Why Is LA County Sheriff Villanueva Fighting So Hard to Keep A Deputy Accused Of Domestic Abuse?

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, Jan. 4, 2019. (Kyle Grillot for LAist)

The controversy keeps growing over Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva's rehiring of a deputy who was fired for alleged domestic abuse.

It's landed him in a legal standoff with the Board of Supervisors, and stirred anger among members of the sheriff's civilian oversight commission.

HOW DID IT ALL START?

Caren Carl Mandoyan was hired as a deputy sheriff in 2006. He started dating a fellow deputy when they worked together at the West Hollywood Sheriff's Station in 2012, according to an internal department review of his case. Mandoyan was transferred to the South L.A. Station, but the two kept dating.

Mandoyan's girlfriend accused him of a range of domestic abuse, including an incident in September 2014 in which he "pushed or grabbed her by the arm, placing his hand around her neck and squeezing it restricting her ability to breath," according to the internal review.

Police in El Segundo, where his girlfriend lives, named Mandoyan a domestic violence stalking suspect. A judge issued a temporary restraining order against him.

Mandoyan denied he engaged in domestic violence of any kind.

Former L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell fired Mandoyan in September 2016 citing numerous policy violations pertaining to his conduct toward his girlfriend, domestic violence and dishonesty/false statements. Mandoyan, for example, did not tell the department he was forced to surrender three guns under the restraining order.

Mandoyan appealed his firing to the Civil Service Commission, which granted his request for a full evidentiary hearing. In May 2018, the Commission issued its ruling upholding Mandoyan's termination.

On Aug. 13, 2018, Mandoyan filed a petition against the county and the sheriff's department, seeking a judge's ruling voiding his firing.

On Aug. 27, 2018, Mandoyan filed a complaint for damages against the county, alleging various violations arising from his case.

THE NEW SHERIFF STEPS IN

During Villanueva's campaign for sheriff in 2018, Mandoyan joined as a volunteer. But he wasn't just any volunteer. He played a key role in rallying deputies to support Villanueva, and served as the candidate's personal driver.

Villanueva was elected in November 2018 and took office on Dec. 3.

He convened a special panel to review Mandoyan's case, comprised of Assistant Sheriff Timothy Murakami, Chief Eliezer Vera and Chief Steven Gross.

The group met on Dec. 21 to evaluate Mandoyan's case and issued a report on Dec. 27, saying Mandoyan had acted "in an irrational, unprofessional and impulsive manner" and "brought discredit to himself and the department" but still concluded that he should be rehired.

On Dec. 28, Villanueva rehired Mandoyan.

On Dec. 31, Mandoyan filed papers in court seeking to dismiss his two legal complaints.

In testimony to the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission on Jan. 22, Villanueva said Mandoyan was wrongly fired, noting the District Attorney did not file charges and saying the department should not get caught up in personal disputes among deputies. He also said Mandoyan's behavior was not related to his work performance - even though his accuser was a fellow deputy.

THE BACKLASH

On Jan. 29, Villanueva drew the ire of members of the County Board of Supervisors when he cast doubt on Mandoyan's accuser's credibility by pointing out that she waited nearly a year to report her allegations and quit the department before she was to testify against Mandoyan.

In a Jan. 30 news conference, Villanueva said he never had a "predetermined outcome" on Mandoyan, that his case was fully vetted by the special panel.

"If the evidence supported termination, he would not be back at work, period," the sheriff declared.

But an email obtained by the Los Angeles Times indicates Villanueva's efforts to rehire Mandoyan began even before he took office. A Nov. 30 email written by a department official said the sheriff had made a "priority request" to county counsel that Mandoyan be reinstated.

The Board of Supervisors asked county counsel to review the rehiring, and on Feb. 20, Villanueva was informed that the county had determined that his action was illegal and therefore void, according to a Feb. 28 letter Auditor-Controller John Naimo wrote to Mandoyan.

Villanueva refused to heed the county's order, and Mandoyan refused to turn in his gun and badge. On Mar. 4, the county filed a petition asking a judge to enjoin Villanueva from recognizing Mandoyan as a deputy, prohibit Mandoyan from presenting himself as a deputy and order Mandoyan to turn in his gun and badge.

On Mar. 6, Judge Mitchell Beckloff rejected the county's request for an immediate order, saying he was unconvinced the supervisors had the authority to override Villanueva's decision. The judge said the case can continue, and set a hearing for June 26.

In an appearance Tuesday before the Board of Supervisors, Villanueva said he was "disappointed" they went to court to block his rehiring of Mandoyan without coming to him first.

The sheriff said, "I would come to you first" if he had a dispute with the board.

Villanueva argued the supervisors' legal efforts are "wasting taxpayers' money."

The supervisors pushed back. "We believe you have not operated within the confines of the law" in bringing Mandoyan back, said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

MORE MANDOYANS AHEAD?

Villanueva has accused McDonnell of wrongly firing dozens of deputies. He's vowed to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to review each termination. The sheriff told the supervisors Tuesday that he could review as many as 400 firings.

"I don't expect all will come back," he said. "Maybe half, maybe less."

Also on Tuesday, the supervisors unanimously passed a motion ordering the county counsel to report back in 30 days on whether the Truth and Reconciliation panel is legal. The motion also calls on Villanueva to halt his work on the panel pending the county counsel's report. The sheriff told LAist that he will not do so.

So how the Mandoyan case gets resolved could have far-reaching consequences for the sheriff's plans.

"This is going to set the tone for where he goes with bringing in deputies that have been fired," Supervisor Kathryn Barger said.

This story was updated on Mar. 12 to include the account of that day's Board of Supervisors meeting.