Deputy whose rehiring spurred outcry alleges retaliation by county leaders in lawsuit
The Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy whose reinstatement triggered a battle between the sheriff and the Board of Supervisors has filed a lawsuit against law enforcement officials and county leaders alleging they withheld his pay and are unfairly trying to push him out of the department.
Caren Carl Mandoyan alleges in the civil lawsuit filed in federal court on Wednesday that his support for newly elected Sheriff Alex Villanueva and former sheriff candidate Jim Hellmold in the 2014 election has made him a target of retaliation.
The lawsuit names L.A. County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl, Hilda Solis, Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger, who endorsed McDonnell during the campaign. Former Assistant Sheriff Bobby Denham is also named.
Mandoyan was fired in 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. Prosecutors investigated the woman’s claims and looked at video evidence in the case but declined to charge Mandoyan with intimate partner violence.
Villanueva reinstated the deputy in his first weeks as sheriff after defeating McDonnell last fall in an upset that stunned the county’s political establishment. Mandoyan volunteered on Villanueva’s campaign, often publicly accusing McDonnell of running a corrupt department and challenging his competency as a leader.
Mandoyan filed a previous lawsuit last year against the county over his 2016 termination, but he agreed this year to drop the suit on the condition that he was rehired by the Sheriff’s Department. Before Mandoyan withdrew the suit, the county had agreed to pay him a settlement of $200,000, which is now in dispute. The deputy could also be due $500,000 in attorney fees, Villanueva said in an interview Thursday.
Villanueva predicts the latest lawsuit will have an even larger price tag.
“Now, I guarantee we’re going to end up paying several million dollars, between what ultimately is going to be punitive damages, attorney costs on both sides — and the county is going to pick up the tab on this,” he said. “For what purpose? Because they saw an opportunity to take a shot at me, and nothing else.”
Louis “Skip” Miller, an attorney representing the county and the Board of Supervisors, called Villanueva’s statement absurd, adding that the sheriff’s loyalty and obligation are supposed to be with the county.
“Mandoyan was fired for breaking and entering, for assaulting a woman, for lying about it all,” said Miller, a partner at Miller Barondess. “These things were adjudicated before the civil services commission. He had full opportunity to challenge everything, and he lost. I don’t know why the sheriff would say something like that. This [lawsuit] is a totally concocted claim. It’s sour grapes.”
Auditor-Controller John Naimo, the county’s former chief accountant who is also named in the lawsuit, issued a letter in February calling the controversial reinstatement “unlawful” and stating that the deputy would no longer be paid and must turn in his gun and badge.
Last month, documents reviewed by The Times revealed that Mandoyan was a member of a secret society of deputies known as the Reapers. The fellow deputy who alleged she was abused by Mandoyan told investigators she saw the group’s tattoo on his left ankle: a Grim Reaper holding a scythe next to the name of his Sheriff’s Department station, branded with the number 98.
Watchdogs and members of the county’s governing board have lambasted Villanueva over reinstating Mandoyan while heightening calls to root out the agency’s subculture of tattooed deputy cliques that have long been accused of severe hazing, fights and violence against the communities they serve.
County officials in January pressed the sheriff about why Mandoyan was rehired, given the serious allegations against him. Villanueva said at the time that the case against Mandoyan was the result of a flawed disciplinary process that could lead to unfair termination.
Mandoyan alleges he has been a target of retaliation since 2014, when he openly supported Jim Hellmold in his campaign against McDonnell for sheriff. At the time, Mandoyan repeatedly urged fellow deputies to vote for Hellmold, saying McDonnell would be a “disaster for the department,” the lawsuit states.
Mandoyan said his supervisors in the department warned him at the time to stay quiet.
About a month after McDonnell was elected, Denham allegedly approached Mandoyan during a Christmas party at the South Los Angeles station and said, “So you were the guy that supported Hellmold during the campaign,” before he walked off shaking his head, the lawsuit states.
When his ex-girlfriend lodged the abuse allegations against him, Mandoyan alleges that his superiors used it as justification for terminating him in retaliation for his political speech against McDonnell.
In a phone interview, Denham denied that he approached Mandoyan at a Christmas party, calling the claim ridiculous. He said he didn’t know the deputy at that time.
“On a case like this one that was brought to our offices at the executive level, I wouldn’t know who he would be supporting for sheriff, nor would it matter. Decisions are made based on the merits of the case,” Denham said.
McDonnell did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Mandoyan also contends that department leaders instructed deputies leading an internal affairs investigation into the allegations to destroy recordings that he says would have proved his innocence, according to the lawsuit.
“He’s gone through hell as an individual,” Villanueva said of Mandoyan on Thursday. “His character was assassinated, it was such a one-sided affair.”
Times staff writers Maya Lau and Jaclyn Cosgrove contributed to this report.
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