UPDATE ON JANUARY 22, 2020: About a month after this story was published, Sheriff Alex Villanueva parted ways with his attorneys at Quinn Emanuel who were charging county taxpayers up to $1120 per hour in legal fees. Villanueva's new attorney, Stanley Friedman, has agreed to accept the county-approved rate of $495 per hour. Villanueva says his decision to change attorneys was not about the dispute over attorney fees.
It should be no surprise that Los Angeles County is involved in a lot of lawsuits, but when was the last time you heard of the county suing itself? The skyrocketing costs of one particular lawsuit is costing millions of your tax dollars... with much of it pouring into the pockets of attorneys.
At least a dozen private attorneys are pulling out all the stops in the case of Los Angeles County vs. Sheriff Alex Villanueva, Caren Carl Mandoyan and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department - a lawsuit filed by the county challenging Villanueva's authority to rehire fired LASD Deputy Mandoyan.
Most of the attorneys are being paid -- or will eventually be paid -- by Los Angeles County taxpayers and Sheriff Villanueva says the attorneys alone on this case have already racked up $3 million in fees.
The amount those private attorneys should be paid has now sparked a legal battle of its own, costing taxpayers even more money as many of those attorneys charge the county by the hour to argue what the county should be paying them. The hourly rates they are fighting over range from $495 per hour to $1120 per hour.
At the outset of this case, L.A. County Counsel authorized Villanueva to hire outside, "conflict counsel" to represent him in the legal dispute. But the authorization noted that the County Board of Supervisors has "discretion to pay such compensation as it deems just and proper for these services."
Sheriff Villanueva was served with a lawsuit days later and quickly hired lawyers with the Quinn Emanuel firm, which agreed to discount their usual rates by 20 percent. Sounds great, right? But the lead attorney for Villanueva, Steve Madison, says that 20 percent discount only brings his rate down to $1120 an hour.
On the other side of this lawsuit is Los Angeles County, specifically the Board of Supervisors and County Counsel. Los Angeles County has hundreds of its own attorneys on staff, but also hired outside, private attorneys because of the conflict inherent in the County suing one of its own departments - the LASD.
So, Los Angeles County hired the Miller Barondess firm as its "conflict counsel" and that firm agreed to discount their usual fees to the county-approved rate of $495 per hour.
Here's the problem: Quinn Emanuel, the firm hired by Villanueva as his outside counsel, has so far refused to sign a proposed retainer agreement with the county. Why? In part because the county's retainer agreement only allows for the county-approved rate of $495 per hour.
Instead, Quinn Emanuel says it has its own retainer agreement with Sheriff Villanueva for more than twice the county-approved rate - at $1120 per hour for its lead attorney.
Don't forget - this is money coming out of the pockets of every taxpayer living in Los Angeles County.
"How can a client not know what his lawyer is.... charging?"
Eyewitness News asked Sheriff Villanueva about the dispute over his attorneys' rates.
"Whatever the attorneys on that side get are the same rate that our ones get," said Villanueva.
But that's just not true. We tried to remind the Sheriff that it's only his attorneys at Quinn Emanuel who are asking for as much as $1120 per hour.
"That's between the attorneys to resolve that," Villanueva responded. "That's not my control."
The Sheriff's answer didn't sit well with Skip Miller, lead attorney for Miller Barondess on the county's side of this case.
"How can a client not know what his lawyer is doing and what his lawyer is charging?" Miller asked.
Despite the Sheriff's professed ignorance about the rates being charged by his own attorneys, he did reference the sky-high legal bills at a press conference back in August.
"Here's what voters should be asking - is it appropriate for five supervisors to use taxpayer dollars to hire three high-powered law firms, each lawyer making on average $1100 an hour?" Villanueva asked
But again, the only attorneys asking for that kind of money are Sheriff Villanueva's attorneys
Miller and other attorneys Eyewitness News spoke with say that law firms typically give what's known as a "haircut," or a deep discount when doing work for government agencies.
"They should be ashamed of themselves, charging taxpayers $1120 an hour," Miller told Eyewitness News. "It's just not the way it works when you represent government."
