By Royal Calkins
Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal has withdrawn his endorsement of Joe Moses to be his replacement, which brings up a question. Will this help or hurt Moses’ chances?
There’s no easy answer.
But first, what about the endorsement? There apparently has been no official word, no announcement. But on Saturday, the day after Moses publicly criticized Bernal’s handling of two sexual harassment complaints from within the Sheriff’s Office, Bernal called Moses and told him to remove the endorsement from his campaign materials and remove any images of the sheriff from Moses’ literature both printed and digital.
Moses said Bernal didn’t explain but didn’t have to.
“It was what I had put the day before,” said Moses, referring to a statement he had issued criticizing Bernal for promoting a top official, Jon Thornburg, to undersheriff even though a Monterey County civil rights investigation had determined that Thornburg had failed to act on two valid sexual harassment complaints. Two women in the department had filed harassment complaints against the former undersheriff, John Mineau, and Thornburg failed to act on the complaints when they were presented to him by the higher-ranking woman.
Moses said he had known about the complaints for months but had not spoken out sooner because he didn’t know they had been ruled justified until he read about it Thursday in a Sara Rubin column in Monterey County Weekly.
The lower-ranking woman told Voices Tuesday that she appreciates that Moses has spoken out, belatedly or not.
“My career has been ruined,” she said. She said the sexual harassment by Mineau was traumatic and so was the county’s handling of the matter.
“Something has to be done to fix this,” she said. She said the inquiry by the Office of Civil Rights determined that she was in the right “but nothing was done. It was up to the sheriff. What I get out of this is nothing. People say I must have got a settlement. I don’t know where they got that. Neither of us did. We got nothing. He (Thornburg) gets promoted and we get nothing.”
“I want the system to be fixed. The system is broken,” she said.
She and others said they learned as a result of these inquiries that in Monterey County departments headed by elected officials, such as Bernal, a ruling of a justified civil rights complaint does not mandate any action. In other departments, such as planning or public works, the Board of Supervisors or county officials could step in if the department head did not take appropriate action.
Thornburg hasn’t returned calls seeking comment.
Mineau has denied any wrongdoing. He told the Weekly that county rules prevented him from commenting.
Short term, as much as Moses probably wanted his boss’s endorsement in the first place, losing it might actually help him. For one thing, Bernal’s endorsement didn’t seem to help Moses much in the primary. The frontrunner, Marina Police Chief Tina Nieto, almost gathered an absolute majority of the vote, which would have allowed her to skip the November runoff against Capt. Moses. He received about half as many votes as she did in the four-person primary contest.
Considering the degree of sexual harassment that was tolerated by Bernal, Moses could be speaking out too late to add any new spark to his campaign but he may have made a wise move by distancing himself from an administration better known for its failings than its accomplishments.
Here’s what Moses said after the Weekly piece:
“Incidences like these are unacceptable and are not how we support our office sisters and brothers. I am appalled that this behavior took place and was tolerated at the highest level. If I were sheriff, he (Thornburg) would have been disciplined, not promoted.
“This sends such a negative message to the women of our community, our Sheriff’s Office and most importantly to the women who had to endure this type of behavior — a message that they don’t matter.”
The first Mineau victim who shared her story with the Weekly actually outed herself by posting on Moses’ Facebook page that she greatly appreciated his support while she went through the process of pressing a sexual harassment claim. We still don’t feel like it’s right to name her at this point but will share that she is an experienced law enforcement officer and manager.
The other victim spoke to reporters Tuesday. According to numerous reports from within the department, she had been coerced into having a relationship with Mineau. At one point, law enforcement officials had to perform a welfare check on her after a family dispute sparked by her relationship with the then-undersheriff.
Bernal himself was alleged to be a sexual harasser in a Fair Political Practices Commission complaint. Still under investigation, it alleges that Bernal carried out an affair with an underling, making use of a former county supervisor’s guest home as a trysting location.
That woman, a veteran deputy, also filed a civil rights complaint with the county, alleging among other things that she was openly mocked by a detective after breaking off her relationship with Bernal. In a telephone interview Tuesday, she said she was forced into retirement and received a $10,000 settlement because of the mocking, money that was made to look like a payroll expense so the Board of Supervisors wouldn’t know about it. She said various sheriff’s supervisors had ignored her complaints and that in the process “Mineau actually hit on me too.”
“I hope the place burns to the ground,” she said.
After that woman left the county, her new employer received unsolicited calls from Monterey County sheriff’s officials seemingly intent on poisoning her situation there. Moses and Thornburg know who made the calls. So do Bernal and Mineau.
“Moses knew everything,” the woman said. “He was being groomed by Bernal to take over and he was on top of everything.”
Though just now coming to light, rumors of the harassment cases had been circulating for months. A Board of Supervisors’ agenda in the spring said the board would be meeting in executive session to consider a personnel matter involving Mineau. Officials would not provide details then but one high-ranking source said at the time that “the supervisors are very disappointed with the undersheriff.”
If we knew about that, just about everyone at the Sheriff’s Office knew about it.
So why didn’t Voices write about it back then? Because we could not obtain the type of confirmation the Weekly received last week. We tried, quite earnestly, but we were scooped.
Moving forward, if Moses claims this was the first he’d heard of any of this, don’t believe it. People in his position in neighboring counties had heard about it long before he spoke up. Lawyers throughout Monterey County knew about it. Moses could have said he was “appalled” back when Bernal announced Thornburg’s promotion a month ago but he maintains he didn’t know then about the Office of Civil Rights determinations.
At the local level, political campaigns involving sheriff’s departments or district attorney’s offices are often some of the hardest fought and nastiest contests imaginable. That’s because the participants know how to play hard and future promotions, demotions and policy decisions are at stake.
Sheriff’s officials who are continuing to do their jobs without being distracted by the push and pull are to be commended. Public safety isn’t on the ballot but maybe it should be.
One of the department’s harshest critics in recent years has been Christian Schneider, the campaign consultant who worked for previous candidates, including Bernal at one point. Schneider is locked in defamation litigation against Moses and others in the department and he has filed numerous Internal Affairs complaints that have been ignored, possibly illegally, by the county.
“The house of cards at MCSO is collapsing in a spectacular way while the victims and the lawsuits keep piling up and going unresolved,” said Schneider, who has explored the department’s inner workings in some depth.
“This administration resembles Caligula’s reign rather than a public safety agency and now they are all turning on each other in vain attempts to shield themselves from transparency and accountability.”
Schneider’s continuing lawsuit against Moses arises from Moses’ airing of unsubstantiated embezzlement allegations against Steve Bernal’s opposition in the sheriff’s race of 2018.
“Moses has been one of Bernal’s biggest enablers,” Schneider said. “Something about birds of a feather flocking together until pensions come into play. I am really concerned with all of these individuals now pointing the finger at each other. This is creating a dangerous situation for the public and county employees.”
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