| Adobe Stock photo
By Royal Calkins
A serious effort to recall Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal from office is being mounted by his former campaign consultant and others, accusing him of being ineffective and using the department for personal gain.
The effort will face sizable obstacles, but recall backers, including deputies aligned with former sheriff’s Sgt. Dan Mitchell and campaign consultant Christian Schneider, say they think they can carry it off. The recall backers have formed an official recall committee, registered with the county elections office, and are preparing to mount a publicity and fundraising campaign.
Schneider is a campaign consultant who helped run Bernal’s successful campaign for sheriff in 2014 and then changed hats to run deputy Scott Davis’s unsuccessful attempt to oust Bernal four years later.
Mitchell is a former president of the Deputy Sheriffs Association, the deputies’ union. Along with Schneider and Davis, he was falsely accused by Bernal supporters in the department of mismanaging and misappropriating union money. The state Department of Justice quickly found that there was no substance to those allegations in 2018 but they proved fatal to the Davis campaign anyway. Since then, the Secretary of State’s Office has been investigating whether the Bernal campaign broke state election law by using on-duty Sheriff’s Department employees to make the foundationless allegations against Schneider and associates in the Davis campaign.
Meanwhile, Schneider has been deeply involved in what he portrays as an effort to clean up Monterey County politics, which he sees as being controlled by a handful of power brokers, most of them tied to the GOP. He has filed a series of complaints with the state Fair Political Practices Commission alleging a variety of electioneering misdeeds, including illegal coordination of campaign and political action committee activities, money laundering and collusion. His most frequent targets so far have been Bernal and the Salinas Valley Leadership Group, led by contractor Don Chapin, who has denied any wrongdoing.
One of Schneider’s complaints alleges, among other things, that Bernal has engaged in multiple affairs with subordinates in the departments. And in at least one case, he allegedly rendezvoused repeatedly with a woman at former county Supervisor Butch Lindley’s guest house without filing required forms reporting the use of the house as a gift. Lindley acknowledges allowing Bernal to use the house from time to time but denies any knowledge of the sheriff taking women there.
The FPPC is in the midst of a formal investigation into Schneider’s complaint. And because of the allegation of sexual misconduct with his staff, the county government was obligated to conduct its own investigation into Bernal’s activities. According to multiple sources in county government, it was decided to turn that inquiry over to the county’s Office of Civil Rights because almost all of its work is deemed confidential. In other words, the county results will remain private even in this “Me Too” era.
Without true leadership, issues of grave public concern and safety have arisen within the department. Campaign consultant Christian Schneider
Also among the issues fueling the recall effort is the series of escapes by three alleged murderers housed in the county jail over the past year. Bernal and his jail staff have avoided any serious scrutiny of the escapes but the county Board of Supervisors met with him in closed session last week to discuss the matter.
As an elected official, Bernal reports to no one except the voters. The Board of Supervisors can’t require him to change his ways but the board does control his budget. After meeting with the supervisors, Bernal indicated he felt no responsibility to discuss the escapes publicly but would cooperate with the next county grand jury if it decides to poke into the escapes.
The recall is likely to face huge hurdles. Among them:
A large share of Monterey County voters likely has little understanding of what the Sheriff’s Department does. It is best known for patrolling and investigating crimes in unincorporated rural areas. Most of the voters live in cities served by police departments and don’t realize the Sheriff’s Department also runs the county jail and the coroner’s operation, both of which involve countywide issues, and is sometimes involved with task forces that target crime both inside and outside incorporated areas. The chronic troubles in the jail affect the entire community.
Because of family connections, Bernal is capable of collecting piles of campaign contributions from ag and South County oil interests. In past campaigns, he also has been helped by the Republican Party’s ability to tap into corporate political action committees.
He has a terrible relationship with the Board of Supervisors because of all the headaches he causes for them. Former sheriff’s Sgt. Dan Mitchell
And though he and his administration have repeatedly stumbled by failing to investigate internal troubles, the issues have been brought to light almost exclusively by Voices of Monterey Bay, which lacks the reach of the mainstream Monterey Herald, Monterey County Weekly, Salinas Californian and KSBW-TV. Here are some of the Voices pieces from the past year or so:
- Sheriff’s detective bent the rules
- SWAT party got out of hand
- A life that might have been saved
- Are deputies used to staff Sheriff’s private events?
- Overtime payments under scrutiny
Recently, however, some of Bernal’s troubles seem to be catching up with him, and there are signs that his political star is fading, not surprising in that he is a traditional lock-em-up fellow in a county ready to try something better than wholesale incarceration.
Another sign of possible vulnerability, Bernal’s most recent campaign contribution report shows that he collected a piddling $14,000 in 2020 and his campaign treasury contained only that amount at year’s end. It could be a sign that he’s not planning to run again as scheduled next year. In contrast, Supervisor Luis Alejo’s 2022 campaign had more than $190,000 in the bank at the start of this year. Bernal is up for re-election in 2022 but a recall seeking his removal from office could be held late this year or early next year.
Bernal didn’t respond to messages seeking comment for this article, maintaining a pattern that started more than a year ago.
Schneider seems driven by his cause, so much so that his dealings with the Monterey County media have often been contentious. That helps explain why Voices of Monterey Bay’s reports about Sheriff’s Department foibles have received little attention from the more mainstream news outlets.
Schneider says Bernal deserves to be removed because he “has treated the position of sheriff primarily as a ceremonial role to enrich himself.”
“Consequently without true leadership, issues of grave public concern and safety have arisen within the department. Women being raped in the jail, murderers escaping while he has jail staff working private events and signing their timecards as if they were (working) in the jail.
He has lost the moral and ethical credibility to represent the justice system.”
Schneider said Bernal’s actions and the county’s response have led the FPPC to investigate the County Counsel’s Office, along with the Sheriff’s Department, to determine why public money was used to pay sheriff’s commanders to falsely accuse Davis and others of illegalities.
“The FPPC has spent four months researching this subject and reading the court filings. It is extremely rare that the FPPC goes after county agencies for misusing funds in an election,” Schneider said.
“You see a consistent pattern of covering up bad behavior and screw ups in the department. Voices has done an excellent job exposing this double standard, which has caused major divisions in the department,” he continued. “And if Bernal’s personal and campaign problems aren’t enough, you have had multiple alleged murderers escape from the jail in a little over a year. And the way the department notified the public? A Facebook post.”
Mitchell, a longtime deputy and sergeant before taking medical retirement, argues that Bernal should be recalled “because he is obviously not qualified for the job and is more concerned about having and covering up his extramarital affairs than he is his responsibilities to the citizens of Monterey County.”
“He surrounds himself with marginally competent people,” Mitchell continued via email. “MCSO has had high profile jail escapes that only ended after the suspects turned themselves in. He has a terrible relationship with the Board of Supervisors because of all the headaches he causes for them.”
Though recall campaigns can be difficult to get off the ground, Mitchell cited the current example of an effort to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“Once the effort was made to start collecting signatures, they blew past their goals.”
Qualifying a recall for a ballot would require at least 18,000 signatures in Monterey County and a candidate or candidates seeking to fill the potential vacancy. Mitchell said Scott Davis, the sheriff’s deputy and Salinas City Council member who lost to Bernal in 2018, would be a solid candidate and former sheriff’s Lt. Matt Luther also could do a better job. Luther was forced out by Bernal but recently prevailed in arbitration and may soon be rehired. Some area police chiefs have also expressed interest in the job.
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter or leave a comment below.