Quinn Emanuel's attorneys declined to be interviewed on camera for this story, but told Eyewitness News by phone that the $1120 hourly rate is not the only sticking point. They also object to signing a contract with and submitting bills to County Counsel because they believe the bills could reveal confidential legal strategy. The rates for two other Quinn Emanuel attorneys on the case -- after that 20% discount -- are $952 an hour and $556 an hour.
So, how much are taxpayers on the hook for so far? Sheriff Villanueva estimates that attorney fees alone in this case add up to about $3 million. That's a rough estimate because Villanueva does not have access to bills from the county's outside attorneys. Neither side will turn over their bills to Eyewitness News. The County cited "attorney-client" privilege in rejecting our public records request.
The LASD did tell Eyewitness News that Quinn Emanuel had billed about $870,000 as of mid-August, but the LASD has not responded to our repeated requests for updated numbers. Meanwhile, court transcripts show Quinn Emanuel submitted a bill to the LASD over the summer for $280,075 - an amount they told a judge represents their fees for the first two months of litigation. A check was cut, but then flagged and stopped because Quinn Emanuel still hasn't signed a retainer agreement with County Counsel.
INTERACTIVE TIMELINE OF THE MANDOYAN CASE: Scroll through or click the years on the left to navigate
Lawyers, lawyers and more lawyers...
How best to resolve a dispute about how much attorneys should be paid? Los Angeles County hired yet another law firm, O'Melveny & Myers, to specifically deal with issues surrounding Quinn Emanuel's hourly rate and scope of representation. O'Melveny & Myers' discounted rate for this case is reportedly $550 per hour.
In a June letter, O'Melveny & Myers attorney Maggie Carter specifically told Steve Madison of Quinn Emanuel that his firm's representation of the sheriff is "illegal," because "the Board did not authorize the Sheriff to make a contract with you."
The courtroom arguments have gotten heated. At a September hearing, Skip Miller accused the Quinn Emanuel firm of "pulling a fast one" on the County of Los Angeles and Board of Supervisors," by submitting a bill to the LASD instead of County Counsel.
Steve Madison of Quinn Emanuel fired back that his firm will not be "bullied or threatened by Mr. Miller."
So far, Quinn Emanuel says it has not been paid a dime. Again, that's because of the dispute over their rates and signing the county's retainer agreement. Greg Smith, who represents Mandoyan in the lawsuit, says he doesn't expect to be paid unless Mandoyan walks away with some kind of settlement from the county.
"Welcome to the law and billing by the hour," says Professor Jessica Levinson of the Loyola Law School. "This one just feels I think so problematic for taxpayers because, again -- you are paying by the hour to determine whether an hourly rate is appropriate."
Mandoyan, meanwhile, has filed five writs or lawsuits against various entities in Los Angeles County since he was fired in 2016, all in hopes of getting his job back. Three of those cases have been dismissed, two more are pending. All of those cases were or currently are being defended by outside law firms hired by the county - again, at taxpayer expense.
Mandoyan was the first of many fired deputies Sheriff Villanueva wants to consider rehiring. In March, Villanueva told the Board of Supervisors he was looking at hundreds of deputies he believes may have been wrongly fired under previous Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
"The number 400, it's slightly over 400 - these are termination cases only. I haven't even started digging in through 30-day discipline and working my way down to written reprimands," Villanueva said in March.
More recently, Sheriff Villanueva told Eyewitness News he's looking at 66 termination cases he believes may be reversed.
"Every single case we make, termination cases, we've got to make sure we got it right, because we're altering someone's life," Villanueva told Eyewitness News last month.
Villanueva released this statement after our story was published:
The firing that started it all
Deputy Caren "Carl" Mandoyan was fired in 2016 by McDonnell for alleged domestic violence, stalking and attempting to break into his girlfriend's apartment. LASD investigators also found that Mandoyan lied to investigators in his interview with Internal Affairs by denying that he tried to force his way into her apartment.
The woman, also a deputy at the time, claims that in September 2014 Mandoyan grabbed her by the neck, pushed her into a couch and began to choke her during a struggle over her cell phone.
In December of the same year, the woman recorded a video of Mandoyan outside her El Segundo apartment. He appears to be using a metal cable pulley to attempt to pry open a patio door. Mandoyan has repeatedly denied all wrongdoing and says the video shows him simply trying to get her attention after she'd locked him out of the apartment after a run-of-the-mill fight with his personal belongings inside.
