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California

Court delays settling dispute between county and Sheriff Villanueva over fired deputy

MONTEREY PARK, CA-DECEMBER 3, 2018: Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan, left,
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan, left, and Sheriff Alex Villanueva in 2018.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

A judge on Wednesday declined to overturn Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s reinstatement of a deputy fired amid allegations of domestic violence, prolonging a stalemate with the Board of Supervisors over the decision.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff said the county’s objections to Villanueva’s decision didn’t warrant an emergency order to intervene by removing the deputy, Caren Carl Mandoyan, from the job he resumed in December and requiring him to forfeit his badge, uniform and gun.

Instead, the judge set a court hearing on the facts of the county’s objections for June. Mandoyan, who volunteered on Villanueva’s election campaign after being fired by Sheriff Jim McDonnell in 2016, will be allowed to remain on duty until then.

“We are obviously buoyed by the fact that the court agreed with the sheriff,” said Steven G. Madison, an attorney representing Villanueva on behalf of the department.

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But county officials and their attorney, Louis “Skip” Miller, say they won’t resume Mandoyan’s pay and benefits.

Those officials, who are working on behalf of the Board of Supervisors, said the judge’s ruling was a narrow one, focused on whether to immediately intervene in the case. Beckloff considered whether the court would issue an emergency order finding Mandoyan’s reinstatement unlawful — a determination that would require the county to show serious harm if the deputy were to remain on the job. That standard also required the county to show a likelihood of success in ultimately getting the court to overrule Villanueva.

“We were surprised by the court’s ruling,” a statement issued by the county said. “The court’s ruling was not a ruling on the merits but a narrow ruling on the urgency for Mr. Mandoyan to surrender his gun and badge and county property.”

From the beginning, Beckloff seemed unlikely to intervene, though. On Wednesday, the judge seemed to side with the argument that Villanueva had broad discretion over hiring decisions in his department as an elected official.

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The county countered that Villanueva technically didn’t have the power to reinstate Mandoyan.

The county’s petition, filed Monday, asserts that Mandoyan is violating California law by acting as a law enforcement officer. The county determined that he is no longer an employee and directed him to return his badge and gun.

Villanueva and the Sheriff’s Department, the county argued, are acting “contrary to their duties” to comply with the county charter by not retrieving Mandoyan’s equipment and credentials, threatening public safetnd exposing the county to liability.

“There is great urgency,” Miller said. “We can’t have somebody out with the mantle of a peace officer who is not a peace officer.

The judge disagreed, saying a resolution wasn’t needed immediately.

A key issue going forward could be the definition of Villanueva’s decision to restore Mandoyan as a deputy despite his firing after a fellow deputy accused him of domestic abuse.

Villanueva’s attorneys argued that the sheriff had authority over personnel decisions in his department, and that rehiring the deputy — who remained certified as a peace officer — was allowed.

The county hadn’t prepared for that argument, instead focusing on evidence that Mandoyan had been “reinstated” — a process they say should have been overseen by the county’s personnel director and, by extension, the Board of Supervisors.

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A memo to Sheriff’s Department commanders in January said that an internal group created by Villanueva had recommended the “rescindment of the discharge” and a 12-day suspension for Mandoyan.

“l am requesting approval to reinstate Deputy Carl Mandoyan,” Eliezer Vera, chief of the central patrol division, wrote in the memo.

The county also claims that the sheriff and the department lacked authority to enter a separate legal settlement with Mandoyan absent input from county counsel. Villanueva and the deputy disagree with that, saying county lawyers didn’t object to their agreement.

The escalation of the issue to a court case increases the tension between the Board of Supervisors, a five-member elected body that controls a $30-billion county budget, and the sheriff, who ousted McDonnell in last year’s election and has sought to assert his own authority over personnel decisions.

In an extraordinary public upbraiding in late January, the supervisors sharply questioned the sheriff’s goal of establishing a “truth and reconciliation” panel to review past disciplinary actions against department employees. Villanueva has argued that the existing process is flawed and has led to unfair terminations.

The Times reported in January that Mandoyan had been fired in 2016 after a fellow deputy alleged that Mandoyan grabbed her by the neck, tried to break into her home and sent her harassing text messages.

Mandoyan attorney Greg Smith said his client got into a verbal argument with the woman, with whom he had been in a relationship, and did not commit domestic abuse.

Mandoyan claimed that a department review panel launched by the new administration considered his case — in consultation with county counsel — and found that the investigation had been flawed.

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The panel found that Mandoyan entered the woman’s patio, used a tool to make noise to get her attention and also opened a bathroom window — not that he tried to burglarize the home.

The panel stated, according to court filings, that it found allegations of physical force against the deputy were unresolved. But it found that while his behavior “brought discredit to him and the department,” the punishment had been excessive.


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