With different aspects of City of Bell scandal continuing to come to light, "Bell" is starting to become short-hand for government corruption. Still, this one scandal can't displace San Bernardino County from its longtime position at the top of the corruption charts.
The mess in Bell is easily summarized: At least two top-level city employees and four councilmembers abused their powers to get rich at taxpayers' expense. According to prosecutors and news investigations, the city officials may have received millions of dollars in excess salaries.
Meanwhile, the corruption allegations, indictments and convictions in San Bernardino County are so numerous they are nearly impossible to track.
Last week, former San Bernardino County Assessor and Supervisor Bill Postmus agreed to plead guilty to three felonies for conspiracy to accept a bribe, conflict of interest and misappropriation of public funds. Three days later, a San Bernardino County criminal grand jury subpoenaed four current county supervisors. The plea deal, which comes with Postmus's agreement to testify in future criminal trials, and the latest round of subpoenas strongly suggest that things are about to get ugly.
However, things have been ugly in San Bernardino County for so long it's hard to remember otherwise. Back in the 1990s, consecutive county administrations, Harry Mays and James Hlawek, went down after running the corner office like a criminal enterprise. Both were fined and subjected to county civil suits to recover money. Mays spent two years in prison; Hlawek got off with three years probation. A county investment officer and the treasurer/tax collector also did time for taking bribes from a local businessman in exchange for county contract favors. In 2004, then-Supervisor Gerald Eaves pleaded guilty to accepting unreported gifts from a businessman who received county approval to erect billboards on county land. The mayor of Colton and two city council went down in the same bribes-for-billboards scheme. Around the same time, two San Bernardino councilmembers pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from a developer. To summarize: Three appointed government officials and seven elected officials in three jurisdictions were guilty of various corruption schemes.
It appears that few lessons were learned. In 2006, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to settle a lawsuit filed by Colonies Partners, which was developing a 440-acre housing and retail project in Upland called Colonies Crossroads. The developer had sued for reimbursement for providing flood control facilities that it said were the county's responsibility. The settlement smelled bad at the time. The county had already won one appellate court ruling in the litigation, and both the county counsel's office and outside attorneys urged rejection of the settlement.
The settlement now reeks more profusely than ever. Two of the felonies to which Postmus is copping stem from payments and gifts that he and his political operations received from Colonies Partners. (The other felony concerns Postmus hiring people in the assessor's office to do nothing but political work. Postmus aide Adam Aleman had already pleaded guilty to destroying public documents and lying to a grand jury about the political operations on the public's dime; a different aide is awaiting trial.)
When the district attorney and attorney general's office indicted Postmus last year, they did not name five un-indicted co-conspirators. Still, former Supervisor Paul Biane (who voted for the settlement and lost re-election last year), Mark Kirk, a former chief aide to Supervisor Gary Ovitt (who voted for the settlement), Colonies managing partners Jeff Burum and Dan Richards, and Colonies PR consultant Patrick O'Reilly were easily identified as the five. All five have vigorously denied wrongdoing. But it's difficult to believe they are not nervous about Postmus turning state's evidence.
It's not clear that the latest round of supervisor subpoenas is related to the settlement. They might be. They might also concern negotiations the county had with a potential developer of 1,200 acres of surplus county land in Rancho Cucamonga. Those negotiations halted two years ago, when District Attorney Michael Ramos and possibly others began asking questions.
Did I mention that Rex Gutierrez, a former assessor's office employee and Rancho Cucamonga councilman, is now a resident of Tehachapi State Prison? Postmus hired Gutierrez at the assessor's office as a favor to Burum, whose nonprofit company received a $42.5 million contract from Rancho Cucamonga to maintain affordability covenants at an apartment complex.
Did I mention that Jim Erwin, a former top assistant to Postmus and Supervisor Neil Derry, is awaiting trial on corruption charges for arranging the $102 million settlement?
Did I mention that former San Bernardino County CEO Mark Uffer last year filed a whistle-blower retaliation lawsuit against the county after the Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to fire him? Uffer alleges he was dumped because he tried to halt the county-Colonies settlement and reign in numerous other corrupt practices. A trial on Uffer's claims could provide the biggest show yet.
Did I mention that John Pomierski resigned as Upland mayor in February, shortly before being indicted for allegedly trying to extort money from a nightclub and medical marijuana cooperative that were seeking city permits? Also indicted was John Hennes, an appointee to the city's building appeals board. They have not been tied to Burum or the Colonies Crossroads project. Pomierski was on the City Council when Upland approved the project.
Did I mention that district attorney's office investigators and the FBI raided Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, the county hospital in Colton, last fall? Investigators have not explained what they were seeking, but there are allegations that high-ranking county officials received free treatment at the hospital.
The City of Bell? One simple scheme to take tax money. That's the minor leagues compared with San Bernardino County.
– Paul Shigley
Josh Stephens on The Urban Mystique at SPUR: January 19
On Tuesday, January 19, please join CP&DR Contributing Editor Josh Stephens and our friends at SPUR for a conversation about his book The Urban Mystique and the ineffable complexities that make all cities wondrous, maddening, and fascinating.