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Chief watchdog questions L.A. County Sheriff Villanueva’s decision to rehire fired deputy

Video clips show L.A. County Sheriff's Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan trying to break into a woman's apartment and wielding a broomstick on her patio, incidents that contributed to his firing in 2016.

The chief watchdog for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department says Sheriff Alex Villanueva appears to have ignored key evidence in rehiring a deputy who was fired for domestic violence and dishonesty, and is calling into question numerous aspects of his handling of the case.

The county Office of Inspector General also says Villanueva made public statements defending his decision to reinstate the deputy that are not supported by available evidence, according to a detailed analysis of the case issued Tuesday.

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The rehiring of Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan, reported by The Times in January, has been a recurring source of controversy during Villanueva’s first months in office, sparking legal action against him by the county and sharp criticism from a civilian oversight group.

The backlash led to a county directive that Villanueva pause his “truth and reconciliation” panel, a body that he said would address prior injustices by the department against staff and the public. Mandoyan’s rehiring was the first case to come before that committee, which has not heard other cases since.

The Times reported in January that Mandoyan was fired in 2016 by then-Sheriff Jim 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 heard evidence and upheld the dismissal.

Video footage released in the case showed Mandoyan trying to break into the woman's apartment using a metal tool. The deputy’s attorney, Greg Smith, has said the pair lived together and that Mandoyan was trying to get the woman’s attention after she locked him out.

Department spokesman Hamilton Underwood said Tuesday he did not have a response to the inspector general’s report. A June 14 letter from Steven Madison, an attorney who represents Villanueva and the department in the lawsuit brought by the county, responded to an earlier draft of the report, accusing the document of being “blatantly skewed” in favor of the county Board of Supervisors.

Madison’s letter says Mandoyan’s accuser was described as “unreliable” and having “lacked credibility” by her supervisors. It also noted that a separate witness said the woman had told her that Mandoyan did not do anything to make her afraid.

Smith said the inspector general did not have access to all the evidence in the case, including new information he says he will reveal later.

“The report is part of an ongoing attack against the sheriff by the Board of Supervisors. There is absolutely nothing in the report that’s new,” said Smith. He has said his client did not abuse the woman in the case.

Caren Carl Mandoyan, left, with L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in December.
Caren Carl Mandoyan, left, with L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in December. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The inspector general’s report — which included hundreds of pages of exhibits including transcripts from the county Civil Service Commission — also zoomed in on the timeline of Mandoyan’s return to duty, finding that it “may have been preordained, rather than the product of an objective ‘truth and reconciliation’ process.” Mandoyan served as a volunteer aide to Villanueva’s campaign.

The report cited an email showing Villanueva was working to rehire the deputy as early as Nov. 30, four days before he was sworn in and a month before the reconciliation panel issued its eight-page report that cleared the way for Mandoyan’s reinstatement. The Times reported in March that the email from a department chief says Villanueva’s “priority request” to bring back Mandoyan was already in the hands of county counsel before Villanueva took office.

The department also had access to evidence it apparently did not consider in its rehiring of the deputy, including a transcript of a phone call between Mandoyan and his accuser, according to the inspector general. Mandoyan is quoted in the transcript calling the woman by a derogatory name and warning her not to go to briefings at her station with other deputies.

“It’s gonna be real funny when you — see just how much influence I have,” Mandoyan warns the woman, using an expletive, according to the transcript that was part of the administrative file on the deputy. The inspector general’s office said the call was “very disturbing” and appears to corroborate the woman’s claims that Mandoyan didn’t want her to associate with other deputies and bragged about his power as a member of the Reapers, a secret society of deputies with matching Grim Reaper tattoos.

The call was not considered during the administrative investigation or civil service hearing for the deputy because it was recorded without Mandoyan’s consent. The inspector general’s office suggested the admissibility issues would not preclude the department from using the transcript to evaluate whether to rehire the deputy.

“[T]he Department was in possession of now publicly available evidence that conclusively established Mandoyan’s dishonesty and unfitness for the position of Deputy Sheriff,” the inspector general’s report said.

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Villanueva has openly criticized the process by which the deputy was fired, saying that exculpatory evidence — including a memorandum Mandoyan wrote to his supervisor about alleged threats made by the woman — was withheld during the deputy’s civil service commission hearing. The inspector general’s report notes that this memo was presented at the hearing.

According to a settlement agreement, Mandoyan was given his job back and his discipline was reduced to a 12-day suspension. The inspector general’s office says the agreement, dated Dec. 28, was not signed by a legal representative of the county and may be invalid.

The county has said Mandoyan is not an authorized employee and has been suspending his pay since February. But Mandoyan remains on duty with a badge and gun.

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A hearing in the case by the county against the Sheriff’s Department, Villanueva and Mandoyan is set for Aug. 9.

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