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Transparency Word Magnifying Glass Sincerity Openness ClarityQuestion of the day:

What do the following have in common?

The Cannery Row Co. Pebble Beach Co. Granite Construction. Monterey County Business Council. Fort Ord Reuse Authority. FORA contractor EMC Planning Groupu.

First Tee. Granite Construction.Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. California Fisheries Association.

Monterey Convention and Business Bureau.  Carmel Mission Inn. Highlands Inn.

Several local law firms. Several local restaurants. A bank or two. Diocese of Monterey.

Give up?

Why, it’s David Armanasco. And the list of local companies and entities that are represented by his public relations firm goes on and on from there.

Now, add to the list the name of Sheriff-elect Steve Bernal.

As the vote count continued last week and it became increasingly clear that Deputy Bernal is going to upset Sheriff Scott Miller, Bernal announced that Armanasco will be handling his media calls and other public relations matters during the transition. No, strike that. Armanasco made the announcement.

It is a natural pairing. Bernal was backed heavily by the Republican Party locally and was backed by many key business figures, and those are Armanasco’s people. And Bernal apparently plans to keep up with his South County patrol duties for the time being, making it difficult for him to “interface” with community leaders, so he needs someone to serve as his proxy.

Armanasco is expert at dealing with the press and equally expert at ducking questions from the press. For instance, I asked him by email last week about the financial arrangements. Who’s paying him?

He responded quickly and pleasantly.

“We are helping through transition for Bernal.  He will not have any announcements until next week.  Since the incumbent has not conceded, Bernal has decided to wait for the latest vote count to be made public late Friday and the voter trend confirmed. Next week he will announce his transition adviser team.  He is still working on patrol so it helps him that we can field calls and make arrangements for him to respond to inquiries when he is off duty.”

Thanks, David, But who’s paying you?

Over the weekend, KSBW interviewed Bernal and asked if Armanasco was being paid out of campaign money. The answer was no. It apparently was a short interview and it wasn’t clear whether the reporter got a chance to ask a follow-up question.

Why does it matter who is paying Armanasco? Good question. Armanasco’s firm does all the things that most public relations firms do. It prepares news release and plans public relations strategies. It writes speeches for clients and helps craft their messages.But Armanasco goes a step farther. In addition to the other chores, he specializes in introducing clients to the right people, who, in many cases, are other clients.

If one was to draw a link chart showing connections between Monterey Peninsula businesses, governments and non-profits, Armanasco would be right in the middle like the hub of a wheel. He isn’t a powerful figure in his own right—though he did once serve on the Coastal Commission—but he’s friendly with the powerful people hereabouts and he’s not a bit shy about marketing his connections

Armanasco’s reach extends beyond the Peninsula as well. He is also a principal in a statewide lobbying and consulting company called California Strategies, which is made up of several former legislators and aides to high-ranking politicians. He joined the firm in October 2013, coincidentally the same month that it became the first company to be fined for lobbying without registering as a lobbyist or filing disclosure documents. Three principals, including former Central Coast legislator Rusty Areias, were ordered to pay $40,500 for lobbying the Legislature and the Air Resources Board on behalf of Boeing. One of the three ordered to pay the fine, Winston Hickox, is a former secretary of the state Environmental Protection Agency. His efforts helped Boeing avoid responsibility for cleaning up a toxic site near Los Angeles.

Look for Armanasco to spend many of his billable hours introducing Bernal to the powers that be on the Peninsula and beyond. Until his dark horse campaign, Bernal was an unknown on the Peninsula and in Sacramento, where he will need to focus much of his attention because of state funding issues. His 15 years in the Sheriff’s Department have been spent in South County and he lived much of that time in San Luis Obispo County. His kids go to school in Templeton.

During the campaign, GOP bigwigs introduced him to some of the right people on the Peninsula, those who could commit money and their good names to his campaign, but he still has some catching up to do. He still needs to meet construction company leaders. There are new jail facilities to be built. He needs to meet the bankers and architects and the lawyers and others on the Peninsula who have a growing interest in public safety in the unincorporated reaches of Monterey County.

Whether campaign contributions can be used for post-election PR isn’t entirely clear. Maybe Bernal’s family will pay Armanasco’s fees. Bernal’s brother, Mike, is a cattle rancher and his mother-in-law, Margaret Duflock is a rich cattle rancher. She contributed around half of the half million dollars he spent on the campaign. But if she pays, Bernal would eventually have to fill out a form reporting the gift.

There is a good chance then that Armanasco is working for free. Donating his time. He does that. He has worked pro bono numerous entities over the years.

One example comes to mind. Ten years ago, when the city of Salinas was struggling to find the money to keep its libraries open, city officials proposed several potential tax increases but was mostly focused on a sales tax increase. Along came the business community with an alternative. How about a utility tax on businesses?

