Sheriffs from throughout California pose at Mission Ranch in Carmel during the 2019 California State Sheriffs Association conference | California State Sheriff’s Association
By Royal Calkins
For a sheriff, especially a relatively new one, hosting the annual conference of the California State Sheriffs Association is a big deal. As many as 52 sheriffs from all over the state attend along with their spouses and sometimes their kids.
Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal had the honor in 2019 and he wanted to show his colleagues that he could help organize a big event while showing them a good time.
So while the sheriffs were not talking about budgets or new law enforcement techniques, when they weren’t being wined and dined by vendors selling bullet-proof vests or helicopters, Bernal provided them with drivers to shuttle them from the conference hotel to the great golf courses of the Monterey Peninsula or to the beach or the shops. The 2019 event played out at the Tehama golf course overlooking the Peninsula and other locations.
There appears to have been a problem with the transportation arrangements, however. At least some of the drivers were on-duty sheriff’s deputies who apparently were being paid by the county. And at least some of those apparently were paid at overtime rates.
One deputy who worked a couple of shifts as a driver says his supervisor told him to turn in his time as overtime on the jail budget though he didn’t work in the jail. He said he knows of others who were given similar instructions. A supervisor says he was told to tell deputies under his command not to note on their time cards that they had been working a private event. And a sheriff from another county said he found the situation “odd.”
“I thought it was great what they were doing,” that sheriff offered. “It was like having your own Uber driver but when we asked the driver how this worked, he said he wasn’t sure if he was volunteering or being paid.”
Those three — the deputy, the supervisor and the sheriff from elsewhere — all asked not to be identified, the first two for fear of retribution, the sheriff for fear of being accused of boat rocking.
A fourth person, a former sergeant for the Monterey County department, says he is fine with being identified because he was fired at least partly because he raised questions about the pay arrangements at the time. He’s Dan Mitchell, the former head of the Monterey County Deputy Sheriffs Association, who says he never did get an answer about why the taxpayers were subsidizing a private event.
Mitchell said he first raised the question at a sheriff’s staff meeting and was told by Capt. John Thornburg that he would get back to him. He later raised the question in writing with then-County Administrative Officer Lew Baumann, who replied that he would send his question along to the payroll department for an answer. By that time, however, Mitchell had been fired.
In a letter to the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office last summer, the Deputy Sheriffs Association wrote that several deputies were assigned to drive rental vans on an on-call basis and that members of the department’s SWAT team were assigned as a security detail. The association suggested that some may have been paid out of the SWAT budget.
The letter, which didn’t result in any action, said deputies were also told to wear polo shirts bearing emblems from the sheriff’s department and the sheriffs’ group.
Baumann’s replacement as chief executive, Charles McKee, stopped returning calls from this writer a month ago. Repeated messages to Assistant Sheriff John Mineau over the past two weeks were not returned. Thornburg, who is designated as the department’s public information officer, said on Jan. 17 that he would answer Voices questions but that hasn’t happened. He was asked to explain the payment arrangements for the drivers and how the department is compensated when it provides security or other services for other events in the area, such as golf tournaments.
Just a week before the sheriffs’ conference, the Tehama golf club had hosted a campaign fund-raising event for Bernal and similar questions had been raised. According to Mitchell and others, numerous department employees, mostly from the higher ranks, had attended the multi-day event while on duty.
Voices called Bernal’s volunteer public relations adviser, David Armanasco, on Tuesday. He said he wasn’t familiar with the issue regarding the sheriffs’ conference or the Tehama event and said he would try to come up with some information. That hasn’t happened.
Voices left calls with Bernal last week and again Wednesday without result.
Voices turned to Carmen Green, executive director of the non-profit, statewide sheriff’s organization, for answers. She asked for the questions in writing and then referred Voices to the sheriff’s office.
Mitchell has been in the thick of controversies within the department through his role as head of the Deputy Sheriffs Association (DSA) and as a political supporter of deputy Scott Davis, who ran unsuccessfully against Bernal in 2018 despite the DSA’s endorsement. Many political campaigns run hot but a sheriff’s race between two candidates from within the same department usually boils over. This was no exception.
During the campaign, a group of Bernal supporters led by commanders Archie Warren and Joe Moses announced that they had conducted an off-the-books investigation into the DSA finances and had concluded that Mitchell, Davis and campaign consultant Christian Schneider were embezzling from the association. News outlets including this one dutifully reported their accusations but failed to report at the time that the commanders had no authority to conduct such an investigation and were acting without warrants or probable cause. It turned out to be a case of political theater without substance. The state Department of Justice found no substance behind the allegations. No charges were ever filed but the stunt did help Bernal get re-elected.
In the midst of the campaign, Mitchell was promoted from deputy to sergeant, but soon afterward sustained a stroke. He says he strongly suspects that stress was a contributor.
Mitchell was on medical leave for nine months and returned to duty amid continuing tensions in the spring. Shortly after his return, he started hearing about the overtime pay for conference drivers. He says he asked a couple supervisors about it informally before raising the topic at a staff meeting headed by Thornburg and Capt. Jim Bass, the jail supervisor.
“I just wanted to know what was going on both in my capacity as a sergeant in the jail and as the president of the DSA,” Mitchell recalled. “No one would give me an answer.”
Shortly afterward, he was called into a meeting and told he would be leaving the department. The probationary period following his promotion to sergeant was still in effect, so he was told, first, that he was being demoted to deputy without explanation and, second, that he couldn’t perform the duties of deputy because of the stroke. So, he was being terminated.
After Moses and other Bernal loyalists publicly accused Mitchell and associates of crimes during the campaign, Davis, Mitchell and Schneider, the campaign consultant, filed a defamation lawsuit against commanders Moses, Warren and Mark Caldwell. The defendants and their attorneys said the allegations they had raised had only been meant for political effect. Even so, Monterey County paid for their defense, in effect covering a Bernal campaign expense.
The Superior Court held that Davis and Mitchell had not been defamed because they were public officials and the allegations amounted to protected free speech. They have been ordered to repay the county for the attorney fees.
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