Entrance to the Lindley ranch south of Salinas, allegedly the site of Sheriff Steve Bernal‘s trysts | Photo by Royal Calkins
By Royal Calkins
A former political consultant to Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal has filed a complaint with the state’s political watchdog agency accusing the sheriff of engaging in affairs with staff members and accepting free use of a house owned by a former county supervisor without reporting the gift as required by state law.
The complaint filed last week is the latest in a series of Fair Political Practices Commission complaints by Christian Schneider, who helped Bernal win the sheriff’s post in 2014 and helped run an unsuccessful campaign against him four years later. He is now involved with a new organization called People Against Corruption political action committee to target what he calls blatant and longstanding political corruption in Monterey County. The group was formed by Salinas agribusinessman Bill Lipe, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for Assembly two years ago.
“I have been provided information that makes it appear that Bernal has been engaged in affairs outside of (marriage) and sexual misconduct within his department,” Schneider writes in his new, sworn complaint. “This information shows during the last several years he has used various private and public resources to facilitate these affairs. Including the house of a former elected official and donor to the (Salinas Valley Leadership Group’s) political action committee.”
Schneider did not name the former elected official but one of the women who says she had an affair with the sheriff provided the location and other details of one of their regular meeting places, which turns out to be owned by Butch Lindley. He is the former 3rd District Monterey County supervisor who maintains a ranch with a main house and a guest house just south of Salinas.
In a phone interview Friday, Lindley called Schneider’s assertions “complete and utter bullshit” but acknowledged that Bernal has used the guest house on several occasions, most recently about three months ago.
“He never had any women there as far as I know,” Lindley said.
Lindley said he invited Bernal to use the guest house “when he needed it” because the sheriff and his family live on a South County ranch more than an hour’s drive from Salinas, where the Sheriff’s Department is headquartered.
“He was there only occasionally,” the former supervisor said. Lindley said he didn’t charge Bernal for use of the house and didn’t know if the free use should have been reported on the sheriff’s annual disclosure forms. It was not. State law requires elected officials to file annual forms in which they list various gifts, usually things such as dinners or rodeo tickets.
In his complaint, Schneider contends that Bernal at some point was living rent-free in a South County home owned by a campaign contributor and that a TV report about the arrangement never aired because of political pressure.
Lindley said the only woman he recalls at the guest house was with her boyfriend who was practicing for a country music performance with the sheriff.
Schneider said in the complaint that some of the accusations he wishes to lodge with the state are sensitive to the point that he hopes to share them with the FPPC staff in conversation rather than in writing.
Schneider contends that Bernal’s misbehavior has been enabled by his command staff, including Undersheriff John Mineau and Deputy Chief Jon Thornburg, who has been in charge of internal affairs investigations for much of Bernal’s time in office. The enabling, Schneider writes, included “steps that could be considered retaliatory” against women with whom Bernal had affairs.
One of the women mentioned in Schneider’s complaint, the one who allegedly rendezvoused with Bernal at the Lindley ranch, is a former Sheriff’s Department employee who told Voices the sheriff also had affairs with at least one other employee and an employee of another law enforcement agency. That woman was promoted after ending her relationship with Bernal but says that after she left the department, high-ranking Bernal associates volunteered derogatory information to a subsequent employer. She said the county also offered cash to settle a claim she filed with the state Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a claim unrelated to her alleged affair.
Bernal, Thornburg and Mineau did not respond to repeated telephone inquiries and emails from Voices. Bernal’s secretary said Friday that he was out of the office but that she would make sure he received the message.
The woman who left the department told Voices that when Bernal proposed that they spend time together during working hours, she told him she was afraid of getting in trouble.
“He told me, ‘Hey, I’m the sheriff. I can do what I want.’”
Schneider said that woman came forward to him several months ago after Voices began writing about misuse of public funds within the Sheriff’s Department and the department’s attack on Schneider and officials of the deputy sheriff’s union during deputy Scott Davis’s unsuccessful campaign against Bernal in 2018.
The woman who spoke to Schneider was interviewed by this reporter on condition that her name and position not be made public at this point. She said her relationship with Bernal began in 2018 during his re-election campaign against deputy Davis, whose campaign was being run by Schneider. She said she and the sheriff met often at an Encinal Road property that turned out to be owned by Lindley, a close political ally of Bernal.
Schneider wrote, “This witness can give precise details on the house and Bernal’s statements concerning its use, including about the maid. And that Bernal has used this house over the past several years for his various affairs.”
In his complaint, Schneider identifies Lindley only as a major campaign donor who contributed $2,400 in 2018 to the Salinas Valley Leadership Group, a source of campaign funding for Bernal that year.
At least two of Schneider’s previous complaints leveled allegations at the Salinas Valley Leadership Group, including one in which the organization is accused of illegally coordinating its activities with various candidates and working closely with Monterey Peninsula political action committees to help swing a major county contract to John Narigi, a close associate of SVLG founder Don Chapin. The FPPC has announced it is formally investigating that and other Schneider complaints, some of which involve suspicious spending within the Sheriff’s Department. Another Schneider complaint, against former Assembly candidate Neil Kitchens, resulted in Kitchens pleading guilty last week to election fraud for falsely claiming to be living in the Assembly district.
Among other things, the former Sheriff’s Department employee who claims to have had an affair with the sheriff told Voices that Bernal destroyed his county-owned cell phone and had his command staff destroy various electronic items in 2018 in order to hide internal communications that could have affected a Monterey County District Attorney’s Office investigation. DA investigators were looking into search warrant irregularities involving then-detective Brian Pickens, who resigned as a result of the investigation. Voices published a lengthy piece about that investigation earlier this year.
Berkley Brannon, the assistant district attorney who oversaw that investigation, said Friday he had not heard of any destruction of cell phones or other devices and that if it did happen, it didn’t hamper the investigation.
The woman told Schneider that in addition to the Lindley guest house, the sheriff used various law enforcement conferences as meeting places for his affairs.
Schneider said he had made numerous public records requests for equipment replacement costs and expense reports that could reflect the ruined electronics but county officials have failed to respond for more than 90 days even though state law requires them to respond within 10 days.
Schneider sent his complaint to the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office and Board of Supervisors as well as to the FPPC. Though the District Attorney’s Office is responsible for enforcing campaign laws, it rarely takes up cases.
The FPPC is also selective about which cases it decides to take up. Perhaps because Schneider is a longtime campaign professional, he has a relatively good record of getting the state agency’s attention with his complaints, which can result in warnings, fines or prosecutions.
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