It sounded so generous, so community-minded, and on top of that, David Armanasco would volunteer to help the city get the measure passed. For free.

Never mind that it was a virtual secret that there would be a cap on the utility tax, making it so that the maximum impact on any one business would be minimal. The utility tax would essentially cost businesses less than the alternatives. Never mind that some of the affected businesses were Armanasco clients.

Anything wrong with that? No. Anything illegal? Not a thing. It’s smart business, and many clients have found it smart business to hire Armanasco.

A couple years back, Supervisor Dave Potter was in some trouble because he had solicited and accepted a $10,000 campaign contribution from developer Nader Agha and had asked Agha to make the check out to another fellow. Later, Agha found out that Potter had used the money for something other than his campaign, so he sued.

Armanasco, a longtime friend of Potter’s, went to work. He worked tirelessly to get Agha to accept an out-of-court cash settlement from Potter and to agree to make the amount and details confidential.Anything wrong with that? No, unless you think things like that ought to be worked out in public. Anything illegal? Well, yes, but not Armanasco’s part. And if it helped him get Potter’s support for his Deep Water desalination project, what’s so wrong about friends helping friends?

Armanasco is often quick to offer assistance. When I was editor of the Monterey Herald, I hired a business reporter. Armanasco quickly volunteered to hold a reception for the reporter and introduce him to the business community. My boss thought it was a great idea. I thought it was a horrible idea. The reporter was perfectly capable of meeting the business community on his own and I wasn’t interested in setting Armanasco up as a conduit to the Herald’s business page. I got my way but barely.

The point here is that Armanasco is part PR man, part schmoozer, part political fixer. Bernal can’t be blamed for wanting someone like that on his transition team. He doesn’t move in the same circles as Armanasco, and Armanasco certainly can help steer him in the right direction, even if it happens to be the direction that serves Armanasco and his clientele, the cream of the Peninsula.

But during the campaign, Bernal was quick to criticize Sheriff Miller for supposedly hiding things. Bernal says often that the public wants transparency, which means it wants access to information about how things work. If he meant a word of it, he needs to start by explaining his relationship with Armanasco and spelling out the financial arrangement. And if he doesn’t feel up to the task just yet, he could have Armanasco do it for him.

(Finally, though my prediction on the outcome of the sheriff’s race was a giant miss, allow me a couple more prognostications. I’m guessing that Bernal is going to name an old friend, Galen Bohner, from Southern California to the undersheriff spot or another top position and former sheriff’s Commander Mike Richards as a chief deputy. Some of his supporters won’t like the appointment of an outsider, though, because one promotion from inside the department leads naturally to two or three additional promotions from inside. So if Bernal changes his mind on that one, don’t hold it against me. Richards was terminated by Miller and later ran against him unsuccessfully. Bohner is a former Monterey County sheriff’s deputy who is now a lieutenant in the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. For several years, he headed a regional gang task force in the high desert. Also said to be a serious contender for undersheriff or another top spot is Tracy Brown, a former sheriff’s commander who left the department when Miller was elected four years ago.)

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Brandon Gesicki

Brandon Gesicki

SEE UPDATED INFO BELOW ON WHAT BERNAL CAMPAIGN MANAGER BRANDON GESICKI REALLY MEANT WHEN HE SAID, “WHAT, WHO ME? I HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.”

Many years ago, my friend Grant Sims wrote a screenplay. It was a spoof of those heist thrillers in which a highly trained team foils extreme security precautions and makes off with the giant gem.

The twist was that the crooks were disabled. The team leader, played by Mike Connors of “Mannix” fame, was in a wheelchair. Another actor pretended to be blind while another had no hands. They would snare the diamond—not despite their disabilities but because of them. Grant’s script was meant to be silly, sort of a parody of political correctness.

Remarkably, it became a made-for-TV movie, “Beg, Borrow or Steal. Unfortunately, Hollywood played it straight. Imagine “Airplane” with Leslie Nielsen actually taking the role seriously. It was a very bad movie, but perhaps some good can come of it all these years later. It has inspired me to report on politics in a whole new way. I’m going to try to follow a campaign as though it was a spoof. I have chosen Steve Bernal’s run for Monterey County sheriff.

If I watched the campaign as though Bernal and crew were playing it straight, I would become distressed. The idea of a sheriff’s deputy running to be the big boss without management experience, without a college education, without any real understanding of the position, that could make a sober observer downright uncomfortable. But, hey, now that I have convinced myself they’re playing for laughs, I’m looking forward to the next skit. I bet it will be boffo.

Last week, we saw the Bernal camp propose to eliminate most internal affairs investigations, to give jail deputies free lunches and to let the Sheriff’s Department staff make scheduling decisions. Training would become optional. I was taking things seriously then, so I was alarmed. If deputies aren’t held accountable for breaking department rules, for harassing inmates, for doing any of the things that are commonly subject to I.A. investigations, won’t the Sheriff’s Department spin out of control?

