Ex-official’s deal has implications for investigations, county lawsuits
Joe Nelson, Staff Writer
Created: 03/29/2011 09:23:45 PM PDT

A guilty plea to corruption charges by former San Bernardino County Assessor Bill Postmus may have major impacts on an ongoing criminal investigation and a landmark $102 million legal settlement between the county and a land developer.

In a plea deal with prosecutors, Postmus, 39, pleaded guilty Monday in San Bernardino Superior Court to 14 felonies from two criminal cases filed against him – one involving the Assessor’s Office and the other, the settlement.

“This is a major step in the case. They’ve been able to convict somebody toward the top and convince that person to point the finger at other possible defendants as well,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor of criminal law at Loyola Law School.

The charges against Postmus include conflict of interest, conspiracy to accept a bribe, and misappropriation of public funds.

He has agreed to cooperate with investigators and testify against other defendants at their future trials.

But Levenson said Postmus’ guilty plea will provide ample ammunition for defense attorneys to chip away at his credibility.

“Even with his cooperation, keep in mind he’s a convicted felon. He’s still not the cleanest witness to put up on the witness stand,” Levenson said.

Over a cheeseburger at a roadside cafe in the Cajon Pass on Tuesday, Postmus said his decision to plead guilty was a carefully thought-out one.

“I’m looking forward to cooperating with authorities in letting the truth be known regarding this case,” Postmus said.

As far as an attack on his credibility related to his methamphetamine abuse, Postmus said he has been sober since his August arrest in San Bernardino Superior Court on suspicion of being under the influence of drugs.

“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m getting clarity and working a program,” Postmus said. He said he has been receiving his treatment at an outpatient care facility in Upland.

In one criminal case, prosecutors allege Postmus, while serving as chairman of the Board of Supervisors, conspired with former Assistant Assessor Jim Erwin and five other uncharged co-conspirators to secure a

$102 million legal settlement with Rancho Cucamonga developer Colonies Partners. The co-conspirators were identified as Colonies co-managing partners Jeff Burum and Dan Richards; former Supervisor Paul Biane; Mark Kirk, who is Supervisor Gary Ovitt’s former chief of staff; and Patrick O’Reilly, a publicist for both Burum and the county.

In the other case, prosecutors allege Postmus set up a political operation at the Assessor’s Office at taxpayer expense, and hired friends and cronies to bolster his political career.

Prosecutors say Postmus’ guilty plea to the conflict-of- interest charge may lead to further proceedings in civil courts to void the Colonies settlement.

The county says the settlement was justified and could have saved taxpayers upwards of $300 million if the county had gone to trial and lost.

“I think it’s safe to say the county was surprised by what developed (Monday),” county spokesman David Wert said Tuesday. “This is something the county’s attorneys are going to have to take time to analyze. They’re going to have to identify and examine all the possible implications and once they do that they’re going to have to brief the Board of Supervisors and recommend some action, if appropriate.”

Colonies officials also maintain the settlement was
proper and deny prosecutors’ allegations.

“The settlement was fair and legitimate, and therefore can withstand any scrutiny and challenge,” said Ric Grenell, Burum’s spokesman, on Tuesday.

Although an appellate court reversed San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Peter Norell’s determination that the settlement was just, a second Superior Court judge, Christopher Warner, upheld Norell’s decision after the appellate court returned the case to San Bernardino.

The county planned to appeal Warner’s decision but instead went into settlement negotiations with Colonies Partners. Retired state Supreme Court Justice Edward Panelli presided over the negotiations, determining the settlement was the result of “hard bargaining” and “arms length” negotiations on both sides.

San Bernardino Associated Governments, the county’s transportation planning agency, demanded Tuesday that the county drop its lawsuit seeking indemnity in the Colonies settlement. The agency argued that Postmus, in his plea agreement, admitted to taking bribes to support the Colonies settlement.

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