From left, Mark Kirk, Paul Biane, Jeff Burum and Jim Erwin stand before Judge Brian McCarville. All heard the judge dismiss at least one count against them in the San Bernardino County corruption probe. Each pleaded not guilty later in the day to the remaining charges.(Kurt Miller/Staff Photographer)
09:58 PM PDT on Friday, August 19, 2011
BY IMRAN GHORI and DUANE W. GANG
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A San Bernardino County Superior Court judge dismissed the majority of charges against Rancho Cucamonga businessman Jeff Burum on Friday, a decision that his attorneys described as a major blow to prosecutors in a wide-ranging corruption probe.
Judge Brian McCarville tossed out five of the seven counts Burum faced when a grand jury returned a 29-count indictment in May against him and three former San Bernardino County officials. They are accused of taking part in a scheme to net Burum’s company, Colonies Partners, a $102 million legal settlement.
Prosecutors contend the deal, approved by the Board of Supervisors in November 2006, was a result of extortion and bribery by Burum and intermediaries acting on his behalf. The settlement ended a lengthy legal battle over flood-control improvements on a Colonies’ development in Upland.
Stephen Larson, an attorney for Burum, said all of the bribery-related charges against his client “have been stripped.”
“The court recognized that the case was grossly overcharged,” he told reporters outside of court. “The majority of the charges brought against Mr. Burum were legally defective.”
Larson called the settlement fair and justified and said Burum did not “bribe anyone for anything,” an argument he and Burum’s legal team have long made.
Burum still faces two charges related to aiding and abetting conflict of interest involving public officials.
Assistant District Attorney Jim Hackleman conceded that Burum “certainly had a good day” but said prosecutors are not discouraged and continue to believe they have strong evidence.
“We have faith in our case, and we’re ready to move forward,” he said. “The door to the eventual conviction of Jeff Burum and all of the defendants is still wide open.”
Hackleman said prosecutors have 30 days to decide whether to appeal the judge’s ruling and will make a decision within two weeks. Prosecutors also have the option of trying to restore some of the charges by amending the complaint, he said.
McCarville also dismissed one count each of misappropriation of public funds against the other defendants: former county Supervisor Paul Biane, former Assistant Assessor Jim Erwin, and Mark Kirk, former chief of staff to Supervisor Gary Ovitt.
The judge said the charges speculate into the board’s reasoning behind the settlement.
Biane and Kirk remain charged with seven felonies, and Erwin still faces 16 counts. McCarville’s ruling also limited the scope of a conspiracy charge against all four defendants.
Attorneys for Erwin and Kirk said they were encouraged by the ruling and that it could prove helpful for their clients. Biane’s attorney declined to comment.
If convicted of the remaining charges, Burum faces a maximum of three years and 8 months in prison, prosecutors say. A conviction also would give them grounds to seek the return of the $102 million, they said.
Hackleman and Deputy District Attorney Lewis Cope said the ruling will not change how prosecutors try the case.
“He stands charged with two very significant felonies involving public corruption,” Cope said of Burum. “There’s still $102 million in restitution that is at stake.”
McCarville entered not guilty pleas on behalf of all four defendants in an arraignment later Friday afternoon.
The grand jury called 45 witnesses and produced more than 2,700 pages of testimony. A host of well-known figures in San Bernardino County politics went before the panel during four weeks of testimony earlier this spring, including former Supervisor Bill Postmus.
Postmus pleaded guilty in March to taking part in a conspiracy involving bribery and extortion that resulted in his vote for the Colonies settlement. He now is cooperating with authorities.
Defense attorneys have argued that prosecutors presented one-sided information to the grand jury. Since grand jury proceedings are secret, with no defense lawyers present, they said there was no chance to challenge the credibility of witnesses such as Postmus.
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