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California

County wants to know whether Sheriff Villanueva’s ‘truth and reconciliation’ panel is legal

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The Board of Supervisors has been critical of Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s “truth and reconciliation” panel, raising concerns that it is working to reinstate fired deputies in secret.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A key component of Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s plans for revamping the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department will come under new scrutiny after the county’s governing board moved Tuesday to examine the legality of a panel that approved the reinstatement of a fired deputy.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to direct the county’s lawyers to evaluate the legality of the sheriff’s “truth and reconciliation” panel and instruct Villanueva to stop reevaluating discipline that was imposed by his predecessor, former Sheriff Jim McDonnell, until a full review of the panel is completed.

The issue came into focus following an outcry over Villanueva’s reinstatement of a deputy who was fired in connection with allegations of domestic abuse, harassment and stalking.

The Times reported that a panel comprised of three members of Villanueva’s command staff issued a report finding that Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan “brought discredit to himself and the department” by repeatedly tapping on an ex-girlfriend’s patio door and opening her window. The group could not confirm the woman’s allegations of abuse.

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The supervisors’ move is the latest rebuke of the county’s new sheriff, whose fledgling term has been dominated by controversy over his attacks on the reforms of his predecessor and his efforts to bring back fired deputies. Last week, the county took the unusual step of seeking an injunction against Villanueva’s reinstatement of Mandoyan. A judge declined to grant an emergency order to remove Mandoyan on Wednesday and said he would take up the case again at a hearing in June.

Villanueva has argued that some deputies were subject to unjust punishment and that the panel would also consider complaints about the department from the public. McDonnell has said in the past he stands by his efforts at reforming the department and is not interested in engaging with individual claims against him by Villanueva.

The panel’s report on Mandoyan obtained by The Times — titled “truth and reconciliation panel review” — is dated Dec 27.

A video clip reviewed by The Times appeared to show Mandoyan using a metal tool to try to pry open the woman’s door. Mandoyan’s attorney, Greg Smith, has said his client got into an argument with the woman, a former deputy, but did not abuse her. Mandoyan volunteered on Villanueva’s campaign and served as his personal driver.

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The supervisors have criticized Villanueva for apparently circumventing county rules and using a secretive process to reinstate Mandoyan after his 2016 discharge had been upheld by the county Civil Service Commission.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who wrote the motion with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, also questioned the sheriff’s use of the term “truth and reconciliation,” which has roots in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in post-apartheid South Africa to seek restorative justice for human rights abusers and give their victims a chance to speak in public forums. Ridley-Thomas said Villanueva’s panel — which could restore fired deputies to their jobs — “stands in contrast to that.”

Supervisor Janice Hahn said she found it problematic that the panel that reinstated Mandoyan was made up of three men who saw a video of the deputy appearing to break into his ex-girlfriend’s apartment and didn’t think it merited more severe discipline.

“I don’t think there is a woman anywhere who hasn’t felt that kind of fear,” Hahn told Villanueva at the meeting.

Villanueva, joined by Assistant Sheriffs Maria Gutierrez and Tim Murakami, said deputies were happier and more energized since he took office. He said his review of unjust discipline was part of restoring morale within the ranks.

“When we ensure our employees are afforded the due process that is afforded to every single person that we detain, then the employees are going to come. I can recruit employees,” said Villanueva, noting how tough it is to hire deputies in a tight job market. “There are a lot more attractive career paths than law enforcement where you don’t get beat up in public.”

Villanueva said the truth and reconciliation panel is still in the process of being formed, though an ad hoc committee has already done some work on reviewing disciplinary cases. There are as many as 400 cases that were wrongly adjudicated in the past, he said, though he did not specify how many of those may come under review. He said only one deputy — Mandoyan — had been reinstated.

The Times reported that even before Villanueva took office and before any panel would have been formed, he was pushing for Mandoyan to be reinstated, emails show.

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Rod Castro-Silva, the county’s interim inspector general, told the board his office was troubled by the Sheriff’s Department’s lack of communication about its effort to reinstate deputies. He said his staff had heard that internal investigations were being “deactivated at a troubling rate.”

“The department’s leadership has essentially been playing a shell game of misinformation on this topic. At one point, we hear there is a truth and reconciliation commission. Then, that there isn’t one yet. We read and see that there is an ad hoc committee performing the same function, but that that group isn’t the truth and reconciliation commission,” Castro-Silva said.

Several current and former deputies and their family members praised Villanueva and his quest to rectify injustices against deputies, many of whom are breadwinners for their households.

Industry Station Deputy Ramon Del Castillo said he was a victim of McDonnell’s and was fired over false allegations before winning his job back at the Civil Service Commission.

Another deputy, Brianne Roberts, said too many of her colleagues were wrongfully terminated by the “broken system” of the last administration.

“We finally have a sheriff that cares, not only about personnel, but the community,” said Roberts, who said she is the sole provider for her children. “Morale is up. Deputies aren’t afraid to work. We know that we are supported and that we finally matter.”

Also Tuesday, the supervisors unanimously voted to move forward with a comprehensive inquiry started by McDonnell in July to study tattooed secret societies of deputies. Seven deputies filed a claim against the county last week alleging systemic hazing, including beatings, of young Latino deputies by members of the Banditos, a group of deputies with identical tattoos at the East Los Angeles Station.

Villanueva said he replaced the leaders of that station, which came under scrutiny last year after an off-duty fight resulted in a sergeant and three deputies being placed on leave. The recent claim says the fight was perpetrated by the Banditos.

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maya.lau@latimes.com

Twitter: @mayalau


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