But that was then. From my new perspective, it was all pretty funny. In fact, I envisioned a cafeteria full of deputies enjoying their 4-hour free lunches, each funnier than the one before. I saw food fights and laugh riots.

In my mind’s eye, sheriff’s Cmdr. Mike Richards and Mike Kanalakis were still in the department. They were slipping on baloney sandwiches and flicking applesauce at the former internal affairs fellows who were getting stuff all over their new aprons. Hilarious.

It isn’t really clear who is running Steve Bernal’s slapstick campaign, but it seems that the GOP has brought in a heavy hitter to help, Tom Shepard, whose spotty career is nicely highlighted in the San Diego Reader. That link takes you to an old article about Shepard. You can find a more recent article here. Shepard seldom ventures out of Southern California, representing a large cast of law enforcement and city council types in San Diego and Riverside counties. Usually when he heads north it is to represent development interests fighting slow-growth initiatives. He’s done that in Saratoga and Sonoma.

Before I got my perspective tuned up, I also would have worried about my favorite campaign manager, Brandon Gesicki, and his role in the Bernal movie, er, campaign, which he may or may not be running. Gesicki is coy about such things because his record as a campaign manager tends to make him a campaign issue. It also allows him to take credit for a success and to distance himself from a failed campaign, which is known in political circles as a “Brandon.”

Gesicki was involved in Bernal’s campaign in the primary election, but no, hell no, he did not set up that pseudo-organization in San Benito County in order to produce an attack mailer against the incumbent, Scott Miller. Gesicki may have done exactly the same thing in the past, but not this time, no way, because that would not be funny, OK? (This may be what planted the idea of seeing the runoff election as a spoof.)

UPDATE: Although Gesicki has denied involvement in the San Benito County committee, the Monterey County Weekly now reports that an old college chum of Gesicki’s and his wife contributed $1,998 to the committee, which put out anonymous mailers during the primary election attempting to make Sheriff Miller out as a dirty, rotten bad guy. Gesicki still maintains that Bernal didn’t know anything about it. Which means one of two things. A. Gesicki is fibbing or B. Bernal is a tool.

Gesicki ran a couple of campaigns for Abel “Sounds Familiar” Maldonado, whose schtick was to run as a Republican. In one of the Gesicki-managed races, Maldonado ran in a primary election both as a Republican and a Democrat. He and Gesicki then tried to make us believe it wasn’t a tactic. They said they weren’t trying to block any Democrats from running. Never occurred to them. Instead, they said they did it for the nicest of reasons. It seems that Abel’s mother was a lifelong Democrat and had never had a chance to vote for her wonderful son in a primary election. So they did it for love and family, OK?  Gesicki seemed to almost be fighting back tears as he explained it.

In the current race, Bernal has a rich aunt who is providing a big chunk of his campaign financing. In my new spirit of mirth and acceptance, I will not let myself become cynical when Bernal or Gesicki explain that this is not about running the Sheriff’s Department or about getting a Republican elected. No way. It is about a loving aunt, probably a madcap aunt, whose only wish is to see her fine and misunderstood nephew accomplish something for once. Heck, looking at it that way, I might vote for Bernal myself.

Sheriff’s campaigns can be remarkably contentious and nasty, especially when both candidates are working in the same department. True or not, it becomes conventional wisdom that almost everything that ever happens is a direct result of the previous election and who supported whom. If a deserving deputy is promoted, it’s because he told everyone he had voted for candidate A even though he really voted for candidate B. If a supporter of the sheriff gets fired for something minor like never coming to work, it’s because the sheriff doubted the deputy’s sincerity during the campaign. If a sergeant gets sent home for dripping chocolate syrup on his uniform at lunch, it’s because he didn’t contribute to so and so’s campaign.

The old, dour me would have worried about what will happen if Bernal wins. For instance, what if he had 60 supporters within the department but only 10 promotions available. How would he pick? Since he has spent his career in South County and the jail and didn’t work with most of the staff, would he go with test results and the recommendations of interview panels? Not in this show. He’d have some good clean fun by changing the way promotions are made and how the department is organized. Remember, his campaign slogan is “Change Everything and Don’t Forget Your Socks.”

This is where I choose to enjoy the spoof rather than sweat the small stuff. In this script, deputies might get to choose their own ranks and assignments. Always wanted to be a detective? Go for it. Patrol, schmatrol. Solve something.

Undersheriff? Arm wrestle you for it. Head of Internal Affairs? Hey, never mind. We don’t need that any more (laugh track kicks in).

Like you, I’m looking forward to it and I’m glad to know all of this so far has just been rehearsal. Campaign season doesn’t really start until September, which gives Bernal’s writers time to come up with some really solid stuff. It will be more “Barney Miller” or Barney Fife than “Hill Street Blues,” but who doesn’t enjoy a good laugh now and then?

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