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Before taking office, Sheriff Villanueva pushed to rehire deputy accused of domestic violence

Before taking office, Sheriff Villanueva pushed to rehire deputy accused of domestic violence
Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan, left, volunteered on Sheriff Alex Villanueva's campaign and acted as his personal driver before Villanueva reinstated him in December. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has long said that his decision to reinstate a deputy who had been fired in connection with domestic abuse and stalking allegations was part of a broader vision to rebuild the department.

He believed Caren Carl Mandoyan, who volunteered on his campaign and acted as his personal driver, was a victim of a punitive culture in the prior regime that eroded deputy morale. Villanueva created a new “truth and reconciliation” panel to rectify what he claims were past mistakes made by the department that harmed deputies and the public.

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But documents reviewed by The Times show that Villanueva was working to rehire Mandoyan before he took office on Dec. 3 and at least a month before the reconciliation panel issued findings that Mandoyan’s misconduct did not merit discharge. The panel determined that Mandoyan acted irrationally by repeatedly tapping on a woman’s door and opening her window and that he brought “discredit to himself and the department,” but could not confirm allegations that he abused her, according to its Dec. 27 report.

Villanueva has said that the panel’s conclusions are what led to Mandoyan’s reinstatement. The sheriff said at a news conference in January that he initiated the review into Mandoyan in the first week after taking office.

However, a Nov. 30 email from former Chief Alicia Ault, who headed the department’s professional standards division, says Villanueva made a “priority request” to reinstate Mandoyan and that it was in the hands of county counsel.

“I have been told this request has been given to contract counsel and the County Counsel Litigation Attorneys to work together with Mr. Mandoyan’s attorney to achieve the goal of returning him to work,” said the email, sent to Villanueva’s incoming chief of staff, Lawrence Del Mese.

County spokeswoman Lennie LaGuire said the county’s lawyers could not comment on the email, but the county counsel said in a court filing Tuesday that no one in that office approved of Mandoyan’s reinstatement.

Ault could not be reached for comment. She stopped working for the department on Nov. 30, according to her email. Her email was provided by the Sheriff’s Department in response to a public records request from The Times.

The email has heightened criticism from some county supervisors, who have questioned the legitimacy of the truth and reconciliation committee and the wisdom of hiring back deputies fired by previous administrations.

“Doesn’t it make it obvious that the sheriff is willing to exceed his authority even before he legitimately has authority?” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “To orchestrate all of this prior to even having taken an oath and legitimately being the sheriff speaks volumes as to his mentality.”

Ridley-Thomas said he didn’t understand why Villanueva took such extraordinary steps for a deputy whose behavior was “completely embarrassing at best and unlawful at worst.”

Villanueva did not respond to requests for comment. But he has defended Mandoyan in the past, saying the case against the deputy “failed on so many different levels” and was the result of a broken disciplinary process that brings false charges against deputies.

Mandoyan’s attorney has denied he harassed or abused the woman.

Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida did not directly respond to questions about Ault’s email and instead issued a previously published statement from Villanueva.

“I can assure that an objective, honest, and fair assessment was conducted before reinstatement,” the statement said.

Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Sheila Kuehl introduced a motion Tuesday that would initiate a review of whether the sheriff’s truth and reconciliation panel is legal and would instruct the sheriff to stop reevaluating past disciplinary actions for deputies. The board is expected to vote on the motion next week.

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Xavier Thompson, a member of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, said the email from Ault indicates Villanueva has failed in his campaign promises to bring a new level of transparency and accountability to the department.

“The fact that this process was well underway before the truth and reconciliation committee was put into place is a direct slap in the people’s face…. He did not seek our input. He did not seek our counsel. And he said he is committed to working with us,” said Thompson, who is the senior pastor at the Southern Saint Paul Church.

Patti Giggans, chair of the oversight commission, said last month that Sheriff’s Department officials gave her and her colleagues few details about the truth and reconciliation panel and implied that it hadn’t been fully formed yet. Another oversight commissioner, Lael Rubin, called Villanueva’s effort to reinstate fired deputies “a rogue operation.”

A broader move by the supervisors to force Villanueva to undo Mandoyan’s reinstatement was stymied Wednesday when a judge declined to grant the county’s request for an injunction against the Sheriff’s Department.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff said at a hearing that the county’s objections to Villanueva’s decision didn’t warrant an emergency order to intervene by removing 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, allowing Mandoyan to remain on duty.

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

Mandoyan’s attorney, Greg Smith, has said his client will continue working without pay and will not turn in his badge or weapon.

Steven Madison, an attorney representing Villanueva and the Sheriff’s Department in the court case, said there is no conflict presented by the timeline of the sheriff’s request to reinstate Mandoyan.

“Clearly part of the sheriff’s whole campaign, which allowed him to win overwhelmingly, was one of reform and the fact that there had been terminations that were improper. The fact that he was looking into those matters after he had been elected and was preparing to take office is something I think the taxpayers would be grateful for,” Madison said.

The truth and reconciliation panel, consisting of Assistant Sheriff Timothy Murakami, Chief Eliezer Vera and Chief Steven Gross, met on Dec. 21 to evaluate Mandoyan’s case, according to the panel’s report reviewed by The Times.

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The panel found Mandoyan violated department policies for “general behavior” and “conduct toward others” for going to a fellow deputy’s house, repeatedly knocking on her patio door and opening her unlocked bathroom window after she told him several times to leave. But the panel said there was not enough evidence to support allegations made by the woman, who had dated Mandoyan, that he grabbed her neck, pushed her or stalked her, according to the report.

Videos reviewed by The Times show Mandoyan on the balcony of the woman’s apartment appearing to use a metal tool to try to pry open her sliding patio door.

Smith says Mandoyan got into a verbal argument with the woman but was not physically aggressive with her. The Times generally does not identify people who claim to be victims of domestic violence.

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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