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By Royal Calkins
Weeks after publicly censuring Steve Bernal for his handling of a state sheriff’s convention, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors has fired another shot at the sheriff.
In a letter to the state Fair Political Practices Commission, the supervisors asked for an investigation to determine whether Sheriff Bernal might have personally profited when the Sheriff’s Department leased a fleet of undercover cars from a car rental company that had donated cars and buses for use at the 2019 sheriff’s conference in Monterey.
Earlier investigation by the District Attorney’s Office determined that Enterprise Rental Car, at no cost, had provided cars and buses that sheriff’s deputies used to shuttle dignitaries from event to event during the California State Sherff’s Association conference. The shuttle service became an issue because several off-duty deputies were paid overtime rates out of the county budget while actually spending little time working or driving. That and other issues, such as the unauthorized use of 21,000 rounds of ammunition, prompted the supervisors to publicly censure Bernal in June.
The DA’s investigation, prompted by news articles, concluded that the department had acted illegally but that Bernal should not be held criminally liable because he didn’t understand the law, and many of the questionable decisions had been made by underlings who patterned the conference after similar events in other counties. The sponsoring agency, the CSSA, refused to cooperate with the investigation.
The FPPC complaint by the supervisors suggesting a quid pro quo was prompted by the Sheriff’s Department decision in May to award a $505,000 contract to provide 13 vehicles for undercover use for four years. The contract was awarded as the result of a competitive bid process and the supervisors’ complaint does not say how it might have been manipulated in Enterprise’s favor.
The complaint letter concludes, “The donation of vehicles by Enterprise Rental Car to the CSSA raises the question of whether the Sheriff had a financial interest in the lease agreement . . . that is prohibited either by Government Code sections 87100 or 1-90. The Board of Supervisors has no opinion on these questions but requests that the Commission consider the matter.”
The FPPC has not decided whether to take up the matter.
Bernal declined to comment this week, following a pattern he has set with Voices for the past two years. Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Wendy Root Askew, who authored the supervisors’ letter, could not be reached to comment.
Bernal’s second term as sheriff has been rockier than his first, partly because of a series of Voices of Monterey Bay articles on improper search warrants, the department’s handling of a troubled prisoner who committed suicide minutes after being released, FPPC complaints alleging serial affairs with subordinates and use of a former supervisor’s guest house for romantic trysts. He also has faced criticism for using Salinas volunteer coach John Fickas as a campaign staffer before Fickas was convicted on several counts of sexual assault against young women.
Bernal is also the subject of a recall effort headed by former sheriff’s sergeant and union official Dan Mitchell while tension appears to be growing steadily between Bernal and the supervisors over budget issues.
Though the sheriff, as an elected official, is independent of the board, the supervisors oversee his budget. That led Bernal earlier this summer to threaten to cut patrol services if the supervisors didn’t approve his full budget request.
Askew reacted sharply to his demand, essentially telling him to do a better job of managing his staff and crunching the numbers.
Bernal, first elected in 2014, has not publicly signaled whether he intends to seek re-election next year. The primary election in the sheriff’s race is scheduled for June 2022.
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