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California

L.A. County sheriff reinstates deputy fired over domestic abuse and stalking allegations

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Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan looks on as L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva places a pin on the collar of Asst. Sheriff Maria Gutierrez at Villanueva’s swearing-in ceremony in December.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Caren Carl Mandoyan played a special role last month at the swearing-in of Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, standing on stage and holding the box of gold pins that would adorn the collars of the top cop and his senior executives.

Mandoyan served as a trusted member of Villanueva’s campaign team, acting as his driver and rallying rank-and-file deputies to lobby their union to endorse his long-shot candidacy.

But Mandoyan didn’t have the typical resume of a campaign worker. He served as a deputy for 10 years until he was fired in 2016 by then-Sheriff Jim McDonnell in connection with allegations of domestic abuse and stalking. A county appeals board heard evidence and upheld the dismissal.

Despite this, Villanueva decided to reinstate Mandoyan as a deputy in the Sheriff’s Department, where he is assigned to the South Los Angeles station.

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The move has heightened concerns from some both inside and outside the department that Villanueva may weaken some of the reforms imposed following a major corruption scandal that brought down former Sheriff Lee Baca and many of his top assistants. The sheriff has the authority to reverse disciplinary decisions by past administrations and the county Civil Service Commission, but some legal experts question the wisdom of doing so in this case.

Villanueva often spoke during his campaign of creating a “truth and reconciliation” commission to hear the cases of deputies and members of the public who felt they’d been wronged by the Sheriff’s Department. He promised to rid the agency of the cronyism that he argued stood in the way of his own advancement.

But the reconciliation panel has not yet been created and it’s unclear who, if anyone, would oversee its work. Villanueva removed the department’s two constitutional policing advisors whose jobs were to evaluate disciplinary cases.

“I’m a little flabbergasted and shocked that we’re now confronted with this kind of hiring policy,” Patti Giggans, the chairwoman of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, said of Mandoyan’s reinstatement. “It’s very disturbing. I think every commissioner will be very bothered by this.”

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Villanueva issued a statement saying he could not talk about why he reinstated Mandoyan, citing a confidentiality law protecting officers’ personnel records.

Mandoyan did not respond to requests for comment. His attorney, Michael Goldfeder, hung up on a Times reporter and did not return subsequent calls. Mandoyan filed two lawsuits fighting the department’s decision to fire him. In those court papers, he said he challenged the allegations against him.

Prosecutors reviewed the accusations of violence by Mandoyan but declined to file charges, citing a lack of sufficient evidence.

Jessica Levinson, who teaches governance issues at Loyola Law School and is a former president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, said it’s important to consider that Mandoyan was not criminally convicted. Still, she said, his reinstatement calls into question Villanueva’s values and is “a wrinkle in his quest for cleaning house.”

“Any time someone is terminated over accusations of domestic violence and stalking, that’s likely not the person you want serving in a law enforcement role,” she said.

In an application for a temporary restraining order and in statements she made to law enforcement officials, the woman said Mandoyan grabbed her by the back of her neck and pushed her face down into a couch. She said he ripped off her jeans and squeezed her neck for as long as 30 seconds. When she escaped and tried to lock herself in a bathroom, Mandoyan kicked in the door and broke it, she claimed.

In the months after the September 2014 incident, Mandoyan tried to break into her house twice, the woman alleged in the application. He once climbed halfway into her window and threw items that were sitting on the ledge at her, she said.

The woman claimed in the application that Mandoyan, who she said was her ex-boyfriend, sent her harassing text messages and admitted to watching her leave her home and to listening to her conversations with friends.

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“Remember, I have eyes and ears everywhere,” he had told her, according to the application. Her allegations were also spelled out in a memo by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

A judge temporarily ordered Mandoyan to stay at least 100 yards away from the woman and her home, vehicle and workplace. The case was dissolved in Aug. 2015 after neither Mandoyan nor the woman showed up at a hearing.

The district attorney’s memo says the woman provided photos of bruises and redness on her neck and arms as well as video footage of Mandoyan trying to get into her house. When the woman told Mandoyan she was videotaping him, he left, according to the district attorney’s memo.

The memo says prosecutors declined to charge Mandoyan with intimate partner violence because of a lack of sufficient evidence.

The Times generally does not identify people who claim to be victims of domestic abuse. The woman did not respond to requests for comment.

In a lawsuit he filed against the county, Mandoyan said he was relieved of duty in July 2015 and terminated in September 2016 based on allegations made by the woman, a fellow deputy. He claimed sheriff’s officials used as evidence against him a telephone recording that he alleged was unlawfully recorded. The lawsuit does not specify the exact allegations.

He separately sued the Civil Service Commission over his firing, but he filed to dismiss that case last month.

The Times filed a public records request with the Sheriff’s Department seeking any records of Mandoyan’s discipline. The department has said it needed additional time to review the request. A new law that went into effect at the beginning of the year says internal affairs records relating to shootings, severe uses of force, and confirmed cases of lying and sexual assault by police officers are no longer confidential. Some law enforcement officials have argued that the law should not apply to records generated before Jan. 1.

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Javier Gonzalez, the campaign strategist for an outside group that raised money in support of Villanueva, said Mandoyan appeared to play an important role on Villanueva’s team.

Mandoyan had previously worked on the campaign of sheriff’s candidate Bob Lindsey, a favorite among deputies who was eliminated in the primary. Mandoyan acted as a bridge, Gonzalez said, convincing Lindsey’s camp to rally behind Villanueva.

Mandoyan also helped organize an email campaign among deputies to lobby the leadership of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs to endorse Villanueva, and he introduced Villanueva to key players in the community, Gonzalez said.

Hilda Delgado, Villanueva’s communications director on the campaign, said Mandoyan was a volunteer driver who “wore many hats,” adding that he helped coordinate efforts to put up signs for Villanueva across the county.

Villanueva needed all the help he could get, having raised only $158,000 compared to McDonnell’s haul of $1.2 million. Villanueva drew most of his financial support from outside labor groups, including ALADS.

A lieutenant who’d never supervised more than 100 officers when he announced his run, Villanueva seemed the least likely of two challengers hoping to beat McDonnell. But his alternative platform as a Spanish-speaking Democrat against jail construction who wanted to kick U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement out of county lockups resonated with a wide swath of voters.

He often spoke of being discriminated against when he tried to ascend in rank throughout his career. His tough talk of “cleaning house” and rethinking some use-of-force guidelines was attractive to deputies who felt they’d been unfairly disciplined.

Villanueva immediately removed 18 high-ranking Sheriff’s Department executives once he took office. Among his more unorthodox moves, he told nearly 500 lieutenants, captains and commanders to fill out resumes.

Mandoyan is the only fired deputy he reinstated, the department said.

maya.lau@latimes.com

Twitter: @mayalau


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