Since taking office in December, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has faced criticism over his decision to reinstate Caren Carl Mandoyan, a deputy fired over allegations of domestic violence and lying to internal investigators. He and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors are now locked in a court fight over who has the ultimate authority over personnel decisions at the Sheriff’s Department.
Villanueva sat down with The Times for an interview in his office Thursday. His answers suggest that the political tension at the highest levels of county government won’t quickly fade.
What follows are lightly edited excerpts from that interview.
The Board of Supervisors would say your relationship has gotten off to a rough start, and they are a bit perplexed by your initial moves and your posture about it with them, including going to court. Looking back on the last few months, how do you feel that everything has been handled?
I can say unequivocally that they had a false expectation for what the role of the sheriff was because of my predecessor [Jim McDonnell]. I don’t know if they were lulled into a false sense of security about what the role is between a sheriff and the supervisors. My predecessor acted as an appointed sheriff — like an appointed chief of police — and he was beholden to whatever the board dictated. And that’s exactly the way he ran the department — with disastrous results.
I am actually assuming the proper role of the sheriff, which is to run the Sheriff’s Department. I don’t tell the board how to do their jobs, and I don’t think they have either the legal authority or right to dictate how I, as an elected official and the sheriff, run the Sheriff’s Department. That’s why the voters elected me and put me in office.
Based on my campaign promises, I’m going to carry them out one by one. I’ve telegraphed everything I was going to do from the beginning so there should be no surprises, really.
Do you believe you can continue with the official role of sheriff with the Board of Supervisors — budget, oversight hearings, and public ceremonies — given the breakdown in the relationship?
They’ve made it pretty antagonistic, and I’m going to be the better man and hold my head high and keep doing my job.
Our support within the community is very, very strong, and this misguided effort from the board to play politics is counterproductive. It doesn’t improve the public safety, and it doesn’t further the public interest. It only serves a very narrow political interest, of payback.
Some say that all that may be true, but the relationship with the supervisors is still one in which there can be behind-the-scenes negotiations. Maybe politically, things could have been smoother. Is that fair?
Politically, things could have been smoother. I think my timing on the Mandoyan case, I could have put other cases ahead of his. However, we still would have resolved it with the same outcome. I don’t think it would have made a difference.
From the political side, because they are seasoned career politicians, it’s up to them to guide the young guy coming into office. But they actually were lying in wait.
Is Mandoyan in this building right now? Is he working in patrol? Is he operating as a peace officer?
He’s working in another assignment right now.
Is he in a position to make arrests? Because, as you know, he’s in a legal limbo, given the dispute about whether he actually is a county employee?
He’s working for the department. He’s not in a patrol capacity right now. For his own safety, we’ll leave it at that. But he’s doing fine. He’s still reporting to work, still completing his time card, doing what he’s supposed to do.
You anticipate him getting back pay when this case is settled?
Oh, he’s going to be getting paid a lot more than back pay.... He’s gone through hell as an individual. His character was assassinated.
You said Mary Wickham, the county counsel who is on the opposing side in the Mandoyan case, has “gone rogue.” What do you mean by that?
She basically said that, for all intents and purposes, she’s in charge. I don’t think the voters elected her as the sheriff.
[During the interview, Villanueva took issue with a recent editorial in The Times about cliques of deputies in the department. The sheriff said he has tried to address the issue.]
We can’t stamp out tattoos. We can’t stamp out people wanting to join their own groups. That’s solid 1st Amendment ground that we cannot touch.
But if it leads to behavior that violates the rules, you can step in?
Yes. We’ve done everything we can in terms of rooting out the behavior that causes concern. Everything we can. In fact, we’ve done things that my predecessor didn’t do. We’ve had to clean up the mess for him. We take it very seriously.
Are you still committed to the idea of civilian oversight, the Civilian Oversight Commission and the Office of Inspector General? Or do you feel like they are meddling in the department?
The oversight issue is fine, but they need to understand that I still need run the department. We want their input because they’re stakeholders and they represent the community. I need to make informed decisions, and I rely on their input. But if their entire idea is to somehow gang up on me because they want to defeat what I’m doing, that’s no longer oversight.
Q. Is there anything you want to say to those voters, or to the mayors of the cities in Los Angeles County who contract with your department for policing, given all the turmoil that’s going on?