Developer Jeff Burum waits for his verdict to be read in the Colonies corruption case at San Bernardino Superior Court in San Bernardino, Calif. on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. Defendants Burum and two former county officials — Supervisor Paul Biane and Mark Kirk — were found not guilty of all charges after a marathon trial that has lasted nearly eight months. (Photo by Rachel Luna, The Sun/SCNG)
By Christopher J. Warner |
Published: September 6, 2017 at 4:58 pm | Updated: September 6, 2017 at 5:27 pm
“The largest public corruption case in the state of California” has ended in San Bernardino County. That’s what then-Attorney General Jerry Brown, standing next to District Attorney Michael Ramos, called it way back when they filed it.
By grace, I was able to attend the end, the reading of the verdicts. The trial had started the first week of January. It finished on Aug. 28. It was that “short” only because the defendants, none of them, put on a single witness. Three men were acquitted on all of the few remaining charges, which addressed political contributions alleged to be bribes to public officials via a conspiracy amongst these men.
Such grandiose pronouncements from a prosecutor, especially the state’s chief prosecutor, generate press coverage. So they shamed these men, making arrests in public places (think Ontario International Airport), with a photographer nearby, coincidentally of course. They were later booked into county jail, orange jumpsuit and all. And there’s that pesky photographer, again.
Seven years into retirement, I went because I have been inextricably intertwined with one of the acquitted, a certain Jeff Burum, who, several minutes after the verdicts were read, hugged me. I do not know this man, at least in the traditional sense.
You see, he was the plaintiff in a court trial before me in 2006. Yup, way back then. Didn’t know him from Adam. Still don’t, except for the 18 days he spent in my courtroom during that long-ago trial. I wrote a decision after that trial. More than 50 pages about easements and such. Can you believe it? I found, based on the testimony and the exhibits, that certain other public officials in the county had committed fraud and had misled Mr. Burum and his company, the Colonies Partners. After my intended decision was published, but before it became final, the case settled for nine figures (yes, before the decimal point!).
Attorneys for San Bernardino County, those on the losing end of the trial, complained about the settlement. And about me. In the newspapers. To the Commission on Judicial Performance. Apparently said I played golf with this man I do not know. At a place I’ve never been. I didn’t know that for sure, because they wouldn’t tell me. I had to read it in the newspaper.
The political contributions that became the grist for the charges were made later on, much later. Publicly disclosed, no issues with the FPPC. Years later, the criminal charges were filed against these men, in part based on the testimony of two others who had turned “state’s evidence” in plea deals — one a severely addicted drug addict, the other a convicted liar. Before trial, there were trips back and forth to the Court of Appeal, the California Supreme Court and even the federal courts. Charges dismissed and reinstated. And on it went, for years.
And my name kept popping up, before and after the charges. Not in a kindly way, but implying and directly alleging misconduct. I was scrutinized by the FBI.
I write now because it’s over. Finally. And I was only on the periphery. What of these men who have been scandalized and called “defendant” for years? The financial costs must be enormous. Bankruptcy. Foreclosure. Career disruption or destruction. The intangible costs are, perhaps, incalculable. Fearing felony incarceration over the years this has pended. The impact on bystanders. Family members, particularly the kids. Marriages. I think about it, and I shudder.
Thank God for our jury system. A whole bunch of responsible people put their own lives on hold, for eight months, to judge the evidence and these men. I think they got fifteen bucks a day. Thank God for our fellow citizens.
That’s why this commentary. So, my connection to the man is severed. I hope I see him again someday. So I can say how sad I feel for what the “system,” our system, did to him. And so I can say that his standing up to this situation for so many years is one of the most remarkable feats of human endurance that I have known.
The real travesty is that this should never have occurred. The matter could have, and should have, been resolved amicably, and for a whole lot less, before the turn of the century. Yes, friends, way back then.
Christopher J. Warner is a retired judge of San Bernardino County Superior Court.