Monterey County stops paying legal fees for sheriff’s top brass Questions of liability remain after county loses appellate case


RELATED STORY: Defendants lose round in appellate court

By Royal Calkins

Monterey County supervisors decided this week to stop paying the legal expenses for sheriff’s Capt. Joe Moses and two associates who are defendants in an increasingly complicated defamation lawsuit stemming from the sheriff’s race of 2018.

Moses, Commander Mark Caldwell and retired Commander Archie Warren, all supporters of the current sheriff, Steve Bernal, are accused of falsely claiming that Scott Davis, Bernal’s opponent that year, embezzled money from the deputy sheriffs’ union. With the barest of evidence to support their allegations, Moses and the others also publicly accused former union president Dan Mitchell and Davis’s campaign consultant, Christian Schneider, of criminal behavior.

To help combat the lawsuit filed by Davis and his associates, county officials agreed to pay the Monterey law firm of Fenton & Keller to represent Moses and the commanders on the theory, since debunked, that they were on duty and acting in their official capacities when they held news conferences to air the allegations. Within weeks the state Department of Justice said it couldn’t find enough evidence to justify an investigation.

Throughout the litigation, Moses and his allies have sometimes claimed they were operating as sheriff’s officials at the time and sometimes indicated they had acted as private citizens at the time, creating First Amendment protection for their unsupported accusations.

Moses and the others did not respond to an email soliciting comment Wednesday.

The county’s position on paying the legal fees changed after a state appellate court ruled last month that the lawsuit should go to trial and that the allegations seemingly crossed the line between fair political comment and slander. The appeals court overturned a ruling by Monterey County Judge Susan Matcham dismissing the lawsuit.

The supervisors had agreed four years ago to cover the legal costs with the understanding that the county would be reimbursed if it turned out that Moses, Caldwell and Warren were acting as Bernal supporters rather than law enforcement officials when they broadcast the allegations, which seemingly helped Bernal coast to victory over Davis.

The supervisors reportedly voted last week to stop helping the defendants, but County Counsel Les Girard didn’t announce the decision until Tuesday.

That action by the supervisors raises new questions, of course. Will the county now seek reimbursement from the Moses group for past expenses or simply stop paying for new ones? Will the county now argue that it should not be held responsible for defamation damages since it appears Moses and the others weren’t on the clock? Shouldn’t the county have figured out years ago that Moses et al were Bernal functionaries at the time and disciplined them for giving the impression that they were conducting a legitimate investigation of the Davis campaign? And does the amount of support provided to Bernal amount to a contribution to his current campaign?

Schneider, the Davis campaign manager, told the supervisors during public comment Tuesday that the county had essentially been contributing, illegally, to Bernal’s campaign through its financial support for the lawsuit defendants. Schneider has spent the past four years pursuing the lawsuit while also researching political and campaign wrongdoing in the county and filing complaints with state election officials, to the embarrassment of several local officials including supervisors John Phillips and Chris Lopez.

The supervisors’ decision also may have eliminated a campaign issue from the current sheriff’s race, in which Moses is running against Marina Police Chief Tina Nieto, Del Rey Oaks Police Chief Jeff Hoyne, and sheriff’s deputy Justin Patterson. County Counsel Girard won’t say what the legal fees have amounted to but the other candidates have been questioning the propriety of the whole arrangement.


Monterey County Courthouse

Photo by Joe Livernois

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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

One thought on “Monterey County stops paying legal fees for sheriff’s top brass Questions of liability remain after county loses appellate case

  1. Thanks for the update. Given his participation in what appears to most people to be political corruption, I am really surprised at all the endorsements Moses received from people I trusted, like Mary Duan and Sam Farr.

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