Eaves Pleads Not Guilty in Bribery Case
San Bernardino County Supervisor Gerald “Jerry” Eaves and an Orange County businessman on Wednesday pleaded not guilty to charges they were involved in a bribery scheme that included payoffs to Eaves and other public officials who voted on lucrative billboard contracts.
Three other government officials, including the county’s former chief administrative officer, already have pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges stemming from the alleged billboard scam -- one of several corruption scandals in the Inland Empire over the past decade.
All three are awaiting sentencing.
Eaves and businessman William “Shep” Shepardson McCook pleaded not guilty to six counts of bribery and one count of conspiracy in Riverside County Superior Court. If found guilty, Eaves could face a maximum of five years in prison, and McCook could be sentenced to up to eight years.
Federal charges are also pending against Eaves and McCook for the alleged scheme.
Eaves is accused of accepting more than $6,000 worth of free trips to the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas and more than $33,000 in campaign contributions in exchange for his support for McCook’s billboard project.
McCook also lost a legal round Wednesday when Superior Court Judge Patrick Magers rejected his attorney’s request to dismiss the charges on grounds that the case was filed after a three-year statute of limitations for the crimes had expired. The judge had rejected the same request once before. Still, McCook’s attorney said he will consider appealing the judge’s ruling.
After the arraignment, Eaves -- a former Rialto mayor and state assemblyman -- remained defiant, saying he did nothing wrong and has been targeted for prosecution only because of his name recognition and powerful position in the county.
“I’m still, in my humble opinion, the best supervisor in San Bernardino County,” he said in the hallway outside of the courtroom.
His attorney, Donald Jordan, echoed Eaves, saying, “He is known and loved in San Bernardino County. But he did nothing wrong.”
The case centers on an alleged scheme launched in 1991 by business partners McCook, Allan Steward and Tim Kelly, who planned to erect several billboards on county flood control land in the city of Colton, near the interchange of interstates 10 and 215, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors allege that the men knew the billboards would not conform to zoning laws and would require special permits from Colton, San Bernardino County and the state Department of Transportation.
To secure the controversial permits, prosecutors charge, in the early 1990s McCook and Steward paid thousands of dollars in bribes to Colton City Councilmen Donald Sanders and Abe Beltran and former County Chief Administrative Officer James Hlawek.
The bribes were in the form of free Las Vegas trips and envelopes and paper bags stuffed with hundred-dollar bills, according to court documents.
Sanders, Beltran, Hlawek and Steward already have pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges and are awaiting sentencing.
According to court documents, McCook also allegedly gave Eaves -- and some of Eaves’ relatives and aides -- 10 separate vacations at the Stardust. Eaves failed to disclose the gifts when he filed financial statements with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, prosecutors charge.
After his arraignment Wednesday, Eaves said he took only one of those the trips to Las Vegas, reluctantly at the behest of his wife. The other trips were taken by friends and family members, he said.
But prosecutors say Eaves benefited from the free trips because he gave them to family and friends through his secretary, who arranged the trips.
In the mid-1990s, Eaves voted in favor of leasing San Bernardino County property to one of McCook’s companies. Then, in 1997, Eaves voted for a proposal that allowed McCook to sell five billboards for $4.4 million, prosecutors say.
Before the vote, prosecutors allege, Eaves met with McCook and Hlawek at a restaurant in San Bernardino, where Eaves told McCook, “You’ve always taken care of me and my campaigns and I need to take care of you.”
The charges are the latest blow to Eaves, who has long been the only Democrat on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.
In 2001, he pleaded no contest to separate charges of official misconduct, including allegations that he failed to disclose free trips to a Canadian fishing lodge. Through that plea agreement, Eaves was ordered to pay a $20,000 fine and spend three years on probation. He was allowed to keep his seat on the Board of Supervisors but agreed not to run for office when his term expires in December 2004 -- his 26th year in public office.
On Wednesday Eaves conceded that his image may be tarnished, but he said he is not concerned about that because he is no longer running for public office.
But he said his friends still believe in his innocence.
“I get calls all the time from friends telling me to fight it and not the let [them] get me down,” he said.