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June 14, 2021

Monterey County sheriff censured by supervisors

Documents allege misuse of resources and deputies during 2019 convention

SALINAS — Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted to censure Sheriff Steve Bernal during its May 25 meeting for alleged inappropriate expenditures, use of resources and deputy labor.

The county agenda documents call for the censure “for failure to faithfully perform his duties by allowing inappropriate expenditures of County funds during the 2019 California State Sheriff’s Association convention in Monterey County.”

“If I would have misused that amount of county resources for non-work, leisure-related purposes, I would be in jail right now,” Supervisor Luis Alejo said after noting the unusual yet rare nature of a board having to review the actions of another elected official. “Censure is the least we can do to ensure this doesn’t occur again and that we send the right message to our public that no one is above our county policies nor our state laws.”

The censure resolution alleges seven deputies, two sergeants and four deputies, as well as a non-sworn custody control specialist, provided transportation services to convention attendees using vans donated by a rental company. This was beside primary transportation to the event, which was conducted by large charter buses donated by a charter bus company along with drivers. The deputies were not given a special event code but were told to clock in with their normal duty event code for payroll purposes.

Deputies were allegedly assigned for security purposes but were never informed of that role and were told to wear polo shirts and cargo pants with a service revolver instead of protective gear. They were reported to have spent a quarter of their time transporting attendees, such as trips from San Jose airport to the convention and trips to the Monterey airport or picking up forgotten clothing items for attendees.

“Our deputies … were made to serve as Uber drivers,” Alejo said. “Taking people shopping, to go play golf, to go to dinners or other non-work related events and placed truly in a compromised position by being told not to wear their protective vests.”

Fuel for these trips was alleged to have come from county-owned gasoline pumps. In addition, a shooting competition was held at a private shooting range in which about 21,000 rounds of county-owned ammunition was available to be used.

In total, time spent by hourly employees on the assignment amounted to $21,433.

“I thought the resources that were put into this by the Sheriff’s Department went too far,” Supervisor John Phillips said. “I think the Sheriff looks at it now and probably would have done it differently.”

Alejo noted alcohol was being consumed at the gun range and that factor could have ended up as a liability for the county.

“The findings of the District Attorney’s report were very troubling and demonstrate an egregious misuse of taxpayer dollars and a total lapse of judgment on numerous occasions by the sheriff and some of his top leadership,” Alejo said.

The censure document did include a closing item noting Bernal has directed his office to take steps to prevent such occurrences in the future and has informed senior management that the actions from the convention were improper.

Before voting, Phillips noted his concerns that such impropriety might come back to haunt the Sheriff’s Office when it comes time to draw up the final county budget.

“This censure was about the only way some of us felt that we could lawfully express our concerns about it,” Phillips said. “To me, it wasn’t saying ‘he’s not doing a good job’ or ‘I lost confidence in him.’”

Sean Roney
Sean Roney is the reporter for King City Rustler and Salinas Valley Tribune, a unified publication of Greenfield News, Soledad Bee and Gonzales Tribune. He covers education, government and general news for the Salinas Valley communities in South Monterey County.

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