San Bernardino County has a distressingly checkered past when it comes to politicians behaving badly and abusing the public trust. Last week brought the latest chapter in the tale of the scandal-plagued county as former Assessor and Board of Supervisor Bill Postmus, reached a plea deal with prosecutors. Postmus pleaded guilty to 15 felonies in two criminal cases, based on charges ranging from misuse of public funds, to accepting a bribe, to conflict of interest. He could face up to five years in prison.
The misdeeds of Postmus and his gang are detailed below, but perhaps the most troubling part of the Postmus tale is that it is not a complete aberration in the county. In 1999, James Hlawek, the county's former chief administrative officer, admitted to receiving bribes from a billboard company owner, William McCook. A year later, Harry Mays, former county administrative officer, was convicted of bribing Hlawek to get Norcal Solid Waste Systems landfill contracts. In 2004, Jerry Eaves, former county supervisor, pleaded guilty to failing to disclose gifts, including hotel stays in Las Vegas, from the same billboard company owner, McCook.
It is not only important to determine why this is happening, but also how it can be prevented in the future. Too many members of the electorate have negative views of their elected officials and public servants, and too many politicians in San Bernardino are giving the public more fodder for those views.
The problem isn't just that the misdeeds in San Bernardino include illegal acts, it is that the officials' actions go to the heart of their role as public servants. In fact, the officials make a mockery of that title. I would argue that when it comes to government officials, there is a difference between a DUI and a charge of bribery. The first demonstrates, at the very least, bad judgment. The second shows a fundamental misuse of an official's responsibility to serve the public. Such behavior spreads beyond any one-time incident and can color the public's view of their government and officials. If such public distrust leads to renewed civic activism, then there is a light at the end of the dark tunnel. If instead it leads to increased feelings of dissatisfaction and apathy culminating in decreased participation in our representative democracy, then some buy me a flashlight, its going to be a long and dark road.
Now, more on the Postmus debacle. One of the criminal cases against Postmus essentially involves his use of the assessor's office (and the taxpayer dollars) for personal and political gain by, among other things, hiring unqualified friends to serve in governments posts, and using public funds for personal trips and expenses. The second case involves charges of conspiracy and theft of taxpayer dollars to settle a $102 million lawsuit with Colonies Partners, a local developer, while Postmus served on the Board of Supervisors.
The plea deal leaves prosecutors to focus their corruption probe on three of Postmus' not-so-merry men. Former assistant assessor Jim Erwin, former taxpayer advocate Greg Eyler, and former Postmus business partner John Dino DeFazio are some of the last men standing in the years old corruption investigation of the assessor's office.
Erwin and Postmus were accused of accepting bribes to settle a lawsuit with Colonies Partners. Prosecutors have also charged Erwin with perjury based on claims that he failed to disclose gifts, such as a trip to New York on a private jet, that he received from the developer's co-managing partner.
Prosecutors have charged Eyler with, among other things, defrauding the taxpayers by pulling in a full-time salary for less than full-time work which primary consisted of personal work for Postmus. Eyler and Postmus are also accused of using their official positions in the assessor's office for personal gain.
DeFazio, like Erwin, has also been charged with perjury. DeFazio's charges are based on purported false statements DeFazio made to a grand jury about a political committee.
Two other officials involved in the corruption probe focused on Postmus have already been convicted. Former Postmus aide and assistant assessor, Adam Aleman, pleaded no contest to charges including giving false information to a grand jury and destroying public documents. Rex Gutierrez, former intergovernmental relations officer for the assessor's office, was convicted of grand theft, filing a false claim, and conspiracy, essentially for getting a government job and planning to do no work.
But the fun for San Bernardino officials doesn't stop there. Four county Supervisors, Josie Gonzales, Gary Ovitt, Brad Mitzelfelt and Neil Derry, have been served subpoenas and ordered to testify before a criminal grand jury whose focus is unknown.
Let's hope the actions described above serve as a cautionary tale and that there is not another chapter in this story.
Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is an Adjunct Professor at Loyola Law School and the Director of Political Reform at a non-profit, non-partisan think tank.