SAN BERNARDINO — Opening statements began Wednesday in the case against the first of four former officials whose alleged acceptance of bribes, among other felony charges, resulted in one of the biggest corruption scandals in San Bernardino County history.
Over four hours, Deputy District Attorney Lewis Cope characterized former county Assistant Assessor Jim Erwin as a man working “in the shadows” as a “secret intermediary” between developer Jeff Burum and former county Supervisor and Assessor Bill Postmus in an attempt to influence and obtain a $102 million land-use settlement from the county in 2006.
Cope told jurors threats made to disclose potentially damaging information — in the form of political mailers — that private investigators had amassed for Burum against Postmus, including his sexual orientation, helped expedite a vote of the Board of Supervisors to settle with Burum’s Rancho Cucamonga-based Colonies Partners LP.
Erwin knew Postmus — who at the time was 1st District Supervisor — “is homosexual,” a revelation that would’ve spelled a political death sentence a decade ago in the county, according to Cope.
“Mr. Erwin also (knows) Postmus had a drug-addiction problem,” Cope told jurors. “(It started with) doctor-prescribed painkillers (before) moving to methamphetamine ... Mr. Erwin (wanted) the settlement to happen because he knows it’s going to benefit himself.”
In the courtroom, Erwin — who is charged with numerous felony counts, including bribery, perjury and embezzlement — shook his head as Cope detailed his alleged involvement in pressuring Postmus to vote quickly on settlement with Burum.
Settlement, according to Cope, meant the threats against Postmus and then-fellow Supervisor Paul Biane would disappear, but it also meant monetary contributions totaling $400,000 to political action committees run by Postmus, Erwin, Biane and Mark Kirk, the former chief of staff for former Supervisor Gary Ovitt.
Therefore, Cope said all parties wanted settlement before the 2006 general election because “everyone” believed Postmus would win the assessor race, which he did, and any agreement “would be up in the air again” as a result.
A tentative settlement was later reached by Postmus, Biane and Burum behind closed doors during a meeting that also included Jim Brulte, the current chairman of the Republican party in California.
At some point during the meeting, attorneys for all sides were excused. Cope said the tentative settlement did not sit well with attorneys from Munger Tolles & Olson LLP, the county’s hired firm, who sent a memo that stated “all the legal problems it would create for the county.”
The attorneys advised against the board approving the settlement, but despite the memo being circulated among board members and later released to the press, the supervisors voted 3-2 — with Supervisor Josie Gonzales and former Supervisor Dennis Hansberger casting the no votes.
Contributions from Colonies to each PAC followed in 2007, but not before approximately $22 million from the county coffers was transferred to Colonies’ bank account up front, according to Cope, who said Erwin was the first to benefit from the vote in the form of $100,000 to the Committee for Effective Government, Erwin’s PAC.
Additionally, Cope said Burum “rewarded” Erwin with a lavish trip to New York City and Washington, D.C. via a private jet that resulted in, among other expenses, Burum purchasing a Rolex watch for Erwin that cost between $12,000 and $15,000.
Erwin later attempted “to conceal his kickback from the public” by forging signatures on PAC documents.
“(It was) an extravagant thank you for helping Mr. Burum,” Cope said. “Mr. Burum knew his public servants. He knew he was dealing with flawed people … but that worked to his benefit because he was able to capitalize on those flaws. And Mr. Erwin played a very important role ... in this very well-choreographed dance.”
Cope described the settlement itself as a “dirty deal born of greed and of corruption and of bribery” that Erwin, Postmus, Biane and Kirk knew was “bad for the county.” They went ahead with it, however, because they also knew “they would profit from it personally,” both politically and financially.
Helping to achieve the settlement, according to Cope, earned Erwin the possibility of “stature, power and ability to do things more so than what he’s done before” via his PAC.
“It was very important to him,” Cope told jurors. “His work helped lay the groundwork for the bribery and the evidence will show that he was excited about it … that he profited by it. He did it by capitalizing on the weaknesses of others, by corrupt means and by means that have brought us all here.”
Meanwhile, defense attorney Rajan Maline said Cope’s description of the complex, decades-spanning “story” has no basis in reality.
Maline’s own opening statements were cut short Wednesday, but he said the corruption involved stemmed from Burum being lied to by San Bernardino County Flood Control District officials, which led to two Colonies’ lawsuits against the county.
“Mr. Burum had no choice but to file his lawsuit,” Maline said. “They didn’t ask for money. They simply asked a judge to define the rules related to what the county owned and what Burum owned.”
Maline’s statements are scheduled to continue Thursday in what San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith described as a “single, joint trial with dual juries,” a reference to a granted request previously made by the District Attorney's office, which cited Erwin's proclivity in speaking to colleagues and reporters about the case and called many of his comments inadmissible against the other defendants.
Opening statements in the part of the case involving Burum, Biane and Kirk were scheduled to start Thursday; however, Smith pushed that date to Monday in order to attend the funeral of fellow judge Brian Saunders, who died Dec. 27 at the age of 63.
Postmus previously pleaded guilty to bribery and misuse of public funds, and will provide testimony during the case, according to Pope.
Matthew Cabe can be reached at MCabe@VVDailyPress.com or at 760-951-6254. Follow him on Twitter @DP_MatthewCabe.