DA’s Office finds Monterey County Sheriff’s Office broke the law but really didn’t mean to Investigation sparked by earlier Voices report

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Sheriff Under Scrutiny for Using Deputies at Private Events

By Royal Calkins

When California sheriffs gather for their annual conferences, such as their 2019 event in Monterey, there is golf to be played, often a chance to fire exotic or antique weapons, awards to be accepted, law enforcement lobbying efforts to be discussed and, time permitting, a few hours of training.

Many of the meals are provided to the sheriffs and their spouses courtesy of vendors hoping to sell radios, weapons, health care or whatever to the 52 sheriff’s departments in California. The golf is usually free, too, courtesy of the golf courses.

But taxpayers pick up a large chunk of the expense by paying the salaries of the sheriffs and undersheriffs, commanders and captains, networking and testing their golf skills.  And for the Monterey conference, taxpayers also paid for an extra expense — salaries and overtime pay for eight on-duty deputies assigned to shuttle the conference attendees to and from their hotels, the airport and other destinations during the four-day affair.

For the 2019 conference hosted by Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal, the deputy drivers were told to turn their timecards in as though they had been on their usual assignments. In the jail, perhaps, or in investigations or patrol or warrants. Most of them actually had little to do during the conference but those idle hours still added up to sizable overtime pay that came out of the county budget. 

According to a newly released investigative report by the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office, at least some of the spending for the 2019 conference was illegal, particularly the use of the county’s general fund to pay for the drivers’ time. An investigator for the DA’s Office found that Sheriff’s Office money had been misappropriated, but District Attorney Jeannine Pacioni concluded that no crimes had been committed because Sheriff Bernal and his underlings were mostly doing things the way things had been done at other sheriff’s conferences elsewhere and weren’t really aware of the irregularities.

“I have concluded there is considerable evidence that expending public monies on salaries of deputies who drove attendees to events at the conference under these circumstances was without legal authority,” Pacioni wrote in the year-old report that was deemed confidential until this week.

The prosecutor wrote that taxpayers should not be expected to pay for private shuttle services, “especially at the rate billed by a deputy sheriff,” but she concluded nonetheless that “there is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Sheriff Bernal knew the extent of misappropriations or that the appropriations were unlawful or was criminally negligent in failing to know the appropriations were unlawful.” 

The release of the DA report this week came after Voices of Monterey Bay and others sought them under public records requests following Voices’ reporting on the conference in January and February of last year.

Soon after the report was made public in a story labeled “exclusive” by the Monterey County Weekly on Friday, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors added an agenda item to its meeting this Tuesday calling for Bernal’s censure. The agenda item noted Bernal’s “failure to faithfully perform his duties by allowing inappropriate expenditures of County funds during the 2019 California State Sheriffs’ Association convention in Monterey County.”

In social media posts announcing the upcoming censure vote, Supervisor Luis Alejo said he “pushed for transparency of this report because the public has a right to know how their taxpayer dollars were blatantly misused.” 

In an interview with DA investigator Ryan McGuirk shortly after the first Voices account, Bernal said the intent was only to match what he had seen at previous conferences and he blamed his staff for any excesses. By his side during the questioning was prominent Monterey attorney Charles Keller, who sometimes answered for the sheriff.

Strangely, even tellingly, the DA’s Office had difficulty prying information about past conferences from the sponsoring organization, the California State Sheriff’s Association. McGuirk wrote that CSSA executive director Carmen Green hung up on him. Voices of Monterey Bay had attempted to put questions to Green while reporting on the same issues a year and a half ago, but she declined to comment. The DA’s investigation was prompted by the Voices report.

Another sheriff who had hosted a similar conference later wrote that gatherings of sheriffs are vulnerable to attack by outside forces and therefore require the involvement of on-duty deputies for security. Bernal seemingly did not know until being interviewed by the DA’s Office that deputies assigned to provide rides did not realize they were also expected to be providing security. They had been instructed to wear polo shirts without the body armor and other gear that department policy requires them to wear when on duty. They were also instructed not to visit the conference hotel or the golf course lest they upset the general public. Bernal said he wasn’t part of the loop that made that or most other decisions.

Bernal said Commander Joe Banuelos was initially assigned to plan the event but was replaced by higher-ranking Chief Kevin Oakley after it became obvious that Banuelos was overreaching. For instance, Oakley told the DA’s Office that Banuelos had wanted to assign rooftop snipers to protect attendees at the conference hotel. Oakley and Bernal agreed that would have been overkill.

Banuelos, by the way, had been fired by Bernal’s predecessor for consistently claiming overtime pay for hours not worked. The DA’s Office charged him with two felony counts of filing false claims but dropped the charges after his defense lawyer lined up numerous deputies prepared to testify that the department had traditionally allowed the staff to bank unpaid hours and turn them in later for overtime pay. Bernal later rehired and promoted Banuelos, who now oversees the department’s Peninsula operations.

Others in the department say that months of planning for the conference was chaotic even with help from retired Undersheriff Nancy Deering, who had been involved in previous conferences. By design, almost everyone involved in the planning efforts and those playing key roles at the various outings had supported Bernal’s two election bids. 

Among the special events arranged by the Sheriff’s Office was a gun exhibition at the Swiss Rifle Club in Gonzales, where the gathered sheriffs drank donated beer and fired off as many as 21,000 rounds of Sheriff’s Office ammunition. The ammunition reportedly came out of the department’s SWAT team stockpile and a team member was later the subject of an internal affairs investigation for allegedly providing the ammo without authorization. One or more deputies were disciplined but details have not been made public. The DA’s report mentions the ammunition but doesn’t delve into how it came to be used.

(According to a government payroll website, that SWAT team sergeant made $63,000 in overtime in 2019, slightly more than half of his regular pay for the year.)

Others in his department say Bernal was given an expensive firearm by the gun manufacturer that helped sponsor the shoot but he did not report any such gift on his annual disclosure form. He did not respond to phone calls on the subject.

Another vendor that provided free service for the event was Enterprise Rental Car,  which donated cars for the shuttle service provided by the deputies. Monterey County Weekly reported Friday that Enterprise recently was awarded a $505,000 contract from the Sheriff’s Office for the lease of 13 vehicles for four years.

In his report, McGuirk quoted deputies as saying their work during the conference was a waste because there was considerable down time between rides provided to sheriffs or their spouses. Even so, it appeared that each deputy racked up significant overtime.

McGuirk reported that “all of the deputies I interviewed” said they were told to code their timecards as though they had been on their regular assignments during the conference. That came to light after union official Dan Mitchell, a sergeant at the time, told his supervisors that deputies had come to him worried about the legality and ethics of falsely reporting their whereabouts on their time slips. Others in the department say, however, that the payroll office knew how to properly assign the hours worked.

The investigator also reported that his office had asked the state Attorney General’s Office to take over the investigation because prosecutors work so closely with the Sheriff’s Office. Discussions about that possibility dragged on for months, McGuirk wrote, before the AG’s Office said there was no reason his office couldn’t investigate the Sheriff’s Office.

Bernal is also the subject of a state Fair Political Practices Commission investigation into allegations that he has had affairs with at least two department employees and failed to properly report the gift of former county Supervisor Butch Lindley’s guest house to rendezvous with the women. The complaint was filed by Christian Schneider, who helped run Bernal’s first campaign and then helped run an unsuccessful campaign against him in 2018. Schneider is now involved in a campaign to recall Bernal from office.

Monterey County officials have also investigated an allegation that one of the women involved with Bernal suffered various forms of discrimination after she ended the affair but results of that inquiry remain confidential.

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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.

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