A top official in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said she left the agency after 34 years rather than carry out what she said was a “highly unethical” and “unheard of” directive from Sheriff Alex Villanueva to reinstate a fired deputy and alter his disciplinary record, court papers reviewed by The Times show.
Alicia Ault, who served as chief of the department’s professional standards and training division before her resignation last year, said she was told by the incoming sheriff’s chief of staff that it was Villanueva’s “No. 1 priority” to reinstate Caren Carl Mandoyan before Villanueva took office so it would appear to have been done by the administration of former Sheriff Jim McDonnell, according to a deposition she gave in the county’s lawsuit over the reinstatement, which was filed in court Wednesday.
Ault’s deposition is part of the county’s unusual legal action against Villanueva, Mandoyan and the Sheriff’s Department. County supervisors and watchdogs, including the county inspector general, have criticized the sheriff for rehiring Mandoyan after he was fired in 2016 for violating department policies regarding domestic violence and dishonesty.
Supervisors asked Villanueva to rescind the hiring, saying it sends a troubling message to victims of domestic abuse, but the sheriff has refused.
The sheriff has defended Mandoyan, arguing that the deputy was punished unfairly under McDonnell’s tenure, and said the rehiring was approved by an independent “truth and reconciliation” committee.
The legal filings Wednesday also include a deposition from Villanueva’s former second-in-command, Ray Leyva, who was abruptly fired in March. Leyva said under oath that he reviewed video evidence in Mandoyan’s case that showed the deputy tried to pry open a woman’s door and had indeed lied about it, as investigators initially found.
Leyva said in his deposition, on June 7, that he believed the sheriff’s reconciliation committee deliberately “skewed” evidence to justify reinstating the deputy. He said he repeatedly clashed with Villanueva in disputes that he said arose after he told the new sheriff he had to adhere to policies and procedures on various issues. Leyva, a 35-year veteran of the department, served on the command staff for nearly two decades.
Late Wednesday, Villanueva said, “At this point in time, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on pending litigation.”
Steve Madison, an attorney who represents Villanueva and the department in the lawsuit brought by the county, said he has not had the chance to review the filings but plans to present new evidence that will support his clients’ case.
Mandoyan, through his attorney, Greg Smith, has denied wrongdoing and said his initial firing was unfair. Smith said Wednesday he disagrees with the way Ault and Leyva have characterized events, noting that their testimony should be viewed in light of their fraught departures from the department.
Ault said in her deposition that the directive to reinstate Mandoyan came in a phone call from Villanueva’s incoming chief of staff, Lawrence Del Mese, on Nov. 26, seven days before Villanueva’s swearing-in Dec. 3. She said Del Mese told her he was looking at her picture on an organizational chart as he gave the order, a comment she perceived as a threat that her job was on the line.
Ault also said in her deposition that Del Mese sent her an email Nov. 26 or the day after containing a settlement agreement that had already been drafted that called for Mandoyan’s misconduct to be labeled “unfounded” and for a separate use-of-force case by the deputy to be changed from “founded” to “unfounded.” The proposed agreement also provided for the deputy to receive more than $200,000 in back pay, according to a brief included as part of the filing.
“To request to have someone’s distant past discipline altered without any formal proceeding or fact-based documentation is highly unethical, and it’s completely outside of our standards,” Ault said.
Ault said in her deposition that by the evening of Nov. 26, she had decided she would step down. She said felt she had no future in an administration that made such decisions, which she called “unprecedented and unheard of.”
The Times reported in March that a Nov. 30 email from Ault to Del Mese said Villanueva’s “priority request” to bring back Mandoyan was already in the hands of county counsel. Ault resigned that day.
Mandoyan was fired in September 2016 by McDonnell after a fellow deputy alleged Mandoyan grabbed her by the neck, tried to break into her home and sent her harassing text messages. A county appeals board considered evidence in the case, including the video, and upheld the dismissal.
Despite Ault’s protest, the Sheriff’s Department proceeded with restoring Mandoyan’s job after Villanueva took office. An eight-page report by Villanueva’s new truth and reconciliation panel found that several of the woman’s claims could not be corroborated, clearing the path for Mandoyan to be reinstated Dec. 28.
The county Office of Inspector General issued a report this month concluding Mandoyan’s return “may have been preordained, rather than the product of an objective ‘truth and reconciliation’ process.” The county has said the reinstatement was unlawful and has stopped paying Mandoyan, though he remains on duty with a gun and badge.
Ault also said in her deposition, given May 23, that she had reviewed the evidence against Mandoyan and found it to be compelling. She said she was also concerned about the appearance of impropriety in reinstating the deputy because there were two people with his last name who donated to Villanueva’s campaign. Mandoyan also worked as Villanueva’s volunteer driver during his campaign.
We “had just come through a federal case where our sheriff and undersheriff were going to prison for things like pay-to-play and things of that nature, and this was starting down that path,” Ault said, referring to former Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who were convicted in a sweeping federal probe into jail abuse.
Leyva said in his deposition that he disagreed with Villanueva’s reinstatement of Mandoyan, in part because the incoming sheriff had begun the effort to bring Mandoyan back without setting up a panel to evaluate the case. He also said he told Villanueva that taking such action without a review would need buy-in from the Office of Inspector General and the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission.
Leyva added that based on his experience, fired deputies could not be returned to duty after two years had elapsed, as was the case with Mandoyan. The Civil Service Commission, which upheld the deputy’s discharge, would have to overturn its own decision and the deputy would need to re-establish his peace officer credentials with the state of California, Leyva said. None of Villanueva’s top advisors approved of Mandoyan’s reinstatement, he said.
“I believed that he was tired of me trying to keep him focused and working within policy and procedures and he was tired of listening to me constantly saying, you know, we can’t do it that way,” Leyva said of Villanueva.
He said in his deposition that the two also disagreed over a separate initiative by Villanueva to change the promotional standards to require those ascending in rank to have a certain number of years on patrol, a modification Leyva said was “arbitrary” and would take years to go into effect through the proper procedures.
Leyva also said that once the county announced in February that Mandoyan was not an employee and would no longer be paid, Leyva wanted to strip him of his badge and gun because of the liability risk of having a “police impostor” on the streets. Villanueva resisted, he said.
“I would object and say, we can’t do that, you know, we’re doing a disservice to the department, to the other 18,000 people in the department, putting all this energy into one guy,” Leyva said.
Skip Miller, an attorney representing the county in the case, said the deposition testimony shows that Mandoyan’s reinstatement was unlawful.
“He should not be on the street as a peace officer,” Miller said.
A judge has yet to render a final decision on whether Villanueva had the authority to reinstate Mandoyan. A hearing in the case is set for Aug. 16.