"That incident had occurred over half a dozen times, it was no different than any other boyfriend-girlfriend, verbal argument," Mandoyan says, adding that he stayed over at her apartment four or five nights a week. Mandoyan also points to text messages between the pair in the hours after the incident in which they exchange 'I love you' messages.
In January 2015, the woman recorded more video of Mandoyan. She says he pounded on her door at 3 am, then opened her bathroom window and began throwing toiletry items at her. She can be heard saying, "Get the (expletive) out of my house, Caren! Get out! Stop, dude!" Mandoyan has said he was only trying to apologize to the woman. He left after she said she was "calling the cops."
"We got into an argument," Mandoyan tells Eyewitness News. "She got home before I did and I was merely trying to apologize."
In the following months, the woman says she received harassing text messages she believed were from Mandoyan. Mandoyan denies this and claims they were from another female deputy he'd begun to date.
On June 3rd, 2015 Mandoyan says he received a phone call from the accuser and that she threatened his job by saying, "you can say goodbye to your job, you (expletive) idiot.... when I'm done with you're going to need a psych approval to get your job back." Mandoyan documented the call in a memo to his supervisor.
On June 23rd, 2015 the woman reported Mandoyan to her LASD supervisor and later to the El Segundo Police Department. Mandoyan was relieved of duty by the LASD in July of 2015.
Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges citing a lack of sufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, but Mandoyan was fired by the LASD in September of 2016. He fought the firing, but his termination was upheld in a series of reviews by the LASD, including a Case Review Committee, a Skelly hearing and a five-day trial-like civil service hearing with exhibits, witness testimony and an attorney for Mandoyan.
Normally, the only recourse after a final decision by the Civil Service Commission -- for Mandoyan or any other county employee -- would be to file a lawsuit challenging the decision in Los Angeles Superior Court. Mandoyan did that.
Mandoyan also began volunteering on the campaign trail for candidates hoping to unseat former Sheriff McDonnell -- first for retired LASD Commander Bob Lindsey and later for Villanueva. Mandoyan was described as a key aide and personal driver for Villanueva, spending hours on the road together, driving from event to event. Campaign election records show several people with the last name Mandoyan first donated to rival Bob Lindsey's campaign for sheriff. After Lindsey was defeated in the primary, two of them also donated to Villanueva's campaign.
"The Sheriff is not going to bat for someone where you pass him in the hall once and they high-fived," says Professor Levinson. "They obviously have a personal relationship - this is someone who worked for him, who worked for his election campaign."
As first reported by the Los Angeles Times, the effort by Villanueva to return Mandoyan to duty appears to have begun well before Villanueva was sworn into office and before he would have had official access to Mandoyan's Internal Affairs file.
Jim McDonnell conceded the election on November 26, 2018. That same day Villanueva's incoming Chief of Staff Larry Del Mese emailed LASD Chief Alicia Ault. Del Mese's email has not been publicly released, but Ault replied four days later that she was retiring and that she'd forwarded "Sheriff Elect Villanueva's priority request forward" so that County Counsel and Mandoyan's attorney could work together "to achieve the goal of returning him (Mandoyan) to work."
A detailed July 2019 report on Mandoyan's rehiring by the Department's chief watchdog, the L.A. County Office of Inspector General, states "an e-mail from Chief Ault strongly suggests that efforts to bring Mandoyan back to work predate any factual re-evaluation of his case by the Truth and Reconciliation Panel."
The Truth and Reconciliation Panel
Sheriff Villanueva has said that the effort to rehire Mandoyan was not "predetermined" and did not begin until his first week in office in early December 2018. That's when Villanueva created the "Truth and Reconciliation Panel" to reassess disciplinary cases he believed had been handled unfairly under previous Sheriff Jim McDonnell. The Panel was made up of three LASD officials, all of whom had just been promoted by Sheriff Villanueva. Mandoyan's case was the first to be reviewed.
The Panel found that Mandoyan had "brought discredit to himself and the department" and "exercised poor decision making," but changed the allegations of domestic violence, lying to investigators and attempting to break in to her apartment, from "founded" to "unresolved."
