BY DUANE W. GANG and IMRAN GHORI
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Federal agents descended upon Riverside and San Bernardino counties on Thursday, serving search warrants on nine locations with ties to the Colonies Partners corruption probe.
Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service agents carted away computers, dozens of boxes of documents and other evidence from homes and businesses in five cities. Locations included the home and office of a former state senator and the offices of a Riverside public relations firm.
It is unclear exactly what the FBI and IRS agents sought, since the affidavits in support of the search warrants remain under seal.
But the locations searched all have ties to people involved in the state and local investigation of San Bernardino County’s $102 million settlement with developer Colonies Partners. Local prosecutors say the settlement was obtained through a conspiracy of bribery and extortion. The defendants face more than 20 charges in total.
The federal investigation is separate, and state and local authorities were not involved in Thursday’s searches, according to officials with knowledge of the investigations.
Federal agents searched Diversified Pacific in Rancho Cucamonga. Jeff Burum, co-managing member of Colonies Partners, helped start the company.
Defense attorneys who have seen the warrants said Thursday that federal agents are seeking information similar to that used by local and state prosecutors in building their case.
A host of reasons could have prompted the FBI and IRS to get involved, said Loyola law professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor.
Local authorities could have referred the matter to them, or federal officials may also see a bigger case or felt the current prosecution has not been sufficient, Levenson said.
“The feds have more resources and experience in pursuing these types of cases,” she said.
San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos declined to comment.
The federal agents searched:
The home of Jeff Burum, co-managing member of Colonies Partners, and his office at Diversified Pacific, a development company he helped start. National Community Renaissance, a nonprofit housing company he founded, also was searched. All three are in Rancho Cucamonga. Burum faces charges of conspiracy and aiding and abetting conflict of interest in the state case. He has denied wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty.
The Fontana home and business of former state Sen. Jim Brulte. Brulte is a partner with California Strategies, a Sacramento-based government and public affairs firm.
Brulte served in the Legislature from 1990 through 2004 and led Republican caucuses in both houses. He worked for Colonies during the settlement talks in 2004 and 2005. He has not been charged with a crime.
The Riverside business of Patrick O’Reilly. O’Reilly owns O’Reilly Public Relations and worked with Burum during the settlement negotiations. O’Reilly has not been charged with a crime but was an unnamed, uncharged co-conspirator in a February 2010 case related to the Colonies case.
The Rancho Cucamonga home of Paul Biane, a former two-term San Bernardino County supervisor. Biane voted for the $102 million settlement in November 2006. In the state case, he faces seven felony charges including bribery and perjury and has pleaded not guilty.
The Highland home of Jim Erwin, a former assistant assessor and former chief of staff to Supervisor Neil Derry. Erwin was a consultant for Colonies Partners at the time of the settlement. He faces 16 felony state charges and has pleaded not guilty.
The Hesperia home of Mark Kirk, the former chief of staff to Supervisor Gary Ovitt. Ovitt voted for the settlement. Local prosecutors say Kirk secretly controlled a political action committee that received $100,000 from Colonies. Kirk faces seven state charges and has pleaded not guilty.
In May, a San Bernardino County grand jury returned a 29-count indictment against Burum, Biane, Erwin and Kirk. Since then, the four have pleaded not guilty and were successful in getting a number of charges dismissed.
Burum’s attorney, Stephen Larson, said it’s difficult to know the exact nature of the investigation until they see the affidavit, but the warrant appears to indicate that “it’s certainly related in large measure to the allegations raised in the state case.”
“We actually welcome the involvement of the FBI and federal authorities in this case,” Larson said. “We believe that once they thoroughly investigate this case they will find there was absolutely no wrongdoing by any of the subjects of the investigation, including Mr. Burum.”
Paul Grech, an attorney for Kirk, said his client has done nothing wrong.
“The subject matter of the search warrant is the same subject matter that we have been litigating in court, in which we have been getting charges thrown out of court,” Grech said.
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