Grand Jury papers reveal tensions
Mike Cruz and Sandra Emerson, Staff Writers
Created: 07/25/2011 08:23:19 PM PDT

In San Bernardino County’s 4th District, the chief of staff ran the show, according to Grand Jury testimony released last week.

That chief of staff was Mark Kirk, who has been indicted on suspicion of conspiracy and bribery related to the county’s $102 million legal settlement with Colonies Partners LP in 2006.

Prosecutors contend Kirk secured and delivered Supervisor Gary Ovitt’s vote to settle the long-running land-rights dispute between the developer and the county, and witnesses who testified before the Grand Jury described Kirk as “the sixth supervisor,” a man with a forceful and occasionally abrasive personality who often made policy decisions on Ovitt’s behalf.

Bill Postmus, the Board of Supervisors’ chairman at the time, testified that Kirk told him on multiple occasions that Ovitt would approve any settlement proposed by him and Supervisor Paul Biane, even before Ovitt was elected supervisor.

“Mark had assured me personally that Gary would do whatever Paul and I came to the conclusion of settling on, that he would go for it,” Postmus said. “He (Ovitt) was in favor of it from day one.”

Biane has also been indicted in connection with the Colonies settlement, as have Colonies co-managing partner Jeff Burum, and Jim Erwin, who served as head of the county’s public safety union, a consultant to Colonies, assistant assessor and, most recently, chief of staff to Supervisor Neil Derry.

Postmus has agreed to plead guilty to charges of conspiracy and bribery and is cooperating with investigators on the promise of reduced charges.

“In the 4th District with Supervisor Ovitt and Mark Kirk, Mark Kirk was usually the one who was driving the agenda,” testified Matt Brown, who was chief of staff to former Supervisor Paul Biane. “He would be the most outspoken in meetings, and oftentimes, Supervisor Ovitt would sit quietly and let Mark Kirk talk.”

Kirk no longer works for Ovitt. He transferred to the county CEO’s office this year and resigned from that post last month.

Ovitt, Kirk and Kirk’s attorneys could not be reached for comment.

Kirk was Ovitt’s chief of staff from 2004, when Ovitt was elected supervisor, to 2010.

According to witnesses before the Grand Jury, Kirk not only handled the day-to-day operations in Ovitt’s office, but also made policy decisions for the office – an area that chiefs of staff traditionally don’t venture into. But that was Kirk’s style, witnesses said, as he aggressively tried to further his political career.

Ovitt has denied that his vote was influenced by Kirk and said he voted for the settlement out of concern the county could pay far more than $102 million if it lost to the developer in court.

The Grand Jury heard testimony from 45 witnesses before indicting Biane, Kirk, Burum, and Erwin.

In more than 2,700 pages of transcripts released Friday, witnesses say Burum and Erwin pressured Postmus and Biane to vote for the settlement, promising lasting political support or threatening to reveal embarrassing secrets.

‘Shadow supervisor’

Kirk came into San Bernardino County politics when Ovitt was elected in 2004. After being Ovitt’s campaign manager, Kirk was appointed chief of staff, and over time, he built a reputation as someone who did whatever it took to get what he wanted, county officials said.

“He was short on experience with county government but quite opinionated and quite pushy with regards to his agendas,” said Mark Uffer, a former county administrative officer. “He was famous for browbeating people into getting what he wanted, pressuring them.”

Uffer was fired last year and is suing the county, alleging wrongful termination and claiming he was terminated for cooperating with investigators.

Adam Aleman, a former field representative for Postmus, said Kirk was introduced to Ovitt by Postmus, who had been involved in Ovitt’s campaign for supervisor.

“He had basically instructed Gary that he needed to hire Mark Kirk as his campaign manager,” Aleman said.

Aleman has also been charged in the corruption probe and is cooperating with investigators in return for a lighter sentence.

In his testimony, Postmus recalled that Kirk’s role in the day-to-day activities of the 4th District grew stronger each day and so did his desire for control. Postmus said there were times when he had to ask Kirk to leave Ovitt’s office in order to have a private conversation.

“There are certain things that are not privy for staff. Mark had a tough time with that,” Postmus said.

Over time, Kirk became known as the “go-to guy” for the 4th District that staff, developers and vendors would go to to get things done, Postmus said.

Everyone perceived Kirk as “the supervisor” or “the shadow supervisor,” Aleman said.

“They even had a nickname,” Aleman said. “`KirkOvitt. KirkOvitt. KirkOvitt.’ So it was – that was his kind of, like, the branding.”

Kirk was often referred to as the “6th Supervisorial District,” said 5th District Supervisor Josie Gonzales.

“The young man possesses a very strong character,” she testified. “He is a bit of a show-off, a bit of a rebel, if you will. And he exhibited very strong statements in Supervisor Ovitt’s presence or on his own without Supervisor Ovitt being present.”

Brown, who now works as assistant county recorder, described Kirk’s relationship with Ovitt as unique.

Typically when someone is hired to work for an elected official, they serve at their pleasure, but not Kirk, he said.

“For example, if I were in a meeting with Supervisor Biane, I would sit quietly, take notes, respond to questions from Mr. Biane, interject if asked, but for the most part, that was my role,” Brown said.

Out of control?

Uffer, in his testimony, blasted Kirk and Ovitt.

“I would describe Gary Ovitt as an empty vessel and that Mark Kirk told him what to do, how to vote, when to vote, when to show up, when to not show up, what he was to say when he showed up. And he did it,” Uffer said.

The former CAO described an incident in which, he said, Kirk pressured the staff at Prado Park to allow several hundred thousand tons of manure to be dropped in the park from a vendor.

When Uffer and other county staffers confronted Ovitt and complained, Ovitt took no action.

“Kirk would make decisions, make policy decisions,” Uffer said. “I guess the right way to describe it is the chiefs of staff generally don’t make policy decisions. But this chief of staff routinely made policy decisions and Gary Ovitt just went along with it.”

Uffer also described an altercation he had with Kirk.

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