Defamation case from 2018 sheriff’s race could be over soon Plaintiff says accusations ruined his life

| OPINION

UPDATE:  Judge Tom Wills has granted the defense motion to dismiss the case. In his ruling from the bench on Friday, he accepted the defense lawyer’s version of Christian Schneider’s deposition though her account incorrectly accused him of declining to make himself available for future deposition. His statement agreeing to further questioning was attached to her motion.

Schneider commented Monday,  “The recent court ruling is regrettable, likely leading to more expenses and delays for both sides only to end up where we started. At the heart of this issue is the county’s role in creating the problem and their subsequent attempts to conceal it. I believe the county counsel’s use of questionable tactics to obscure the mismanagement of public funds and interference in two elections is unethical. I may not have an official role in this, but the consequences have affected me as collateral damage. This fight isn’t just about me; it’s about the public interest. The Board of Supervisors owes the public a comprehensive explanation and full accountability. This is their responsibility as elected officials, and it’s time they fulfill it.”

By Royal Calkins

If there is a pause button in the judicial process, a restart switch to inject fairness into a system often dominated by which side has the most money, it is time to engage it in connection with an important defamation case that has shed light on how politics works in Monterey County.

It’s a Monterey Superior Court case with law enforcement types on each side. On the side with the resources are the three defendants. Two are retired sheriff’s commanders — Joe Moses and Archie Warren. The other is a commander still with the department, Mark Caldwell, but he’s out on leave.

The other side, the plaintiffs, once had three parties — sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Davis, former Sgt. Dan Mitchell and political campaign consultant Christian Schneider. Davis and Mitchell are out of the case now, recipients of token settlements. Schneider remains, however, alone in a daunting effort to clear his name, restore his career and get on with his life. The odds are not with him. 

At the moment, Schneider is scrambling to keep the case alive. He doesn’t have a lawyer and seems overwhelmed by the task of going it alone. Counsel for the other side will ask Judge Thomas Wills on Friday to end the litigation on grounds that Schneider failed for months and months to turn over subpoenaed documents, to undergo pre-trial interrogation sessions known as depositions, and to hire a lawyer.

For the defendants, attorney Elizabeth Leitzinger contends in court filings that Schneider prematurely ended a recent deposition session and refused to make himself available for future questioning. A transcript of that session shows, however, that he told her at the start that he needed to leave at a certain time for transportation reasons and was open to returning at any time.

He acknowledges being quite late to turn over the documents. He attributes that to difficulties he has processing information when under pressure. He submitted doctors’ notes about that to the court this week. He also turned over some 300 pages of requested information to Leitzinger on the eve of his deposition.

It’s all fairly complex and I’ll try here to make it as simple as possible. If you want more details, go to the search button in the menu on the left and type in Schneider. Much has been written about the case, mostly on these pages. 

The case stems from the sheriff’s race of 2018 between incumbent Steve Bernal and unsuccessful challenger Scott Davis, but it’s about more than that nasty campaign. To a large extent, it illustrates how politics can twist public policy decisions and how truth, the first casualty of war, can also get lost in litigation.

One one side are the defendants, the commanders, who tampered with a 2018 political campaign by making stuff up about the opposition. 

On the other side there is now just the one plaintiff, Schneider, a highly controversial figure who made a huge mistake by alienating the local media and others soon after his arrival in Monterey County. He has somewhat rehabilitated his standing by exposing the misdeeds of various politicians through the filing of complaints with California’s political watchdog organization. But at the same time, he has been ground almost into submission by the region’s power structure and the litigation.

More background is required.

Oddly enough, in 2014 Schneider helped Steve Bernal become Monterey County’s sheriff by upsetting the incumbent, Scott Miller. Four years later, however, disappointed with Bernal’s performance in office, Schneider switched sides and joined the campaign of then-deputy Davis.

The commanders, AKA the defendants, all had been promoted by Bernal and were big-time backers of the rookie sheriff during the campaign of 2018.

Like many political campaigns involving law enforcement agencies, it was a rough and tumble affair. Support the right candidate, and you’d be in line for a promotion and a hefty bump in retirement pay. Support the wrong candidate and you might find yourself working in the jail or back on night patrol in King City. High stakes. People were watching their backs.

In his second race, Bernal was the clear favorite but the commanders on Team Bernal  — Moses, Warren and Caldwell — weren’t taking chances. They cooked up some political theater, calling a news conference to accuse the other side of a bunch of felonies. Like money laundering and embezzlement ven though there had been no real investigation. Even though investigating something like that wasn’t their job. Even though they hadn’t even consulted with prosecutors. Even though evidence was paper thin.

As political theater, it was a farce. The local news media ate it up anyway. Cops pointing fingers at other cops automatically lead the broadcast. Within days, the state Department of Justice had reviewed the accusations and found them unworthy of investigation. Even so, it helped Bernal win. Who’s going to vote for someone being called crooked by men in uniform?

