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California

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva reinstates four more fired deputies

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L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, shown at a Jan. 30 news conference, has defended his decision to rehire fired deputies.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has reinstated at least six deputies who were previously discharged, according to county documents obtained by The Times.

Villanueva has previously defended his department’s decisions to rehire two deputies fired for misconduct — one accused of assaulting and harassing a woman and lying about it, the other for using unreasonable force during an arrest.

But The Times found four additional rehires, a revelation that is likely to stoke more scrutiny from county supervisors and department watchdogs who have called on the sheriff to stop the practice.

Villanueva has argued that previous sheriffs were too harsh in punishing deputies and that he wants to be fairer. But critics fear the sheriff is rolling back crucial reforms imposed in the wake of a major corruption scandal several years ago.

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In December, Villanueva reinstated one of his campaign volunteers, Caren Carl Mandoyan, who was fired in 2016 for violating department policies regarding family violence and dishonesty. The sheriff also gave another deputy, Michael Courtial, his job back in February, after a review by the department determined the deputy should not have been terminated for using unreasonable force, The Times reported Wednesday.

In addition to Mandoyan and Courtial, the list, compiled at the request of the Board of Supervisors and obtained by The Times through a public records request, shows that Deputies Justin Seman, Omar Chavez, Jason Goss and Brian Mayfield have been rehired in recent months after previously being discharged.

The county on Friday provided The Times with an updated list, which included the names on the original roster and 16 additions. But the updated list redacted the column that shows whether the deputy had been previously discharged.

In a statement, Villanueva said the reinstatements of Seman, Chavez and Mayfield happened after the Civil Service Commission overturned the deputies’ discipline. Goss was brought back to work through a settlement agreement, he said.

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The procedure to reinstate or modify the discipline of a county employee has been long-established process, and may include settlement agreements, Villanueva said. Whenever a case is put before the Civil Service Commission, the panel strongly encourages the parties to resolve the matter, he said.

The Sheriff’s Department declined to answer questions about the circumstances of the four deputies’ dismissals.

The emergence of the list is the latest development in an unusual battle dominating Villanueva’s fledgling term over whether he has the authority to reinstate fired deputies.

He faces an unprecedented legal fight from the county Board of Supervisors, which took him to court last month to try to block him from reinstating Mandoyan. The supervisors, who control the county’s budget, have stopped paying Mandoyan and say he is not an employee, though the deputy remains on duty.

A longtime underdog during his decades on the department and during his campaign, Villanueva triumphed over then-incumbent Sheriff Jim McDonnell last year on a promise to correct the wrongs of the past, including ending cronyism and addressing the cases of deputies who’d been unfairly disciplined through a “truth and reconciliation” panel.

Supervisors approved a motion March 12 directing the county’s auditor-controller, chief executive, director of personnel or county counsel to notify the board of all requests to rehire or reinstate former Sheriff’s Department employees.

The first list provided to The Times includes 27 former employees who were put back on the county payroll since Dec. 3, when Villanueva took office.

Four of the names, including Assistant Sheriff Robert Olmsted and former Undersheriff Ray Leyva, are tagged as being retirees who were rehired. Several others, including Villanueva as well as security officers, custody assistants and deputy trainees, are simply described as rehires.

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The list shows that Seman was reinstated in December, Chavez in January, and Goss and Mayfield in February, according to the document.

It is unclear why the deputies other than Mandoyan and Courtial were discharged or whether they were found to have committed misconduct.

Custody Assistant Stephen Miramontes is also listed as being rehired after being terminated.

Multiple efforts to reach the deputies, and Miramontes, were unsuccessful Friday.

At a public meeting March 12, Villanueva told the supervisors that as of that date, he had reinstated only one deputy — Mandoyan — and that all other reinstatements were on hold. Nishida confirmed to The Times that day that no other reinstatements had occurred. She said Friday that at that time, she was not privy to information about any other rehirings and that Villanueva had been referring to reinstatements under the truth and reconciliation panel.

