Bernal is target of recall Sheriff’s scandals and qualifications cited by recall organizers

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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:

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.

Sidebar: Critics say Sheriff failing his own 10-year plan

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Royal Calkins

About Royal Calkins

Contributing writer Royal Calkins has worked for newspapers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Fresno. For the past couple of years, he has produced a local news and commentary blog, the Monterey Bay Partisan. He can be reached at calkinsroyal@gmail.com.

12 thoughts on “Bernal is target of recall Sheriff’s scandals and qualifications cited by recall organizers

  1. Wow Schneider is talking about morals and corrupt politics after having ran the nastiest campaign in the history of Monterey County politics? Somehow he managed to overlook that Bernal didn’t even live in the county while he ran his first campaign for Sheriff…among many other things. I’d trust both he and Bernal as far as I could thrown them and as I am a puny guy that wouldn’t be far.

    1. Normally I don’t respond to comments, but I have seen you make this allegation a few times. What you are referring to is what occurred in the primary before I arrived in Monterey County. And I agree with you, it was toxic beyond belief that team who ran the dirty campaign were removed. . I was brought in to change the tone of the campaign which in my limited capacity, I did achieve in the general election. That same team who did that to Miller is who Bernal called upon again using an even dirtier playbook in his second campaign. So please, lets set the record straight on this and put this misunderstanding behind us.

  2. As always with political corruption, follow the money. The Supervisors should look closely at the Sheriff’s budget. I suspect that large amounts are going to the “undersheriffs” who actually run the department. In the past, Bernal hired several experienced ones at very high salaries. The money certainly isn’t going to having more officers on patrol. Their numbers have declined sharply. Poor management, scandals, dirty tricks..it is time for a change.

    1. Agreed, but I also think local corruption and incompetence is becoming the norm since we we don’t have much of a press any more. Sometimes we see the MC Weekly exposing malfeasance, but no other local media source will touch anything that might annoy those in power— especially if it involves law enforcement. And those in power count on the disinterested ignorance of the local voters.

  3. Well written, so much corruption, I’m glad someone is fighting for the people, seeking justice in such an overdue case. So many layers of evil. I’m tired of old, rich, slimy sex hungry felons. Seriously Bernal? I feel for your wife, the women, and the actual victims in this case. Gross. Maybe having consequences for your actions will make you feel more human like the rest of us. Get off your imaginary thrown – you’re not a king, just a wealthy douche.

  4. I would sign a recall petition. I had a case with the Sheriff’s dept. involving death threats during a man’s bullying road rage at me while surrounded by him and his cronies. I was terrified and called 911. I filed a case, and they said they took felony threats seriously…knew who the perpetrator was because I got his license…no officer every came, no calls returned, and it took a complaint to the my district supervisor to hear from them again, only to repeat the above of no returned calls, and then an officer shows up at my home during Covid at 10:15 pm when we were going to bed, no mask, banging on my door to take my statement….one day before the statute of limitations would expire…my husband told him to leave…they only retraumatized me…I wondered who they were protecting….incompetent, sexist, and insensitive and lack of supervision and training of the deputies; the department is not running well.

  5. Bernal is another fine specimen of your “Law and Order” Republican: In politics 100% for the purposes of self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement. He is another Republican charlatan of the highest order. Get rid of him and all these QOPers who are polluting the public sphere with their lies, graft and hypocrisy. #Recall Bernal!

  6. It is my opinion that the ingrained pattern of self-enrichment by “public servants” is an antiquated system of corruption that serves those of low ability and integrity. We simply cannot afford such systemic corruption and the associated misuse of tax dollars anymore. Sheriff Bernal and other local “leaders” that take an oath to protect the Public, and then forsake this oath for personal gain need to be removed. And until we insist on integrity, leadership, and true Public service, we will continue to have such a high disregard for our leaders and our Democratic ideals. Our cynical young have little respect for our ideals and democratic teachings. And their lack of respect is deserved. Apathy and mistrust of our institutions is not our only path forward.
    Time for a change.

    Keep shining the light Mr. Calkins!

  7. This is truly a poorly written article. Royal is either extremely biased, or he doesn’t check his facts. It seems he thinks Bernal is in trouble because he (Bernal) hasn’t raised much money for his campaign. Royal draws a comparison to Alejo, who has out raised Bernal. While that may be true, Alejo just ran for office in an uncontested race. He raised money he didn’t need to spend. Meanwhile, Bernal’s next campaign will kick-off next year. He hasn’t started raising money yet. Duh! Comparing Alejo’s and Bernal’s campaign contributions is simply silly. However, if one follows Royal’s logic regarding how well someone is doing by measuring the amount of money they have raised, then he should have mentioned in his article that the “Committee to Recall Steve Bernal” has raised…. wait for it… -$313.05 according to their last filing. That’s right, a negative number. Clearly this Committee and the recall effort isn’t gaining much traction. It seems the main person driving this committee is disgraced Sheriff’s Sergeant Dan Mitchell. Dan not only doesn’t live in Monterey County, he doesn’t even live in the State of California. Instead of reporting this nonsense about Bernal being recalled, Royal should report on how Dan Mitchell tortured an African American inmate in the Monterey County Jail, then rushed a medical retirement and moved out of the state in order to avoid being fired. That’s the real story people should know about.

  8. Hi Mike Spavitz
    A senior law enforcement official in the MCSO should not be using fake names or emails to defame and slander a political campaign. These actions by the MCSO Administrative staff have led to numerous lawsuits and is what exactly why the MCSO is now under investigation by the FPPC. So, the public understands, in the last campaign Admin staff started creating fake email accounts and sending out threatening and defamatory statements in order to influence voters. We know this because the documents they were using have metadata that lists their exact workstation within MCSO.
    The Bernal campaign and his staff are at it again and this is exactly what needs to stop. It is not only unethical and unlawful but it is not becoming of the conduct of a peace officer. The public deserves a true conversation on Rebuilding Justice to reflect the values and people in the community. Actions like yours “Mike” demonstrate what needs to be removed from the justice system and elections. Further you are just trying distract from the failures of Bernal and his Administration that are robbing people of trust in the justice system.
    Also be advised (as I believe you are an Administrative official in the MCSO) you have 30 days to publicly apologize under your real name. A letter is being drafted to County Counsel, the Secretary of State, and the FPPC adding the additional information into their investigations (since you appear interested in elections brush up on the laws governing them).
    Corrupt actions like this will no longer deprive the people of Monterey County a civic debate on elected offices and no longer will taxpayers funds be misused by officials and or police like you using defamation and fake email accounts to hijack that debate.
    And to the public at large, this is the problem. Hold these individuals accountable and send your support here https://secure.actblue.com/donate/recallbernal
    hello@recallbernal.com
    Your safety, your values, and your trust in the justice system are at stake.

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