A Los Angeles County supervisor is seeking a "rigorous" re-examination of a decade-old issue in which the city of Gardena acted as an intermediary for the Sheriff's Department to sell ballistic vests to Cambodia.
The sale was scrutinized at least twice in the past 10 years because it was so unusual but, despite appearing convoluted, nothing illegal or improper was found.
This week, after recent news reports again questioned the transaction, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called for another audit of the purchase.
Former Sheriff's Department Assistant Sheriff Larry Waldie negotiated the sale, according to Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who is the current mayor of Gardena.
At the time, Cambodia was rebuilding its country and police force following Khmer Rouge communist party rule, Tanaka said. The Cambodian foreign consulate asked Waldie if it could purchase 473 ballistic vests that the department would not use because they were either expired or used, he said.
Tanaka was in his second year as a Gardena city councilman and was also the sheriff's chief of administrative services. Waldie asked for his help because he didn't believe Los Angeles County could sell directly to a foreign country, he said.
"I was the commanding officer of the Asian Crime Task Force so we made a lot of contacts with law enforcement agencies in Asia," Tanaka said. "Cambodia went to (Waldie) and asked to purchase anything we had. (Waldie) asked if my city would buy these old vests because ... they were going to go to salvage. The city of Gardena bid on them. There was no other bidder. So they wrote a check and the foreign consulate of Cambodia repaid Gardena and picked up the vests."
The sale included 173 unused, expired vests for $5,190 and 300 used vests for $3,000, according to county documents.
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said Waldie was wrong: Los Angeles County does not restrict its sales to foreign countries and Cambodia should have purchased the vests directly. But Whitmore said it was only a mistake - rather than some sort of cover-up.
Ridley-Thomas believes something untoward may have taken place in that transaction, especially because he claims the vests were also transported unusually.
"At least 173 of these vests were reportedly sent to Cambodia inside a patrol car, one of several vehicles which was also sent to Cambodia," Ridley-Thomas said in a written statement. "Serious questions remain about the propriety of the actions undertaken, and we need a rigorous and thorough exploration of the circumstances and the facts."
Sheriff's officials did not have information about how the vests were shipped, and Ridley-Thomas did not say how he learned that they were sent inside police cars.
Tanaka insists the sale was innocent.
"There was no profit, no nothing," he said. "If you look at the invoices, these are $10 vests. There's no way anyone in America can use them because of the liability of Kevlar. This thing has been investigated so many times over the last 10 years and there was no violation."
Federal officials reportedly looked into the sale shortly after it took place in 2002. Last year, the Los Angeles County Auditor-Controller's Office investigated and found nothing wrong with Gardena purchasing the vests from Los Angeles County. However, that audit did not look into Cambodia's subsequent purchase of the vests from Gardena.
On Tuesday, Ridley-Thomas asked for another audit to investigate how the vests were shipped to Cambodia and whether any illegal activity took place by sheriff's officials.
Gardena Councilwoman Rachel Johnson, who is currently running against Tanaka to be the next mayor of Gardena, said she is concerned about the issue and Tanaka's involvement.
"What is suspicious is how the transaction happened, how the vests were shipped to Cambodia," Johnson said. "If it was a Sheriff's Department transaction, why was Gardena even involved? The deal shouldn't have been done to begin with if the Sheriff's Department wasn't allowed to do the transaction directly (with Cambodia). That is the mistake."
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