LASD Chief Steve Gross has stated that the Panel "conducted a factual analysis of the case which was based upon information that our department had in its possession. No further investigation was conducted at that time."
The Panel found the previous administrative investigation of Mandoyan was "heavily weighted on (the victim's) credibility and presentation" during the Civil Service hearing. The Panel determined that Mandoyan's firing was excessive and instead recommended a 12-day suspension.
There is no mention in the Truth and Reconciliation Panel's memo of hidden exculpatory evidence, biased investigators or due process violations - allegations that Sheriff Villanueva has put forward more recently about the initial LASD investigation into Mandoyan's case.
Based on the Panel's recommendation, Mandoyan was rehired by Sheriff Villanueva in late December 2018 as part of a settlement agreement that would reduce his discipline from termination to a 12-day suspension and give him $200,000 in back pay. Mandoyan agreed as part of the settlement to dismiss the two civil lawsuits against the County he had pending at the time. But the settlement agreement was not signed by any legal representative of the County as required by the Los Angeles County Charter.
An email from County Counsel Mary Wickham to Villanueva's incoming Chief of Staff Larry Del Mese in late November shows she advised him to "hold off" on any efforts to reinstate Mandoyan "at least until I have had a chance to discuss this matter with the new Sheriff and his Executives."
"She made it crystal clear to me -- no, I have not been pushed. I would be the one who would kick Mandoyan's ass,"
Over the summer and at the direction of Sheriff Villanueva, the LASD created yet another report on Mandoyan's case, this one initiated to at least in part to rebut the scathing findings of the Office of Inspector General's July analysis that called into question many aspects of Villanueva's handling of the case.
The 99-page LASD report lays out what the LASD calls a "systematic lack of due process" in the initial investigation of Mandoyan's case. The report refers to missing exculpatory evidence and that there was some disagreement among decision makers about whether Mandoyan's actions warranted termination or a lengthy suspension.
The report says "meta-data obtained from the videos and the file naming conventions" show that up to 18 minutes of video from the incident on the ex-girlfriend's patio and four minutes from the video of the incident at her bathroom window may have never been turned over to investigators. The report notes that the missing video "may have added important context" to the interactions between Mandoyan and his accuser.
The report also states that Mandoyan's original proposed discipline was a suspension of 20 days. It was later changed to a 25-day suspension and ultimately termination. The report includes emails between various LASD decision makers in the case, including a Chief, a Commander and a Lieutenant.
The initial recommendation is to uphold or "found" the allegations against Mandoyan of family violence, failure to report, general behavior and conduct toward others. But there is some debate about whether to "found" the allegation of dishonesty - specifically referring to Mandoyan telling Internal Affairs investigators that he never attempted to break into the woman's apartment.
LASD Constitutional Policing Advisor Diana Teran was looped into the emails and wrote, "Hate to be wishy-washy, but I just reviewed the video again and it is clear he is trying to break in with the metal tool and is not using it to knock, i.e. it is clear he lied." She refers to Mandoyan's conduct as "inappropriate and disturbing," but notes it's a "messy case" and that the ex-girlfriend "may not make a very good witness."
"Ultimately, I concur with whatever decision you decide to make - both ways to handle are reasonable. I would recommend the Chief look at the videos of him trying to break into the house and contrast the videos with his statements about what he was doing," Teran wrote.
Whether Mandoyan lied to investigators in his Internal Affairs interview was crucial to his fate because disciplinary guidelines at the time meant termination was mandatory for false statements. There is some controversy about those guidelines and Villanueva rescinded them when he took office. He reverted to less stringent guidelines from pre-2013 that allow for a suspension instead of termination for lying.
The newer LASD report also refers to an interview conducted with Deputy Lisa Richardson, who knew both Mandoyan and the ex-girlfriend. Richardson told Eyewitness News in March that the ex-girlfriend told her that Mandoyan had never physically abused her.
"She made it crystal clear to me - no, I have not been hit, I have not been pushed. I would be the one who would kick (Mandoyan's) ass," she told Eyewitness News.
