Saturday, July 23, 2011

Politics at their Worst: San Bernardino County's Colonies Partners Deal

Back in May, we noted the indictment of a former San Bernardino County Supervisor, Paul Biane, on charges of embezzlement, bribery, and conspiracy. The indictment followed a guilty plea on corruption charges by former Supervisor Bill Postmus, who was accused of accepting a $100,000 bribe from land developer Jeff Burum in return for a favorable settlement in a lawsuit brought by Burum against the county. Today's San Bernardino Sun has more of the sordid details of this story.

Back in 2002, Burum's company, Colonies Partners LLP, owned 400 acres in Upland, and had requested $25 million from San Bernardino County to pay for flood-control facilities on the property as part of an extension of the 210 freeway. When the county refused, Colonies sued, and in 2006, the Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 in favor of a settlement, awarding the company an astounding $102 million. The vote went against the advice of the county's lawyers, who refused to ratify the settlement and warned Postmus that it was "a gift of public funds" and a breach of fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers. But yea votes from Postmus, Biane, and current Supervisor Gary Ovitt brought the suit to a close. In subsequent years, the district attorney's investigation heated up, and in July 2009 it announced that it was investigating the Colonies settlement. What came out of the subsequent grand jury testimony included the following:
  • Burum befriended Postmus in 2005, and promised him financial support from Colonies for any future business and political projects, in exchange for Postmus' support in the settlement. As the latter's term on the Board of Supervisors drew to a close in late 2006, Burum apparently turned up the pressure. Postmus was told by former union boss and Colonies consultant Jim Erwin that private investigators were following him and digging through his trash. Just prior to November 2006, in which Postmus was running for county assessor, Erwin told him that Burum was preparing to campaign against Measure P (an initiative raising Supervisors' pay), and that the campaign pamphlets would reference Postmus' methamphetamine use and (undeclared) homosexuality, unless a settlement was approved.
  • According to PR consultant Patrick O'Reilly, Burum also prepared anti-Measure P pamphlets targeting Biane, who was having major financial problems at the time.
  • Gary Ovitt's vote was apparently never in doubt. According to ex-Assistant Assessor Adam Aleman, who himself has pled guilty to felony charges of preparing false evidence and destruction of public records for helping Postmus run an illegal political operation out of the Assessor's Office, Ovitt was in Burum's camp from day one. Burum enjoyed a close relationship with Ovitt's chief of staff, Mark Kirk, who had considerable sway over Ovitt in his job.
  • One county attorney was fired by the board of supervisors for opposing the settlement, and another quit after being ordered to leave the room by Postmus and Biane during a negotiating session that resulting in a $77 million settlement with Colonies. Two sets of attorneys hired to represent the County afterward both resigned after refusing to approve the settlement.
  • After Postmus, Biane, and Ovitt approved the deal, Colonies contributed $400,000 to political action committees controlled by the three Supervisors. Prosecutors allege that these payments constituted bribes.
To be clear, Burum, Biane, and Erwin all dispute that anything untoward went on; Biane believes that the settlement with Colonies was a good deal, and denies being pressured to vote for it. Either way, it's a slimy story.

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