By Royal Calkins
In a rare public display of displeasure with another county official, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors today censured Sheriff Steve Bernal for requiring county taxpayers to pick up the tab for chauffeuring fellow sheriffs and others during a 2019 convention on the Peninsula.
The action follows delayed release of a District Attorney’s Office investigative report that found the expenses were illegal but that Bernal and associates shouldn’t face criminal charges because they seemingly weren’t aware of the applicable laws.
The censure amounted to a ceremonial slap on the wrist, a long-delayed expression of concern about off-the-books overspending. At the same time, the supervisors essentially ignored repeated public calls for a fuller auditing of the Sheriff’s Office, with Supervisor John Phillips dismissing them as “political.”
Each of the five supervisors expressed their displeasure with the sheriff’s actions, comments ranging from Phillips’ mild scolding of the sheriff to Supervisor Luis Alejo’s assertion that he would be in jail if he had done what Bernal and his staff had done.
Bernal did not make an appearance and no one else spoke up in his defense, but he issued a statement after the supervisors’ meeting.
“I am disappointed that the Monterrey (sic) County Board of Supervisors passed this non-binding resolution and missed a golden opportunity to legislate and establish a standard protocol to host special events which are much sought after by this county,” the statement read.
“We are grateful for the work of the Monterrey County District Attorney. This office cooperated fully with the inquiry which found no ill intent from those who were tasked with organizing the event. We take to heart the findings of the report and will evaluate how we can apply those findings to future special security events in Monterrey County.”
His office had previously declined to make any public comments about the event. Bernal for more than a year has refused to communicate with Voices of Monterey Bay, whose reporting launched the DA’s investigation.
Censures carry no measurable weight but amount to a blemish in the court of public opinion, one that can be used against an incumbent in political campaigns. Bernal is in the middle of his second term as sheriff and remains best known for knocking off the previous sheriff, Scott Miller, despite being a lowly deputy with zero management training. He had spent most of his previous 11 years as a South County deputy, where he built relationships with ranchers and oil company employees who helped him pull off his surprise victory in 2014.
Bernal, a Republican, received considerable financial help from his brother’s mother-in-law, Margaret Duflock, who made her money in both ranching and oil. Despite his inexperience, Bernal also received heavy support from the county’s Republican establishment. Department insiders say he hasn’t given any clear indication if he will run for re-election in two years.
Several speakers, commenting remotely via Zoom, were highly critical of Bernal and his operation. He was accused of consistently overspending while ignoring community needs, providing spotty patrol services and using taxpayer money that would be better spent on mental health programs.
“This just doesn’t go far enough,” Eric Petersen, a retired government auditor. “Look at the other shenanigans.” Petersen, who described himself as hard of hearing, said he was repeatedly yelled at by a deputy who simply ignored his disability.
Jorge Rodriguez complained about Bernal’s use of a former supervisor’s guest house for alleged romantic encounters and hiring friends for well-paid positions in the department. Bernal is under investigation by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for not reporting the free use of the guest house.
Christian Schneider, who has helped run political campaigns both for and against Bernal, suggested the supervisors look more deeply into expenses related to the sheriffs’ convention, including months of planning work by paid staff, hotel expenses and special security costs. Schneider is involved in an effort to recall Bernal.
Schneider said Bernal isn’t being prosecuted because he expressed ignorance of the applicable laws even though he, like other elected officials, is required to sit through ethics instructions and an ethics test every two years.
Speaker Alexis Magdaleno accused Bernal of regularly “bullying” the supervisors into boosting his budget.
As an elected official, Bernal does not report to the Board of Supervisors, but the board oversees his budget. Cesar Lara of the Central Labor Council told the supervisors that the sheriff’s budget now equals the budget for the entire city of Salinas budget. Lara described the convention expenses as the “tip of the iceberg” and that the department needs a full financial audit.
