments, they were harassing Blacks and Hispanics. We had this most recent issue with how we hired people who should have never been hired.
So I set the stage for a question: Is it possible that all of this stuff could have happened in a void and nobody knew what was going on? My answer to that is absolutely not. Somebody had to know what was going on. Obviously, the fish rots from the head down.
My first thing I have to do is I have to get an entirely new executive command staff for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. With all the turmoil, mismanagement and corruption that was going on and nobody stepped up to say or do anything or stop it from getting that far to where we're an embarrassment to the department and 18 people get indicted, with a possibility of more coming down in the immediate future? It's unacceptable, it's unconscionable. This did not need to occur. So, my first act is I have to go in and those that need to be fired will be fired. Those that I need to do an investigation on, I'll have them investigated and if they're innocent, great, if not, then they'll be demoted or whatever the appropriate punishment will be necessary.
Paul Tanaka, the undersheriff who is also running for sheriff, the day he announced that he was running for sheriff which was one day after I announced, L.A. Weekly walked up to him and put a microphone in Paul Tanaka's face and said, "This is going to be a great sheriff's race. What do you think of Bob Olmsted entering the race?"
Paul Tanaka's response—and this is public knowledge it was said in the paper—was, "I was not raised to be a whistleblower."
This is the guy that ran the organization. This is the guy who was the undersheriff. This is the guy who was the acting sheriff when the sheriff wasn't around. And what he said with that very statement is the cause of the problems within the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. Do not be a whistleblower. Do not report corruption. Do not report illegal activity. Walk lock-step behind me. Hide everything you can. That is a code of silence at its best. And that's where we're at right now and that's what needs to change.
LAist: How do you differentiate yourself from the other candidates in the race, specifically those who have entered just recently after Baca's resignation?
Olmsted: The people who have entered the race now, just recently and after or about the time that Baca decided to resign and those who will run in the future, are just political opportunists. Are they really in the race because they're there for the right things and to do the right things and end the corrupt activities occurring within the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, or are they there now because it's easier? And it's easier because Baca has now stepped down. Well, what are they going to do when they get inside the organization? Are they going to take the easy route or the hard route?
Colin Powell once said that "Command is lonely." What he meant by that was you have to make those hard decisions. Well, for example, Jim McDonnell in Long Beach came out back in August and he said "I'm not going to run, I owe it to the people and I got my family."
I talked to him and he said, "You'll never beat Baca. He's entrenched, he's going to win, he's got all the money," and I said, "Okay, well if you're not going to enter then I'm going to enter the race."
So I entered the race knowing that this was going to be a hard fight. But [Todd] Rogers and McDonnell and everyone who is entering this particular race now, truly in my opinion they don't have the courage to do the job. They didn't have the courage to come out when it was the right time to get on Baca for the right reasons, and I just see them as political opportunists.
I'm not a politician, I'm a cop. I think what the citizens of Los Angeles County want to see is a cop, not a politician. I think being a politician is what got us in this problem, and what we need to do is have someone who has public safety in mind and can run your organization and has the courage to do so and step up to do so. Don't wait till the political winds turn to your favor and then say, "Oh, I think I'll go ahead and run now." That's unacceptable.
LAist: How has Baca stepping down changed the race for you?
Olmsted: This is a good thing that Baca stepped down. It's good for the organization, it's good for him and his health and it's extremely beneficial to the citizens of Los Angeles County. I anticipated it, but I thought it would be further down the road, I thought that because of all the turmoil that's going on now and with future indictments that I didn't think he was able to take it all, I just didn't anticipate the timing on it to be so soon. With that being said, we're moving forward.
The sad part is, it's still going to get worse before it gets better, because we have future indictments coming down, but now we have to try and start the healing. Now it's not going after Baca, he's stepped down, so what I can do right now is focus on my points of reform. So other than just the timing of Baca stepping down, everything else seems to be falling into place.
LAist: There have been talks of establishing a civilian oversight commission to oversee what goes on at the department. Do you agree with the establishment of such a commission? How will it fit with your campaign for transparency within the sheriff's department?
Olmsted: Baca came out on Monday and said he's for this commission for that very reason, but I came out the previous Friday saying that same thing and more. I support what Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina are requesting. Let me preface this by saying, if we had a sheriff who was on the ball, who was attentive and paying attention to everything that was going on, who was not traveling the world, who was paying attention to details, we wouldn't need this oversight commission. However, now that we're in the turmoil that we're in, we've lost the public trust. The only way you can get the public trust back is to have some oversight processes in place so the citizens can take a look at what we do and feel comfortable at how we operate. We are a public service. The very nature of being a public servant is to serve the public, but we need to know what the public wants. So the civilian oversight, I think, is absolutely critical at this juncture.
I added one more step to this civilian oversight. My recommendation is that we should have it like a city council meeting. If we can carve out a half hour or 45 minutes in every meeting so that citizens can address the commission for three minutes and get their points out on a few things that might be critical or important to them, that's true transparency. That's oversight.
I used to work for Sherman Block, and on the last Wednesday of every month, at 10 in the morning was the Monthly Media Open House. And the media—all the media, print, radio and television—would come in, set up all the cameras and have an hour to ask the sheriff anything they wanted: topical issues, informational issues, whatever the case may be. The first thing Baca did when he came into office was he stopped that. He eliminated that. Therefore, there is no transparency when you're not available to the public. One of the first things I would do is that I need to reinstate the Monthly Media Open House and we have to do it immediately because that's the only way we're going to be transparent in the future.