By Wendy Leung and Joe Nelson, Staff Writers
Created: 05/20/2011 08:48:33 PM PDT

It started with a fugitive poster and a press conference declaring it the “biggest” corruption case the San Bernardino County district attorney has ever prosecuted.

Ten days and $1.1 million in bail bonds later, the four defendants in the Colonies corruption scandal are wearing ankle bracelets that track their whereabouts.

One of the defendants, former county Assistant Assessor Jim Erwin, has called this case a “dog and pony show.”

Regardless of how one views District Attorney Michael A. Ramos’ style in handling the massive investigation into this bribery scheme, one thing is sure – the D.A. has a message to send, and he’s not shy in his delivery. But some are wondering if he’s going overboard and creating a spectacle that could taint the jury pool.

“I’ve been actually impressed,” said Bob Stern, executive director for the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “He should be sending a message that this is no longer tolerated. (This) county is the Wild, Wild West. Year after year there are these corruption cases. Somebody has to send a message that this is it.”

Last week, four men were arrested for allegedly taking part in a bribery scheme that led to a $102 million settlement between San Bernardino County and Colonies co-managing partner Jeff Burum.

Burum, Erwin and Mark Kirk, former chief of staff for Supervisor Gary Ovitt, turned themselves in while former Supervisor Paul Biane remained at large. For 10 hours, Biane was considered a fugitive.

Biane was arrested about 5 p.m. when authorities met him at the L.A./Ontario International Airport as he returned from a trip to Arizona.

Former District Attorney Dennis Stout, a vocal critic of Ramos, said it was “highly unusual” that Ramos would release a wanted poster.

“It appears they knew where he was, they knew he was coming back. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have met him at the airport,” Stout said. “I’m wondering why they didn’t let him come back and turn himself in. I suppose it makes interesting political theater.”

Stout and Ramos became bitter rivals when Ramos announced in 2001 that he would run against his then-boss. Stout dropped out of a runoff with Ramos after Ramos drew more votes than Stout in the March 2002 primary election.

Assistant District Attorney Jim Hackleman said there was plenty of good reasons to disseminate wanted fliers for Biane after he failed to surrender as agreed upon. Hackleman said the main purpose of the flier was to alert authorities at the Mexican border because Biane owns a vacation home in Mexico.

Biane was told to surrender at the District Attorney’s Office in San Bernardino at 7 a.m. on May 10. Biane lives in Rancho Cucamonga, about a 30- to 40-minute drive. When 7:15 rolled around and Biane still hadn’t showed up, Hackleman said investigators called Biane’s lawyer. The lawyer said Biane was on his way, and that his wife was driving him, Hackleman said.

By 8 a.m., Biane still hadn’t showed. So investigators called Biane’s lawyer, Robert Corbin, again. Corbin said there had been a misunderstanding, and that Biane was actually in Arizona and was on his way back to California, Hackleman said.

“Obviously, at that point, we had no idea where (Biane) was,” Hackleman said. “The wanted poster had a legitimate law enforcement purpose. We knew (Biane) had a home in Mexico. We shipped it (wanted flier) to border authorities for purposes of watching the border.”

As it turned out, Biane actually was in Arizona, where he said he had gone the day before to work as a consultant on a farming project in Willcox.

Hackleman said any assertions of grandstanding by his office, political or otherwise, were wrong, and it was quite the opposite. He said Burum, Biane, Erwin and Kirk were each given a certain amount of leeway by being allowed to surrender to authorities.

“Typically in these cases we do an arrest, and it’s an exception when we allow a surrender in these important corruption cases,” said Hackleman. “We thought offering an opportunity to surrender was appropriate. We did not want to arrest them in front of their families.”

At a press conference announcing the arrests, Ramos unveiled the defendants’ bail amount – a total of $16 million with Burum’s being $10 million. Ramos said he will “put an end to corruption in San Bernardino County” and vowed to seek restitution for the $102 million settlement.

Two days later, shackled and sporting their jailhouse greens, the defendants had their bail amount was lowered to a collective $1.1 million and were later released.

Stout said lawyers who discuss their cases are typically confined to factual matters.

“We stick basically to the charges and comment on things like when you expect to be in court,” Stout said. “I’ve never seen a situation where there are comments on the defendants, saying this is the biggest case in San Bernardino County, and I’m going to get the $102 million back.”

Stout said Ramos’ rhetoric and the images of the four men shackled in the courtroom could color the jury pool.

“Face it. Anybody who sees the newspaper … a lot of them are going to be jurors,” Stout said.

Hackleman said it is standard practice for shackled defendants scheduled for court appearances at the historic San Bernardino courthouse to be escorted by sheriff’s deputies down hallways to courtrooms. He said the practice has nothing to do with the District Attorney’s Office and is solely a court issue.

Whenever inmates have to be escorted down public hallways at the courthouse, deputies have members of the public vacate the hallways until the inmates are in the courtrooms.

“There are no facilities behind the corridors to transport prisoners in that facility. It is sometimes disconcerting, but by no means rare,” Hackleman said.

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