By Royal Calkins
The Monterey County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday criticized outgoing Sheriff Steve Bernal for not following county protocols to police cases of sexual harassment, discrimination and other abuses of power.
Referring to the sheriff’s handling of sexual harassment complaints against recently retired Undersheriff John Mineau, the supervisors said it is urging Bernal “to speak out and clearly communicate that the Sheriff’s Office will not tolerate sexual harassment or other abuses and to require strict compliance with all county policies regarding conduct in the workplace, including requiring reporting violations of county policies to the Board of Supervisors.”
The board has no direct authority over the elected sheriff, but the directive to start “reporting policy violations” to the board suggests the supervisors want to increase the amount of oversight.
The statement is in response to recent media reports on three instances of alleged sexual harassment over the past couple of years. Most notably, Monterey County Weekly reported that John Thornburg was promoted to undersheriff despite having failed to act on credible complaints from two veteran deputies. Their allegations were eventually deemed substantiated by the county’s Office of Civil Rights, which attempts to keep all of its activities confidential.
Well before Mineau’s retirement this month, the board seemingly had at least some information about his behavior. It was the subject of a closed-door board session in the spring but no action was taken.
The chances are low that Bernal will instruct his staff as the supervisors suggest, considering his actions following the Weekly article. Capt. Joe Moses, a close political ally of the sheriff’s, responded to the article by saying he would have disciplined Thornburg rather than promote him. Bernal responded the next day by withdrawing his endorsement of Moses in his current sheriff’s campaign. Moses is running against Marina Police Chief Tina Nieto. According to numerous of his colleagues, Moses has been well aware of repeated cases of sexual harassment, reported and unreported, during the Bernal administration.
Bernal himself is the subject of a sexual harassment complaint filed on behalf of another veteran deputy. She contends Bernal pressured her into an affair and that some of his top associates later tried to kill her pension benefits and hurt her chances of future employment because she had broken off the relationship with the sheriff.
That woman received a $10,000 settlement from the Sheriff’s Office because of racist behavior toward her at the same time. That resulted from a claim with the county Office of Civil Rights. She is still part of a continuing state Fair Political Practices Commission investigation of Bernal.
That woman told Voices that Bernal began pursuing her by sending her emails requesting that she send him “training photos” of herself.
As Voices has reported, the $10,000 settlement was disguised as a payroll check in hopes the supervisors wouldn’t notice, that woman said.
The supervisors, who unanimously censured Bernal midway through his second term, stressed that the board has no direct legal authority over the Sheriff’s Office because Bernal holds an elected office.
“We recognize the independent authority of the sheriff yet are deeply disappointed in the failure of Sheriff Steve Bernal to ensure that his management staff follow county policies,” the board said in the written statement.
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