Politics being what it has become, such things usually drift away after the votes are counted, but this was different. For one thing, Sgt. Mitchell, who headed the union representing sheriff’s deputies, suffered a stroke in the midst of it all and had to retire. And Schneider says he quickly learned that new candidates he was expecting to work for were concerned about all those allegations, fake or not. He says his work dried up and he went through a nervous breakdown of sorts.

Soon the offended parties, Davis, Mitchell and Schneider, sued for defamation. Unfortunately, rather than using a big law firm that specializes in slander, they hired a small Salinas firm mostly known for representing cops facing personnel issues. 

And even more unfortunately for the offended parties, a big fat favor landed in the laps of the other side, the commanders. For reasons that didn’t really make sense then, and still don’t, Monterey County government officials decided that the county would pay lawyers to represent Moses, Warren and Caldwell. Even though they clearly weren’t doing their jobs when they accused the other side of felonious criminality. Even though agreeing to help three county employees meant that the county was taking sides against two other county employees whose only crime was challenging an incumbent.

The decision to cover the legal expenses was orchestrated by then-County Administrative Officer Charles McKee and then-County Counsel Les Girard, both now enjoying their county pensions. My guess is that they were acting at the direction of then-Supervisor John Phillips and still-Supervisor Chris Lopez, both of whom publicly supported Bernal’s candidacy. (It’s an educated guess, but only a guess.) Phillips, a former judge, was easily the most powerful voice on the five-person Board of Supervisors at the time.

Most everyone in county government agrees that McKee had more clout than most county administrators, And as Girard’s former superior in the County Counsel’s Office, McKee was clearly capable of shaping much of Girard’s work as the county’s lead attorney. County administrators know how to count the votes and act accordingly.

Spending the money, some $160,000 or so over the years, required approval from the elected Board of Supervisors. Phillips and Lopez were quick yesses. Louis Alejo was a no because he liked Davis and felt the county had no business interjecting itself in the dispute. Everything that happened during the closed-session discussion isn’t known, but it is clear that Jane Parker and Mary Adams were confused about the whys and wherefores. McKee and Girard assured them, however, by saying that if a court ever ruled that the commanders had not been acting in their official law enforcement capacities, something they clearly were not, the county would ask the commanders to give the money back.

From a close review of the court record, it appears that the county has made sure a judge was never put in position to answer that question. The motion passed 4-1. Adams has indicated since that she regrets her vote, which came after she was lobbied by one of her staffers, a relative of Warren’s.

It’s telling that county officials signed a representation contract with the county’s most prominent law firm, Fenton & Keller, before the supervisors had voted on the matter. Even before the lawsuit papers had been served on the defendants.

And there’s another odd element. Fenton and Keller, which had previously represented Bernal regarding illegal use of tax money, agreed to represent the commanders at a discount. Schneider has argued that that amounted to an illegal contribution to the Bernal campaign, one that should have been reported on the campaign’s spending reports.

The plaintiffs — Schneider, Davis and Mitchell — took some early losses in the courtroom. 

They lost an anti-SLAPP motion filed against them by the county, which argued that they were abusing the public process. Though the litigation would continue, that resulted in a $66,000 fine against Schneider, Davis and Mitchell, money that was to be paid to the county. 

Then a Monterey County judge tossed their case out but with reasoning that proved to be feeble. She found that Davis and Mitchell amounted to public figures based on their positions in the campaign and the Sheriff’s Office. That meant they would have a tough time winning the slander suit because they would have to prove not only that the embezzlement and money laundering allegations were false but that the Moses crew knew they were false. That’s a high bar. 

Judge Susan Matcham also ruled that Schneider was not a public figure, easing his burden, but in a strange twist she also ruled that it was impractical for him to proceed to trial without Davis and Mitchell. So the case was closed. 

But then the seemingly deceased lawsuit rose from the grave when an appellate court ruled that Judge Matcham’s ruling was wrong, that Schneider et al had indeed been defamed and that the court case should proceed in haste. It seemed to be a huge ruling, and that the Davis/Mitchell/Schneider side would win.

But then, as things often do, the case dragged on. The defendants were represented by Elizabeth Leitzinger, a solid lawyer in a solid firm. Two of the plaintiffs. Davis and Mitchell, soon tired of answering interrogatories and scheduling depositions and the like — and paying the Salinas lawyers. Knowing that the county was footing the bill for the other side weakened their resolve.

By 2023, with Bernal out of office and a new sheriff in charge, Davis’s career was looking up. And Mitchell, now living out of state, was distracted by health issues involving himself and his family. Despite the boost the appellate court had provided them, they reluctantly settled their case out of court in exchange for being relieved from paying their shares of the $66,000 fine from the SLAPP motion. That left Schneider responsible for the whole chunk. The debt hangs over him since he apparently hasn’t worked since being branded as a crook.

In her motion to have the defamation case dismissed, Leitzinger noted that Schneider defied several court orders regarding testimony, production of documents and payment of sanctions.

So Schneider stands alone. To call him a complicated fellow would be an understatement.

Schneider, now 50, came here from New Jersey and brought that East Coast edge with him. As a kid and college student, he was big into theater. He won a scholarship to a big-deal Harverd drama program but never graduated. He supported himself for a time hustling chess players at Harvard Square. He also did well at poker.

