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By Andrew Blankstein

Tattooed, gang-like cliques inside the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department have become an issue in the upcoming election for sheriff in the wake of an NBC report about an alleged group called the Banditos that is accused of pressuring female trainees for sex.

At a debate Sunday night, sheriff’s candidate Paul Tanaka was pressed on whether he had been tattooed while a member of a now-defunct clique called the Vikings. Tanaka, a retired undersheriff, admitted getting the ink more than 20 years ago but said his affiliation with the group went no further.

“Yes, I do have a tattoo. No, I never was part of a gang," said Tanaka, according to the L.A. Times. "It did not become sinister until years later. If I knew then what I know now, I would have gotten a different tattoo."

The Sheriff’s Department has been accused for decades of not acting aggressively enough to address secret groups inside the department, including the so-called “300 Club” and the “Jump Out Boys.”

A March 28 report by NBC News detailed a lawsuit by Deputy Guadalupe Lopez charging that one such alleged group, the Banditos, demanded sexual favors from female trainees at the East L.A. Sheriff’s Station in Boyle Heights. Lopez claimed in her complaint that the Banditos sported numbered tattoos of a skeleton with a sombrero, and that male deputies at the station retaliated against her for reporting objectionable behavior by slamming her into a wall, trying to run her off the road and placing a dead rat under her car.

Deputy Guadalupe Lopez alleges that someone placed a dead rat under her vehicle as retaliation for complaining about objectionable behavior.Courtesy Gregory Smith

On Saturday, the day before the debate, a group of female deputies at the East L.A. station released a statement disputing the allegations in the Lopez suit, including the claim that women were expected to provide sex in order to become full-fledged deputies.

“The claims have affected us on a professional and personal level,” the statement said. “Our reputation as female professionals, wives, mothers, etc. is unjustly questioned as a result of her claims.”

In response, Lopez’s attorney stood by the allegations in the suit and said his client never alleged that “the majority of female deputies assigned to East Los Angeles station were involved in any sexual activities with their male counterparts.” Gregory Smith also noted that a female sergeant at the station filed a separate gender harassment suit prior to Lopez’s suit, and that discipline was handed down after an investigation of Lopez’s charges.

“As a result of the complaint, a number of the Banditos were subjected to discipline by the department,” Smith said.

A source familiar with the Banditos investigation told NBC News that the department disciplined more than 10 employees at the East L.A. station, most of them deputies, for alleged mistreatment of Lopez and inappropriate workplace conduct. The source added that the department did not substantiate the core allegations, including the charge that a clique of deputies at the station coerced female probationers into having sex.

When informed of the Lopez suit, interim Los Angeles County Sheriff John L. Scott expressed concern “about the negative perception of monikers, tattoos, or any form of hazing,“ and said he would “not tolerate conduct contrary to our department policies and the law.”