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Fired L.A. County deputy discredited Sheriff’s Department, says panel that rehired him

Fired L.A. County deputy discredited Sheriff’s Department, says panel that rehired him
Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan, left — shown with Sheriff Alex Villanueva, center, and Assistant Sheriff Timothy Murakami — was reinstated after being fired in connection with allegations of domestic abuse and stalking. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

A review panel created by Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva concluded that a deputy fired for allegedly harassing a woman had acted irrationally and unprofessionally and brought “discredit to himself and the department,” and yet should be rehired, according to a report obtained by The Times.

The document offers the first clear account of how the sheriff’s “truth and reconciliation” panel came to conclude that Caren Carl Mandoyan was dismissed unfairly, paving the way for his rehiring, a decision that has thrown the department into weeks of chaos and set up an unprecedented power struggle between Villanueva and the county Board of Supervisors.

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The supervisors have gone to court to reverse the sheriff’s hiring of Mandoyan, citing claims that the deputy had abused, harassed and stalked a woman. The department’s review of the evidence in the case prompted his firing under then-Sheriff Jim McDonnell in 2016, a move that was later backed up by the Civil Service Commission.

But the new panel took a radically different view of Mandoyan’s case in a Dec. 27, 2018, report addressed to Villanueva. The panel was assembled shortly after Villanueva was sworn in in early December and tasked with redressing wrongs by the department, including claims made by the public.

The group could not confirm claims that Mandoyan was trying to break into the woman’s house, the report says. Moreover, they could not resolve allegations made by the woman, a former deputy, that Mandoyan physically abused her. The Times generally does not identify people who claim to be victims of domestic violence.

They did fault the deputy for going to the woman’s house, repeatedly knocking on her patio door and opening her unlocked bathroom window after she told him several times to leave, according to the eight-page memo by Chief Eliezer Vera summarizing the panel’s findings.

Mandoyan "behaved in an irrational, unprofessional and impulsive manner” and “brought discredit to himself and the department,” the panel said.

Greg Smith, Mandoyan’s attorney, says his client got into a verbal argument with the woman but did not abuse her.

The review panel is the centerpiece of a controversial effort by Villanueva to reexamine discipline handed down by his predecessor, whom he’s accused of being overly punitive. Villanueva has been critical of some of the reforms undertaken after a major scandal in the department led to criminal convictions against top leaders including longtime Sheriff Lee Baca.

Mandoyan, who volunteered on Villanueva’s campaign and served as his personal driver, was the first fired deputy that Villanueva brought before the panel. The sheriff has said he plans to bring other discharged deputies before the panel as well.

County officials have expressed outrage at the sheriff’s decision, taking the unusual steps of cutting off Mandoyan’s pay and ordering him to return his badge and gun. Smith has said Mandoyan will not comply with those directives.

On Tuesday, the supervisors proposed a legal review of the “truth and reconciliation” panel and said they would consider advising the sheriff to the stop the process of reevaluating deputy discipline.

“The lack of clarity around a process for making what appears to be swift and consequential decisions is concerning,” says the motion, authored by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl. “The sheriff has been acting unilaterally to reinstate deputies before setting up a formal process like the commission.”

The board is expected to vote on the motion next Tuesday. The Times first reported the rehiring in January.

Until now, the deliberations of the panel have been secret, and little has been known about its composition.

But The Times obtained a copy of its report on Mandoyan and also reviewed videos that show him on the balcony of the woman’s apartment appearing to use some type of metal tool to try to pry open her sliding patio door.

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The report lists the panel members as Vera, Assistant Sheriff Timothy Murakami and Chief Steven Gross. The document says a representative of the county counsel’s office, Christopher Keosian, was also present during the panel discussion. However, the county counsel said in a court filing Tuesday that no one in that office approved of Mandoyan’s reinstatement

Although the panel considered the domestic violence allegation made by the woman, it noted the district attorney's office declined to charge Mandoyan, citing insufficient evidence for physical abuse in 2014.

"An individual should not be subjected to discipline based upon a police report alone and/or a temporary restraining order" without a conviction, the panel concluded.

The panel noted that although the department had alleged Mandoyan made unwanted calls to the woman, the hearing officer determined the evidence did not show that and the panel agreed. The panel noted that the hearing officer also rejected the claim that Mandoyan used her home security cameras without her knowledge, because she gave him access to the security.

But the panel disagreed with the Civil Service Commission and department’s finding that Mandoyan had stalked the woman when she visited a local restaurant with another man and that he “listened to [her] engage in a sexual relationship with another man."

Mandoyan and the woman both lived in El Segundo, and the panel found the restaurant meeting could have been a "happenstance encounter."

It’s unclear whether the panel interviewed the woman before rendering its decision.

The report says that Mandoyan was "productive, well-respected and a highly valued deputy" and that after reevaluating the charges, they "do not rise to the level of Discharge," absent additional information.

The Times also reviewed videos that the woman took of Mandoyan on the balcony of her apartment. The clips were part of the investigative proceedings.

The footage shows Mandoyan dressed in a white, long-sleeve T-shirt and dark pants standing outside a sliding glass door on the balcony. He is holding a broomstick he uses to tap on the glass. The woman parts the vertical blinds to see him, and he asks to come inside. He then holds his cellphone toward her, possibly to take photos. She repeatedly refuses to let him. At one point, he uses some type of object in an attempt to open the door. Mandoyan appears calm throughout the encounter.

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"Get away from my door, go home," she can be heard saying. "Goodbye, Caren." He continues to try to open the door.

In other video, the woman screams at him to get out, warning, "I am calling the cops."

Smith, Mandoyan's attorney, said his client was there to retrieve his keys and a backpack and to attempt to reconcile with the woman. He said Mandoyan received a 12-day suspension for his behavior.

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