It was probably his flair for drama and his ease with numbers that drew him to politics. He worked for various political campaigns across the country, including a failed New York mayoral bid and a supervisorial campaign in San Francisco. He signed on to manage campaigns for various human rights causes.

Oddly enough, Schneider’s first venture into Monterey County politics came when he was recruited to help run Steve Bernal’s improbable initial campaign for sheriff. After Bernal won, Schneider helped with a Dennis Donohur campaign for county siupervisor and ran Bill Lipe’s unsuccessful Assembly campaign. While working for Lipe, Schneider persuaded the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office to charge and convict one of Lipe’s opponents, Neil Kitchens, of fraudulently claiming to live in the district. (Getting the DA’s Office to act on political shenanigans probably ranks with Schneider’s greatest accomplishments.)

Over his years in Monterey County, Schneider has filed a long list of complaints against various political and business figures in the area. Some of them have stuck and he is working on more. He has an encyclopedic command of election law.  Some of his complaints have languished, though, largely because the main political watchdog in California, the grossly underfunded Fair Political Practices Commission, is mostly avoiding new litigation until a hopeless backlog of complaints is sorted.

For the past year or so, Schneider has regularly spoken to the Board of Supervisors during public comment periods at the start of board meetings, pleading his case and trying to explain his situation to supervisors tired of hearing from him.

Many of you have likely not read or heard much about any of this. That’s because, unfortunately for Schneider, relations between him and the media reached epic levels of rancor early on. While he worked for Bernal, his clashes with the Weekly and KSBW were monumental, enlivening many a Twitter feed. Voices were raised. Bad words were exchanged. If Schneider didn’t like a question about his candidate, he bellowed and lectured. He became a taboo topic in some newsrooms. His dealings with Voices, and this reporter, were no calmer at first but eventually his successes with formal political complaints caused us to look past the acrimony and recognize that he often actually made sense.

Unfortunately for Schneider, he had earned a reputation for belligerence before the Three Commanders went on the attack. It likely created what psychologists call confirmation bias among reporters and their bosses. If these sheriff’s guys are publicly calling this guy a crook, he must be a crook.

Schneider no longer seems inclined to accusatory outbursts and acknowledges that he has battled an assortment of demons, the kind that drive people to treatment and medication. 

He says that since Bernal’s second campaign, he has barely worked and what little he has done has been outside of politics. 

In recent months, he has gone from barely housed — living mostly in a Morgan Hill motel room — to essentially unhoused. His van hasn’t been running since the catalytic converter was stolen. At a deposition earlier this month, plaintiffs’ counsel Leitzinger asked where he was living and where he had stayed the night before. He wouldn’t say, explaining that he didn’t want the commanders to know how to find him. He mentioned, correctly, that plaintiff Joe Moses was known to have stalked his ex-wife.

During the deposition earlier this month, Schneider mentioned an interesting item of political interest that actually could be used against him in the court case because it suggests money laundering by a client. He told the story anyway.

 In 2016, Monterey County voters were considering ballot Measure Z, a ban on fracking by the local oil industry. Chevron, an oil industry giant, was against it, and it had money to fight it and money to spread around to create goodwill.

In addition to consulting with political campaigns, Schneider was doing organizational work for the Deputy Sheriff’s Association, the union then headed by Mitchell. Chevron proposed to give the DSA $80,000 to finance community outreach work unrelated to Measure Z. It started with an installment of $20,000. 

Coincidentally, Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter was running for re-election. His campaign was being run by Plasha Fielding Will, the dean of Central Coast campaign managers. She and Schneider worked together on one of former Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue’s campaigns.

As Schneider told it at the deposition, Will called the DSA and said that part of the $20,000 was intended for Potter’s campaign. The campaign needed the money, but Potter, who enjoyed some support from environmentalists, didn’t want to be seen as taking Chevron money during the highly charged Measure Z campaign. The Deputy Sheriff’s Association needed to appear to be the contributor.

County election records show that on April 26, 2016, the DSA contributed $5,000 to Potter.

Schneider testified that the donation to Potter was illegal and done without his knowledge. He also testified that while he worked for Donohue, the former Salinas mayor, he was asked to do improper things in the arena of campaign finance.

Potter went on to lose to Mary Adams, who remains on the board, but he was later elected mayor of Carmel, a perch from which he remains an influential figure in Monterey County politics.

Voices emailed inquiries to Will and Potter on Tuesday and is awaiting responses.

This article originally reported incorrectly that Schneider had worked on a Dennis Donohue mayoral campaign. He worked on a Donohue campaign for county supervisor.

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About Royal Calkins

Contributing writer Royal Calkins has worked for newspapers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Fresno. He can be reached at calkinsroyal@gmail.com.

One thought on “Defamation case from 2018 sheriff’s race could be over soon Plaintiff says accusations ruined his life

  1. What a boring article. You’ve beat this horse to death about this lawsuit. Why don’t you report on salinas city council’s dysfunction and why city leaders are leaving? Or why don’t you report about Tina Nieto’s corruption within the sheriff’s office. Do some real reporting.

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