10:27 PM PDT on Monday, June 28, 2010
By IMRAN GHORI
The first case to go to trial in a corruption investigation against five San Bernardino County officials went to the jury Monday.
In his closing arguments before a packed courtroom, defense attorney James Reiss called his client Rex Gutierrez a pawn in prosecutors’ attempts to go after an influential developer.
The 50-year-old Rancho Cucamonga councilman is charged with two felony counts of grand theft and one felony count of filing a false claim. A fourth count, embezzlement of public funds, was dropped Thursday by Judge Duke Rouse. .
The other figures charged in the district attorney’s probe, including former Assessor Bill Postmus and former assistant assessor Jim Erwin, are still awaiting trial. Both were among those in the packed courtroom for closing arguments.
Over six days of testimony during the two-week trial, prosecutors attempted to paint a picture of a conspiracy involving Postmus, Gutierrez and Rancho Cucamonga developer Jeff Burum.
Through his connection to Postmus,Burum helped Gutierrez get a $65,000-a-yearjob with the county as intergovernmental relations officer in March 2007 with the understanding he would have to perform little work, they said.
Co-workers and supervisors described Gutierrez as frequently absent from work while a district attorney’s investigator went over Rancho Cucamonga expense forms during his 22-month tenure that showed him often at city events during work hours while collecting a full-day’s pay.
The defense attempted to cast doubt on the witnesses who described Gutierrez’s work habits while calling Gutierrez to the stand for a day and a half last week.
He said he got the job on his merits, was allowed a flexible schedule by his supervisors and made up his time by working at home.
In his closing arguments, Reiss said Gutierrez is on trial because of his loyalty to his friend Burum, whom he described as a developer whose projects have long been supported by the full City Council.
“We’re here because they want the big fish,” Reiss said. “They want to smoke out Jeff Burum. They wanted Rex to turn on him.”
Burum has not been charged and has denied the allegations. He invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination when called to testify in the trial.
Reiss ridiculed the idea of a conspiracy, saying that the position was a mid-level management one with similar pay to Gutierrez’s previous job as a teacher.
“Does that sound like a job you’ve been waiting for your entire life?” he asked. “If there was going to be conspiracy wouldn’t you see a brown paper bag with money in it, a meeting in a parking garage caught on tape?”
He took particular aim at Adam Aleman, whom he described as “the most insulting individual in the case.”
Aleman, who was arrested as part of the investigation and is cooperating as part of a plea deal, testified that Postmus called Burum immediately after the job interview to inform him that Gutierrez was hired at the top pay step he could authorize.
Aleman also said that as Gutierrez’s supervisor he had little control over him because Postmus did not want to displease Burum.
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