Scales of Justice

Joe Nelson, Staff Writer
Posted: 12/24/2012 06:06:49 PM PST

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are awaiting a decision by the state Supreme Court that will ultimately determine the trajectory of a San Bernardino County corruption case authorities have called the biggest in county history.

As they wait, observers and prosecutors say the case’s trajectory – and the aggressiveness of future public corruption cases – could hinge on the fate of bribery accusations prosecutors are trying to reinstate against a high-profile Rancho Cucamonga developer.

Should the state’s highest court decide to review the 4th District Court of Appeal’s Oct. 31 ruling, it would be deciding if five bribery charges and a public officer crime charge should be reinstated against Rancho Cucamonga developer Jeff Burum.

If the Supreme Court rejects the request by prosecutors, the criminal case, which has remained in limbo for the last 14 months during the appeals process, will commence as it now stands.

“All of this pretrial scrimmaging is as important as the trial itself because, as you can see with Mr. Burum, it will define what this case will be,” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.

Leverage may be one reason prosecutors are fighting so hard to resurrect the bribery charges against Burum, Levenson said.

But even if prosecutors get what they ask for, the strategy could backfire, she said.

“They want a bigger hammer to use against Burum, maybe to force him into a deal and to get the attention of the other defendants, but for the same problems the judge had with the bribery charges, a jury may have as well,” Levenson said.

Burum and three former county officials stand accused of conspiring to secure a landmark $102 million legal settlement for Burum’s investor group, Colonies Partners LP, in November 2006 in exchange for bribes. Also charged are former county Supervisor Paul Biane, former Assistant Assessor Jim Erwin, and Mark Kirk, former chief of staff for Supervisor Gary Ovitt.

All four defendants deny any wrongdoing.

The landmark legal settlement ended nearly four years of contentious legal battle between Colonies Partners and the county over who was responsible for flood control improvements at a 432-acre residential and commercial development in Upland that was bankrolled by Colonies Partners, in which Burum was a co-managing partner.

Prosecutors appealed an Aug. 19, 2011, ruling by San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Brian McCarville, who dropped five of seven felony charges against Burum, four of them bribery charges, after determining prosecutors applied inappropriate statues in charging him. McCarville also dropped one public officer crime charge against Burum, Biane, Erwin and Kirk.

On appeal, the 4th District Court of Appeal in Riverside affirmed McCarville’s ruling on the bribery charges levelled against Burum but reinstated a charge of misappropriation of public funds against Biane, Erwin and Kirk that McCarville initially dropped.

In addition, the appellate justices found that McCarville erred by not dropping a conflict-of-interest charge against Burum and Erwin, as well as two bribery charges levelled against Erwin.

Bribery laws

In its petition to the Supreme Court, the state Attorney General’s Office, which is jointly prosecuting the Colonies case with the District Attorney’s Office, argues that California’s bribery laws have not evolved with national legal standards and conflict with other court decisions.

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