07:43 PM PDT on Wednesday, April 21, 2010

By IMRAN CHORI
The Press-Enterprise

State and local prosecutors are threatening to take San Bernardino County supervisors to court to compel them to release documents in the Colonies Partners legal settlement that is at the center of an extortion and bribery investigation.

The San Bernardino County district attorney and state attorney general’s offices are seeking access to legal documents and attorneys hired by the county as part of an investigation alleging that the $102 million settlement with Colonies Partners was part of an illegal conspiracy involving extortion and $400,000 in bribes.

In a strongly-worded letter Tuesday to supervisors, California Senior Assistant Attorney General Gary Schons describes prosecutors as growing impatient over how long it’s taking the county to respond to prosecutors’ March 12 request for the county to waive its attorney-client privilege in the November 2006 settlement.

“I am writing again this time to express our frustration over the lack of a favorable resolution of this matter to date,” Schons states, adding that it has caused “an unacceptable delay” in the investigation.

If the board declines the request at its next board meeting Tuesday, “it is our intention to immediately initiate our legal remedies in a court of law,” he said in the letter.

Both Schons and district attorney spokeswoman Susan Mickey declined to elaborate on the letter.

In a statement, county spokesman David Wert said it was “unreasonable to expect a decision of such magnitude on a very complex matter so quickly” and that waiving legal privilege is “not something that should be taken lightly.”

The settlement was reached after four years of litigation over the developer’s Upland residential and commercial development. The Rancho Cucamonga company has defended the settlement as a fair and legal compromise.

In his letter, Schons said the county documents are crucial to the investigation.

“The appearance of impropriety here is simply inescapable and will be purged only when the Board agrees to make this information available to us,” he wrote.

Supervisors have met twice in closed session to discuss the request, and County Counsel Ruth Stringer has met twice with prosecutors for more than two hours, but the board has yet to decide how it will respond.

One supervisor said Wednesday he will support releasing the documents.

“I will vote to waive privilege,” Supervisor Neil Derry said.

But both Derry and Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt said the board is waiting for a legal analysis and recommendation from Stringer. She is expected to present her analysis to the board Tuesday.

Mitzelfelt said it would be irresponsible for the board to vote without her recommendation. Her office is researching the legal precedents cited by prosecutors and how releasing the information could affect related ongoing litigation.

The county is suing Caltrans, San Bernardino Associated Governments and Upland for part of the damages in the Colonies case. County officials have also raised concerns because the state attorney general’s office is handling Caltrans’ defense in the civil case.

“Before we waive those rights on behalf of the citizens, we need to weigh it carefully to avoid doing something we could regret later,” said Mitzelfelt, who added that he hopes to cooperate with prosecutors.

In his previous letter, Schons noted that the county had waived attorney-client privilege during the corruption investigation involving former Supervisor Jerry Eaves, who pleaded guilty in 2004 to a conspiracy charge.

Supervisor Josie Gonzales said she has wanted to cooperate with prosecutors from the start but also wanted to give Stringer a chance to complete her analysis. However, she also expressed some impatience over the process.

“I’m not willing to risk the county’s reputation on us not moving forward expeditiously,” she said.

Bill Postmus, former assessor and supervisor, and Jim Erwin, former assistant assessor and former chief of staff to Derry, have been charged as part of the criminal case.

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