10:00 PM PST on Monday, November 23, 2009

The Press-Enterprise

Jim Erwin’s legal assault on the San Bernardino County district attorney showcased all the worst aspects of the county’s political atmosphere: a failure to accept any personal responsibility, a ready willingness to blame others and an ethical standard set to the lowest common denominator.

And the county has to change those attitudes in order to put embarrassing high-level scandals behind it. County government needs people who realize that public service requires a higher standard of behavior than merely being no worse than anyone else.

Erwin, formerly an assistant county assessor and a top aide to Supervisor Neil Derry, faces nine felony charges of failing to report gifts from an influential developer. Erwin argued that the prosecution was politically motivated because of Erwin’s efforts to curtail benefits for elected officials and because of his knowledge of alleged misconduct by the district attorney.

But last week, Superior Court Judge Duke Rouse refused Erwin’s request to take the district attorney’s office off the case. The ruling gave legal authority to what the average person already understood: Erwin’s claims rested on hearsay and innuendo, and failed to show any bias on the part of the DA.

The crucial point, however, is that those claims also did nothing to excuse Erwin’s own actions. Prosecutors say Erwin did not report a trip, an expensive watch and other gifts he collected for helping a developer who landed a $102 million settlement with the county in 2006 — an agreement that is now under investigation by the district attorney. So just how did Erwin’s political enemies play a role in his failure to comply with the law requiring disclosure of costly gifts?

Erwin is hardly alone in thinking others’ motivations justify their conduct: Former county Assessor Bill Postmus has frequently claimed that his prosecution on felony charges is driven by political rivals. A county report in May found that Postmus hired unqualified cronies for top spots in the assessor’s office, packed the office with people who ran a political operation at taxpayers’ expense and wasted public money paying employees who did little actual work. Yet that record is somehow the fault of Postmus’ political competitors?

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