Deputy Richardson claims she gave the same information to LASD investigators in a recorded interview back in September of 2017, but the report states the potentially exculpatory evidence was never turned over to Mandoyan's attorney for his Civil Service hearing.
Mandoyan points to Richardson's interview and the missing video in a new lawsuit he filed against Sheriff Villanueva last month.
"All I want is for a judge to give us, allow the department to reinvestigate the case with the new information that's been revealed that was left out initially," Mandoyan tells Eyewitness News.
"It's gonna be real funny when you (expletive) see just how much influence I have."
The OIG's July report also references a recorded phone call between Mandoyan and his accuser back in 2013. The call was not considered during Mandoyan's Civil Service hearing because it was recorded without his consent, but it appears to corroborate her allegations that he tried to control her interactions with others and threatened to use his influence in the Department against her.
Mandoyan admits to having a "Reaper" tattoo which critics associate with a deputy gang or clique, but has told Eyewitness News the tattoo only signifies station camaraderie, that "it's like a fraternity."
In that phone call, Mandoyan's accuser refers to the "reapers," to which he responds, "that's exactly why I should never (expletive) tell you anything."
"It's gonna be real funny when you (expletive) see just how much influence I have," Mandoyan says in the recording. He also calls her a highly offensive curse word we can't reprint here - and tells her not to go to station briefings, something he denied to Internal Affairs investigators.
The OIG's report notes that the phone call was not considered at the Civil Service hearing because of admissibility issues, but could have been considered when Villanueva made the decision to rehire Mandoyan.
"Again, assuming that Mandoyan was 're-hired,' the department was in possession of now publicly available evidence that conclusively established Mandoyan's dishonesty and unfitness for the position of Deputy Sheriff," the OIG report states.
The LASD's October report makes no mention of the contents of that call, only that they believe it was recorded illegally and that it occurred almost 2 years prior to her claim of domestic violence.
"The Sheriff's decision to overturn Mandoyan's discharge substantially erodes public trust and confidence in the County's law enforcement agency."
Mandoyan tells Eyewitness News he "never laid a finger" on the woman and "has proclaimed his innocence since day one."
"This was a vendetta and I was targeted," Mandoyan says. "I'm going to push it as far as I can... let justice prevail."
The accuser left the Department shortly after Mandoyan's Civil Service hearing. Eyewitness News tracked her down in March, but she said she wants nothing to do with the current controversy. She has not responded to our more recent attempts to contact her.
In August, the judge presiding over the Los Angeles County vs. Sheriff Villanueva case overturned the Sheriff's decision to rehire Mandoyan and ordered him to surrender all county property, including his gun and badge.
"It is undisputed the Sheriff had no legal authority to enter into the settlement agreement with Mandoyan on behalf of the County," Judge Mitchell Beckloff wrote in his ruling. "The Sheriff's decision to overturn Mandoyan's discharge substantially erodes public trust and confidence in the County's law enforcement agency."
The ruling is what's known as a preliminary injunction -- which means Mandoyan is off the job for now, but a trial is still pending. Attorneys for Mandoyan and the County hope new evidence at trial could reverse the judge's decision.
"I've never seen anything like this -- this is so unnecessary, so wasteful," says Miller. "And the Sheriff's the one that's responsible, and he's the one that made this happen."
Sheriff Villanueva emphasized to Eyewitness News that this case is not about one deputy to him -- it's about his authority as Sheriff to run the Sheriff's Department.
"We need to have the Board respect their authority and their limitations and then respect my authority as Sheriff," Villanueva said.
Meanwhile, this case continues to be fought by at least twelve outside attorneys, most of them charging taxpayer dollars by the hour. In the last week, attorneys have deposed former Constitutional Policing Advisor Diana Teran and Villanueva's now former Chief of Staff Larry Del Mese. Mandoyan himself is expected to be deposed late next week.
Sheriff Villanueva told Eyewitness News last month that he's looking at 66 other ex-deputies fired under McDonnell that he believes were not given due process. "That was McDonnell's thing, fire them all and let civil service sort it out," Villanueva said.
"We're still facing huge liability that's going to make this one case be chump change," he said.
Trial in this case is set for April.
Got a tip? Email ABC7 Investigative Producer Lisa.Bartley@abc.com