10:46 PM PDT on Thursday, July 28, 2011

By DAVID DANELSKI
The Press-Enterprise

Jim Erwin, the one-time sheriff’s deputy who rose in the tumultuous world of San Bernardino County politics to be a union boss, developer’s consultant, political operative and supervisor’s chief of staff, saw himself as “a consummate insider,” former Supervisor Bill Postmus testified to a grand jury this spring.

The testimony of Postmus and several other witnesses puts Erwin in the inner circle of both camps — the developers and county supervisors — in what prosecutors allege was a conspiracy to defraud taxpayers through a $102 million court settlement with Colonies Partners over a flood control dispute.

Erwin was the go-between, the man who helped the developers exploit the vulnerabilities of then-supervisors Postmus and Paul Biane, witnesses said. He pressured them in late 2006 to vote for the nine-figure payout that the county’s own attorneys said was five times more than the Colonies partnership might be due, according to grand jury testimony.

“Mr. Erwin was, basically, employed by the Colonies Partners to help streamline and help muscle the supervisors into voting for the Colonies settlement,” testified Adam Aleman, who worked as an aide to Postmus. Aleman has pleaded guilty to vandalism, theft, destroying public documents and filing a false claim in the district attorney’s sweeping corruption probe.

Contacted by telephone on Wednesday, Erwin said his attorneys have advised him not to comment on the grand jury testimony, contained in about 2,700 pages of transcripts released last Friday. He said he has read all the transcripts.

“There are two sides to every story, and the truth will come out in the future,” Erwin said.

Erwin, 48, now faces charges related to conspiracy, bribery, misappropriation of public funds and other felonies. Biane, Colonies principal Jeff Burum, and Mark Kirk, former chief of staff for Supervisor Gary Ovitt, face similar charges from a grand jury indictment handed down in May.

“The truth will come out in the future,” said Jim Erwin.

Witnesses described Erwin as a guy with a big mouth, a cocky braggart who was willing to threaten people. As Colonies and the county tried to negotiate an agreement, Erwin kept in regular contact with Postmus and other county officials and reported back to Colonies representatives, according to testimony. He referred to himself as a “mediator,” witnesses said.

“Jim Erwin would always want to brag to me and to whoever else he was around — you know, kind of Mr. — you know, consummate insider,” Postmus said.

When settlement talks languished in 2006, Erwin, then working as a consultant for Burum’s company, was the one who threatened in phone calls and in person to expose Postmus’ drug problem and homosexuality, Postmus testified.

“The threats escalated to the latter part of 2006,” Postmus testified.

Weeks before the November settlement vote, Erwin met Postmus in a room at the Doubletree Hotel in Ontario while Burum and his public relations consultant Patrick O’Reilly waited in the hotel restaurant, according to testimony. Erwin said he carried messages about the settlement talks back and forth.

Three years later, when his home was being searched by authorities, Erwin gave his version of that meeting, testified Robert Schreiber, a supervising investigator in the district attorney’s office.

According to Schreiber, Erwin said he told Postmus in the hotel room that Burum was “making threats” and had hired a private investigator. Burum was furious, Erwin told Postmus, because ” ‘you guys won’t say yes or no … you guys keep making promises and you keep breaking them,’ ” Schreiber said.

Exposing Postmus’ sexuality would seriously damage his political career and his chances for a run for Congress, O’Reilly testified.

“San Bernardino County is a largely Republican County,” O’Reilly said. “It would be difficult to be elected … if it was known that Mr. Postmus was a homosexual. … I believe Mr. Erwin brought up that topic.”

Another target of threats by Erwin was Biane, who had personal financial problems, witnesses testified. The difficulties may have stemmed from business ties in the Central Valley, O’Reilly testified.

Mailers had been prepared to expose Biane, he told the grand jury.

Aleman, the former aide to Postmus, testified that Erwin showed him a markup of a political mailer.

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