Supervisor Phillips both criticized and defended the department. He compared the conference in question to conferences regularly attended by supervisors, prosecutors and other government officials but agreed with the DA’s conclusion that the sheriff “went too far.”
“We’re not saying he’s not doing a good job or that we have lost faith in him,” said Phillips, who is believed to be in his final term as the North County supervisor.
Alejo, however, said the conference expenses represented a “total lapse of judgment” by the sheriff and his senior staff. He said the deputies driving conference attendees around were jeopardized because they were told not to wear their armored vests in violation of department policy and then were told to “fraudulently” report their hours for payroll purposes.
As one of the top law enforcement officials in the county, Alejo said, Bernal should be held to a higher standard.
Bernal and the department became subjects of the District Attorney’s Office investigation shortly after Voices of Monterey Bay reported on excessive payroll costs accrued during the 2019 convention of the California State Sheriff’s Association. The group is a private, non-profit organization that provides some training to the state’s 52 county sheriffs while paying at least equal attention to political lobbying efforts.
The brief investigation was completed a year ago but the District Attorney’s Office and County Administrative Office labeled it as confidential, allowing the Board of Supervisors but no one else to see it until news organizations filed Public Records Act requests for the document in recent weeks. At least one supervisor, Alejo, is known to have lobbied county officials to abide with the intent of the public records law and belatedly make the information public. Other county officials were congratulating themselves Monday for demonstrating a spirit of transparency despite more than a year of silence on the conference spending.
In a letter to the county administrative office at the end of the investigation, DA Jeannine Pacioni wrote that she believed “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.” She said taxpayers should not be expected to pay for private shuttle services, “especially at the rate billed by a deputy sheriff.”
However, the prosecutor concluded that no crimes had been committed because Sheriff Bernal and his underlings were mostly doing things the way things had been done at previous sheriff’s conferences elsewhere and weren’t really aware of the irregularities.
The 2019 conference, held after months of planning by the sheriff’s command staff and a retired undersheriff, included some training, golf outings, banquets and a weapons demonstration for which the Sheriff’s Office provided as much as 21,000 rounds of ammunition. A sergeant on the SWAT team and another deputy were later disciplined for allegedly providing the ammo without authorization.
The Voices reports on the convention and the DA’s investigation raised questions about the practice of California counties regularly picking up expenses for gatherings of private, political organizations such as the CSSA. Government agencies regularly pay to send employees to training conferences held by various trade and professional organizations but the sheriff’s groups traditionally are afforded special financial help by counties hosting their events.
Officials of the CSSA declined to answer questions posed by DA investigator Ryan McGuirk but the sheriff of another county sent a letter arguing that sheriff’s conferences deserve special security arrangements because law enforcement officials are considered vulnerable to attack by outside forces.
The Monterey County Sheriff’s Office regularly provides uniformed deputies as security details for large events, such as the golf tournaments, but those event organizations generally reimburse the county for at least some of the costs. Reporters in the past have had a difficult time obtaining records detailing those arrangements.
For the Monterey conference, taxpayers covered salaries and overtime pay for seven on-duty deputies assigned to shuttle the conference attendees to and from their hotels, the airport and other destinations during the four-day affair. Though the sheriffs’ association expectation was that the drivers would serve as extra security, Bernal instructed them to dress in civilian clothing so as not to alarm the public. The sheriff’s SWAT team was also deployed for part of the event.
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.
Bernal was interviewed by McGuirk as part of the investigation and was represented by prominent Monterey attorney Charles Keller. The county also hired Keller’s firm to represent three sheriff’s commanders allied with Bernal who were sued for defamation after falsely accusing deputy sheriff’s union official Dan Mitchell, sheriff candidate Scott Davis and campaign consultant Schneider of embezzling from the union. Mitchell is credited with kicking off the DA’s investigation of the conference by raising questions about the overtime arrangements for the deputy drivers. He was forced into medical retirement soon afterward and is now involved in the effort to recall Bernal.
McGuirk 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.
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