A former San Bernardino County supervisor and a Rancho Cucamonga developer were among four people indicted Tuesday on public corruption charges stemming from a land dispute that allegedly involved $100,000 bribes, scandalous political attack mailers and “the services of a karaoke hostess” in China, authorities said Tuesday.
Former Supervisor Paul Antoine Biane, who was apprehended Tuesday evening, and Jeffrey Burum, a managing partner at Colonies Partners of Rancho Cucamonga, were named in the 29-count indictment that includes charges of bribery, extortion and misappropriation of public funds, authorities said. James Erwin, a former assistant assessor and former chief of staff to Supervisor Neil Derry, and Mark Kirk, a former chief of staff to Supervisor Gary Ovitt, were also named in the indictment.
The corruption scandal involves a $102-million settlement between the county and Colonies Partners in 2006, four years after the developer filed suit challenging the county’s easement rights over a flood control basin in the middle of a large retail and housing development in Upland. The Board of Supervisors voted 3 to 2 to approve the settlement against the advice of county counsel, with Biane voting in favor of the agreement, prosecutors said.
Dist. Atty. Michael A. Ramos said Burum helped secure the large payout from the county through the use of bribes and extortion that also led to the conviction of Bill Postmus, former chairman of the Board of Supervisors, on public corruption charges.
“It started with Jeff Burum,” Ramos said at a news conference Tuesday. “He concocted a scheme to corrupt officials, board members … through threats, extortion, inducements and bribery.”
Ramos said the 2 1/2 -year corruption investigation may yield additional indictments against others, “possibly” public officials. The district attorney’s office last year joined the FBI, the U.S. attorney’s office and the California attorney general’s office in a special joint corruption task force because of an abundance of corruption allegations in San Bernardino County.
Burum’s attorney, John Vandevelde, said his client plans to fight the charges.
“Jeff Burum has been smeared by innuendos for two years,” Vandevelde said in a prepared statement. Tuesday’s “indictment means Jeff will finally have his day in court where the truth will show there was never a bribe of anyone or illegal conduct of any kind.”
Burum, Erwin and Kirk surrendered to authorities Tuesday morning. Ramos issued a warrant for Biane’s arrest, and at the news conference prominently displayed a wanted poster for the one-time county official. District attorney’s investigators, working with police at L.A.-Ontario International Airport, took Biane into custody about 5 p.m. Tuesday. He was to be booked at West Valley Detention Center on a $2-million warrant. Neither Biane nor his attorney could be reached for comment.
According to the grand jury indictments, Burum used bribes and threats to induce Postmus, Biane and Ovitt to vote in favor of paying Colonies the $102-million settlement. Ovitt was not charged in the indictment.
The grand jury indictments come a month after Postmus pleaded guilty to corruption charges and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
“With his cooperation, it’s only strengthened our case,” Ramos said.
The 27-page grand jury indictment alleges that Postmus and Biane accepted $100,000 in bribes from Burum, funneled through political action committees they secretly controlled, in exchange for their votes in favor of the settlement.
The indictment also alleged the following:
• Burum as early as September 2005 promised to “take care of Postmus for the rest of his political and/or business career” if he supported the Colonies settlement. During a trade mission to China that month, Burum lavished Postmus with cash, meals, entertainment and “the services of a karaoke hostess.”
• Burum in 2005 offered bribes to Ovitt’s chief of staff, Mark Kirk, if he delivered his boss’ vote on the settlement. Burum later paid $100,000 to a political action committee that Kirk secretly controlled, the Alliance for Ethical Government.
• Burum also gave former Assistant County Assessor James Erwin $100,000, which was deposited into a political action committee that he allegedly controlled. When Postmus was running for assessor in 2006, prosecutors say, Erwin created political mailers that depicted the supervisor as a drug addict to blackmail him into pushing for the settlement’s approval, specifically by pressuring Biane.
• To show his appreciation, Burum later hosted Erwin on a trip to New York and Washington, D.C., providing him with spending money, entertainment and prostitutes.
In February 2010, then-Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown said the alleged bribes and extortion intertwined in the Colonies development was “one of the most appalling corruption cases ever seen in California.” His successor, Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, on Tuesday vowed to continue efforts to uncover public corruption.
Postmus became San Bernardino County assessor in 2007 but resigned in February 2009 after authorities said they found methamphetamine in his home. The same drug was allegedly found in Postmus’ home when he was taken into custody in January 2009.
The drug charges against Postmus were later dropped as part of his plea agreement.
In late April, the state attorney general’s office also filed criminal charges against San Bernardino County Supervisor Neil Derry, accusing him of laundering a $5,000 campaign contribution through a political action committee controlled by Postmus.