Supervisors directed the sheriff on March 12 to stop reevaluating discipline previously imposed on Sheriff’s Department employees, including discontinuing the work of his truth and reconciliation panel, which cleared the path for Mandoyan’s reinstatement.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said this week that Villanueva’s comments to the board display an “emerging pattern of inconsistencies” and even “blatant misrepresentations” about the deputy reinstatements.

“It makes it hard to do business with someone when you can’t trust what they’re saying,” Ridley-Thomas said.

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Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said that beyond the questions about the sheriff’s authority, she is growing more troubled about whether the reinstated deputies are good for public safety.

“We have to be concerned about whether they are qualified and whether they can keep the public trust,” she said. ”My concern is deepening about the judgment of the sheriff.”

Villanueva told The Times on Thursday that Courtial’s case was flagged by former Sheriff’s Department Chief John Benedict, who originally approved the deputy’s firing but later had doubts about the decision.

Villanueva said the county counsel’s office reviewed the case and found errors in the investigation, leading officials to strike a settlement with Courtial to reinstate him and impose less severe discipline.

The agreement, approved by an outside attorney contracted by the Sheriff’s Department, was struck before Courtial’s case could be heard by the Civil Service Commission.

Benedict, now retired, told The Times on Friday that he did not raise an alert about Courtial’s case and did not have second thoughts about the decision to discharge him. He said he complied with a request by Villanueva’s transition team to supply a list of terminations that had not been adjudicated by the Civil Service Commission, which included Courtial’s.

“The investigation (into Courtial) was solid. It was a good investigation. I had no issues with it,” Benedict said. He added that he was later transferred to another division and did not play a role in Courtial’s settlement. He said any reinstatements of fired deputies would have to be brought to the attention of the sheriff.

The department has said Courtial’s case followed a long-standing policy of division-level review that involved the county counsel’s office, and was not the work of the truth and reconciliation panel. Villanueva has said he was not involved in the decision to settle. Nishida, the department spokeswoman, said 14 similar settlements that restored the jobs of fired deputies were agreed to under McDonnell’s administration.

Retired Chief Stephen Johnson, who served in the Sheriff’s Department for 41 years including under McDonnell, said that from his experience, people at the division level such as himself did not have the authority to approve settlements to bring fired deputies back.

Johnson, who most recently oversaw the Detective Division before being removed by Villanueva, said that although he could review low-level cases, reinstatements involving deputies who had been discharged would have to be approved by a representative for the county counsel and a Sheriff’s Department official above his level, probably the sheriff.

McDonnell did not respond to requests for comment.

Villanueva told The Times on Thursday that the cases of about 68 deputies who were terminated under McDonnell — but whose cases were not adjudicated by the Civil Service Commission — are under review for reinstatement. An additional 70 cases that are already in the Civil Service Commission process are not being looked at.

“Over the course of the past five years, the department engaged in a mass firing scheme that was illegal, that was based on the denial of due process to employees and based on the systematic exclusion of exculpatory evidence,” Villanueva said in an interview with The Times on Thursday.

Det. Ron Hernandez, president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents rank-and-file deputies, said it has been common practice for disciplinary cases, including terminations, to end in a settlement. He said that for discharges, this could come in the form of a “back-to-work agreement” that might restrict the employee’s rights or duties and involve some disciplinary measures.

County Counsel Mary Wickham, in a letter to Villanueva dated April 1 that was reviewed by The Times, told the sheriff that only her office can handle settlements and directed him not to enter into any more settlements related to discipline. She also told him not to employ outside attorneys for those agreements.

Villanueva said Thursday that Wickham has “gone rogue” by claiming that she has power over legal settlements involving disciplinary decisions.

“That’s put a lot of cases in limbo,” he said.

Wickham typically does not field requests from the media and did not respond to requests for comment Friday. A county spokeswoman, Lennie LaGuire, declined to comment on the list.

The board’s motion last month directed Wickham to instruct the sheriff to discontinue work on the truth and reconciliation panel and “any other similar processes or actions” related to the reevaluation of the discipline of department personnel.

Wickham’s office is also preparing a report to the board about the legality of the disciplinary review panel, due later this month.

maya.lau@latimes.com

Twitter: @mayalau


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