Closing Ranks

Sheriff Steve Bernal was investigated and cleared by the District Attorney’s Office over use of deputies to staff a private event at taxpayer expense.

During a closed session meeting in December, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors received a report sent by the District Attorney’s Office to County Administrative Officer Charles McKee. The general contents of that report: Nobody at the Sheriff’s Office committed any crime when it came to how Sheriff Steve Bernal staffed the annual California State Sheriffs’ Association 2019 conference, held that year in Monterey County.

At that conference, according to complaints subsequently made to county officials beginning in June 2019, deputies acted as de facto Uber drivers for sheriffs visiting from all over the state, ferrying them and their wives on shopping trips and to and from parties, golf courses and various conference events. That may not be unusual. But according to one of those complaints, made by the then-president of the Deputy Sheriffs Association to then-CAO Lew Bauman, deputies were told that rather than stating on their payroll submissions they worked the conference, they were to write down they were working on other assignments.

“General contents” of what the report states is a key descriptor, because now, nearly two years after the conference, 10 months after the DA investigation ended and four months after the Board of Supervisors received that report, neither the DA nor CAO is willing to make it public.

Each side says it’s the responsibility of the other party to decide whether to release it.

“All members of the Sheriff’s Office whom we questioned fully cooperated in the investigation,” Chief Assistant District Attorney Berkley Brannon writes via email. adding “because the Board of Supervisors has full control over what information, if any, should be made public, we will not risk conflicting with their judgment. Any interest at stake better align with their mission than ours. And they are the bosses.”

McKee, however, says because the report was generated by the DA’s Office, it’s up to the DA to release it. Neither Bernal nor a sheriff’s spokesperson responded to requests for comment.

Former DSA President Dan Mitchell, who medically retired and now lives in another state, says deputies who worked the sheriff’s conference were told to clock in, but then fill out payslips reflecting they were at a jail meeting or SWAT callout.

“Someone asked me to sign their overtime slip, and I said, ‘I’m not signing it,’” Mitchell says. “I just want them to do the right thing and the right thing is not saying you’re at one place when you’re at another.”

Supervisor Wendy Root Askew wasn’t yet on the board when the report was presented, but she’s now looking at various pieces of state legislation on policing, and asked the board’s legislative committee to provide additional information on SB 271, the Sheriff Democracy and Diversity Act. Authored by Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, the bill would allow any registered voter to run for sheriff. Currently, only law enforcement officers are eligible.

“There are pretty significant limitations to the role a county Board of Supervisors has over the Sheriff’s Office,” Askew says. “I’ve concluded that it really is state legislation that would allow the public to have more information and provide more oversight over law enforcement.”

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