By Royal Calkins
Alarming developments about sexual harassment at the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department are now being compounded with new reports of a commander placed on leave for allegedly receiving drugs illegally obtained for him from the jail’s stockpile.
Dustin Hedberg, head of special operations for the Sheriff’s Office, was placed on administrative leave Thursday while others in the department investigated his relationship with a woman terminated as regional director for Wellpath, the company that provides medical services for inmates in the county jail. And according to several Sheriff’s Office sources, that woman had been removed from her Wellpath position last week for allegedly pilfering drugs from the jail stockpile and providing them to the commander.
At a rank between sergeant and captain, Hedberg oversees specialized units that include the search and rescue team, SWAT and the aviation squad. He also handles security contracts for special events such as golf tournaments.
He was escorted out of his office on Thursday, a week after the regional Wellpath director, Christina Cruz Kaupp, was reported to have been terminated.
According to several Sheriff’s Office sources, including four current and recently retired officials, Hedberg underwent surgery in recent times and Kaupp provided him with pain medications bought and paid for by Monterey County for treatment of inmates, not commanders.
Hedberg said by phone Friday morning that he is not allowed to comment on his behalf. Kaupp has not responded to a message as of Thursday evening.
There has been no official word of the developments, but acting Undersheriff John Thornburg issued a department-wide memo hours after Hedberg’s departure saying that “until further notice,” special operations would be overseen by Cmdr. Ray Tongol — except for the SWAT team, which will report to Cmdr. Garrett Sanders.
Sheriff’s officials usually cannot be immediately terminated for breaching regulations and instead are generally placed on leave while their actions are investigated.
Wellpath, headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., is the nation’s largest provider of medical care for jail and prison inmates, despite a remarkable number of lawsuits alleging inadequate care. Its chief executive officer, Jerry Boyle, pleaded guilty early this year to several counts of bribery that enabled the company to get contracts with two Massachusetts counties and a state hospital there.
Most contracts for jail health services are awarded through competitive bidding processes that provide plenty of room for subjectivity. Partly because of coziness cultivated by the providers, inmate health care costs account for as much as 30 percent of the overall budget at some facilities.
According to a former Monterey County sheriff’s official who was involved in administering the jail, Kaupp also enjoyed a close relationship with former jail Capt. Jim Bass, who was involved in ranking firms competing for Monterey County’s inmate care contract. Bass was succeeded by Capt. Joe Moses, currently a candidate for sheriff. Moses received endorsements from Hedberg and Kaupp, but he scrubbed their names from his website this week.
For many years, health care in the jail was handled by California Forensic Medical Group, which regularly contributed to sheriff candidates, especially incumbents. It was later acquired by Wellpath, which has contributed to the campaigns of Sheriff Steve Bernal and sponsored at least one trip to its Nashville headquarters. Wellpath contributed $4,500 to the Moses campaign.
Kaupp previously worked as nursing supervisor at the Monterey County Jail and was later promoted to Wellpath’s regional director position. She was involved with the company’s contracts with Santa Cruz County, but it is unclear what other territory she handled.
Kaupp is also a trustee of Mission Union School District in Soledad.
Hedberg’s suspension comes as the Sheriff’s Office has been struggling to address structural and reputational issues that were compounded by recent revelations about the department’s top officials tolerating sexual harassment within the ranks.
Recent media reports focused on the promotion of Thornburg, the acting undersheriff, after he failed to act on repeated complaints of serious and documented cases of sexual harassment. On Thursday, KSBW-TV reported on a series of offensive texts the previous undersheriff, John Mineau, had sent to one of his victims. Mineau was allowed to retire without apparent penalty.
Voices also learned this week that a former clerical employee in the department was awarded $100,000 in damages in 2020 after she was terminated for requesting a pregnancy leave.
This latest flareup involving Hedberg also could be a setback for Moses’s campaign for sheriff in the November election.
Colleagues describe Moses as a friend of Kaupp and a close friend of Hedberg, who helped host a campaign fund-raiser for Moses in May. Kaupp also attended the fund-raiser and was pictured on social media with her husband, Hedberg and Moses.
Before removing Hedberg and Kaupp from his list of endorsers this week, Moses was forced to remove his endorsement from Bernal after he criticized the current sheriff’s decision to promote Thornburg following Thornburg’s decision to ignore verified harassment complaints against Mineau. (Remarkably, Bernal, who has been accused of sexual harassment himself, publicly denied ever tolerating any harassment.)
Moses also has enjoyed a good relationship with Wellpath. Psychiatrist and Wellpath principal Taylor Fithian contributed $4,500 to Moses’s underdog campaign in which he is sparring against Marina Police Chief Tina Nieto for the right to replace outgoing Bernal. Four years ago, Fithian contributed $4,500 to Bernal’s reelection campaign.
"I will ensure that wrong-doing by our personnel is immediately addressed and the individuals involved are held accountable." Joe Moses
Moses said Friday that he can’t comment on the details of the allegations against Hedberg. But, he said, “I can assure you that as soon as the allegations came to light, swift action was taken to stop the behavior and a full investigation is underway. Once the investigation is concluded, appropriate disciplinary action will be taken.”
He added that, if elected sheriff, “I will ensure that wrong-doing by our personnel is immediately addressed and the individuals involved are held accountable. Preventative actions will be taken to make sure that type of behavior does not continue in the future.”
Nieto, his opponent in the Nov. 8 election, called the most recent allegations “troubling.”
“They clearly demonstrate the problems with the current culture at our county jail,” she said. “As I’ve said from the start of my campaign, if the voters elect me as sheriff I will assemble a leadership team that models my values of integrity, fairness, transparency and honesty, not just when they join my team, but they must have demonstrated these values throughout their entire careers.”
She said she would “quickly make evaluations of any ongoing issues” at the jail if she’s elected to the position.
Bernal chose not to seek re-election after being censured by the Board of Supervisors for illegally using taxpayer money to put on a convention for a private trade organization that represents sheriff’s from throughout California.
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