Watchdogs Warn LA's New Sheriff: Don't Rehire 'Bad Apple' Deputies

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at the graduation ceremony for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Academy class 433 at East Los Angeles College, Friday, January 4, 2019. (Kyle Grillot for LAist)

L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva took flak Tuesday from his civilian watchdog panel and the county's inspector general over his plan to bring back to the force deputies he concludes were wrongly terminated, as well as his rehiring of a fired deputy who worked on Villanueva's campaign.

Several hundred deputies who were fired or temporarily relieved of their duties by former Sheriff Jim McDonnell could get back their badge and gun under his plan, Villanueva told the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission. He said "division chiefs" are reviewing the cases.

Villanueva claimed McDonnell pressured his staff to find reasons to fire people for minor violations of department policy.

"There were a lot of cases that were internally compromised where investigators were ordered to find the facts to meet the outcome they were looking for, and to ignore facts that were exculpatory," Villanueva said.

Commissioner Robert Bonner was skeptical. "When you say there are a lot of disciplinary cases that have been internally compromised, I'd like to see the evidence of that," he said.

The sheriff also accused McDonnell of trying to improperly influence the Civil Service Commission to uphold terminations.

"We are sifting through all of the cases," Villanueva said.

Bonner warned against bringing back "bad apples."

McDonnell has defended his personnel decisions as an effort to clean house in the wake of the corruption scandal during the regime of former Sheriff Lee Baca.

Oversight Commission Chair Patti Giggans worried aloud whether Villanueva is taking the department's discipline policy "backwards."

Inspector General Max Huntsman said he's "deeply troubled" that the sheriff is not including him in reviews of deputy firings.

Huntsman wrote a letter to Villanueva on Dec. 4, the day after the sheriff's swearing in, asking him to let the inspector general's office monitor any meetings of the "truth and reconciliation" commission Villanueva said he would set up to review prior disciplinary actions. Huntsman told LAist he never got a response.

The inspector general said because "I wasn't allowed in the room," he can't say whether the department should have rehired Caren Mandoyan, a deputy fired in 2016 over allegations of domestic abuse and stalking.

Giggans had previously called Villanueva's rehiring of Mandoyan "very disturbing."

Commissioner J.P. Harris, a former sheriff's lieutenant , said Tuesday he has a lot of questions about Mandoyan's rehiring. "The optics are not great," he said.

Mandoyan, who has been assigned to the South L.A. station, is the only deputy rehired so far. He was accused of physically abusing and stalking another deputy with whom he had been romantically involved.

Villanueva said there was a "long list" of problems with Mandoyan's firing. "Someone decided after the fact, 'Let's make it a termination, artificially,'" he said.

The sheriff has declined to discuss the particulars of the case, citing a law that protects the privacy of officers' personnel records, but he did go into some details Tuesday. He pointed out to the commission that the district attorney's office declined to file criminal charges against Mandoyan, citing a lack of sufficient evidence.

Asked by Commissioner Priscilla Ocen whether "a conviction" would be required to discipline a deputy in a case involving domestic violence and stalking, Villanueva said, "there has to be at a minimum a filing [of criminal charges by the district attorney]."

The sheriff went on to say that the domestic violence "has to be related to employment too, in a way," adding, "in this particular case it did not rise to that level at all."

Added Villanueva, "In fact, the person who was a complainant ended up quitting the department on the day prior to having to actually go to court to testify under oath. Those are warning signs about the credibility of the individual involved."

Ocen pushed back. "I don't know that that's that unusual for a domestic violence complainant to not want to appear in court," she said.

Ocen expressed concern that Villanueva might be setting such a high bar of proof in discipline cases involving domestic violence that it "might not be workable."

In an interview with LAist following Villanueva's testimony, Undersheriff Ray Leyva said the sheriff will consider the totality of the evidence when reviewing discipline cases.

Mandoyan, who served as a deputy for 10 years before his firing, was a trusted volunteer member of Villanueva's campaign team. Besides carrying out various duties, he reportedly helped organize a campaign to lobby the sheriff's deputies' union to endorse Villanueva.

In first reporting on Mandoyan's rehiring, the Los Angeles Times said a county appeals board heard evidence and upheld his dismissal, and that Mandoyan sued the county and the civil service commission over his firing, although he filed to dismiss the latter case last month.

Commission members also grilled Villanueva Tuesday over his plan to create a truth and reconciliation commission to oversee the process of reviewing deputy firings and suspensions.

The sheriff promised to come back to the oversight panel by the end of the month to present the parameters of the truth and reconciliation panel's work.

Leyva, who said he's working with county counsel to set up the new commission, said the department is exploring ways to "limit the scope" of the review to "the most egregious cases," said Leyva.

"We do not want to undertake a massive undertaking and go back 15, 20, 30 years," he said.

Last month Villanueva removed the department's two constitutional policing advisors, who review discipline cases. He said Tuesday that their replacements will play a key role with the truth and reconciliation commission.

Leyva said that the sheriff plans to name three individuals to the constitutional positions, one of whom is Rick Brouwer, an attorney in the county counsel's office.

This story was updated on Jan. 23 to include information about the letter Max Huntsman wrote to Sheriff Villanueva.