Pictured L-R: Jeff Burum, Mark Kirk, Jim Erwin, and Paul Biane. (File photo)

By Joe Nelson | jnelson@scng.com | San Bernardino Sun
Published: September 30, 2017 at 11:51 am |
Updated:   September 30, 2017 at 9:45 pm

Eight years, six months, and seven days. That’s how long Jim Erwin said he endured allegations by state and local prosecutors of taking part in a bribery scheme that bilked San Bernardino County taxpayers out of $102 million.

In that time, Erwin, once a mover and shaker in San Bernardino County politics, declared bankruptcy, his Highland home was foreclosed on, and he started drawing unemployment. He now drives a 13-year-old Mercury Mountaineer with 280,000 miles on it. He was able to draw his pension but took a loss of $20,000 a year.

“The ongoing criminal case pretty much barred any kind of gainful employment, and combine that with a foreclosure, bankruptcy and the stigma the case created, it’s hard to rationalize everything that’s happened,” said Erwin, 55, in a telephone interview Thursday. He said that since his first arrest in March 2009 he began suffering anxiety and high blood pressure, and as a result was diagnosed last year with Stage 2 kidney disease.

The epic Colonies public corruption case, which District Attorney Mike Ramos and then-California Attorney General Jerry Brown called the “biggest corruption case in county history” during a February 2010 press conference, ended Sept. 22 with prosecutors dismissing all charges against Erwin, the last remaining defendant in the case. His jury deliberated nearly two weeks before declaring on Sept. 13 it was “hopelessly deadlocked.”

About a month prior, a separate jury, after only a day of deliberating, acquitted the other three defendants – Rancho Cucamonga developer Jeff Burum, former county Supervisor Paul Biane, and Mark Kirk, the former chief of staff of former county Supervisor Gary Ovitt, following eight months of testimony in the marathon trial, one of the longest and most expensive in county history.

All four defendants maintained from the onset of the case they were innocent, that the prosecution was politically motivated (criminal charges were first announced during an election year), and that the county’s controversial $102 million settlement with Rancho Cucamonga investor group Colonies Partners LP in November 2006, of which Burum is a co-managing partner, actually saved taxpayers upwards of nearly $200 million. The settlement ended a near 5-year-old legal battle over flood control improvements at Colonies’ 434-acre residential and commercial development in Upland, adjacent to the 210 Freeway.

“It’s still hard to grasp that I am no longer a criminal defendant. It just went on for so long,” Erwin said. “Being a criminal defendant almost became a way of life, and battling the court case, you’re living it full time.”

Now, the four vindicated defendants begin the process of rebuilding their lives and are demanding accountability from the District Attorney’s and state Attorney General’s offices on why they spent nearly nine years and possibly tens of millions of dollars on a case that ultimately crashed and burned and irreversibly damaged their lives and reputations.

“We’re going to investigate every single avenue of what’s been done to all the defendants in this case, and how the prosecutors did it. And if there is a way we could hold them accountable, we’re going to,” Burum said in a recent interview at his Rancho Cucamonga office. “There should be an independent investigation in this case, right now, by the (San Bernardino County) Board of Supervisors.”

District Attorney Mike Ramos declined to comment for this story, but has previously denied the case was politically motivated. His spokesman, Christopher Lee, said it would be inappropriate to comment given that criminal cases are still pending against two of the trial’s key witnesses – former county Supervisor and county Assessor Bill Postmus and former Assistant Assessor Adam Aleman.

Both Postmus and Aleman were implicated in a separate corruption scandal at the Assessor’s Office in 2008, and Postmus was later implicated in the Colonies corruption case as well. Both struck plea agreements in exchange for turning state’s evidence and testifying at trial.

Postmus is set to appear in San Bernardino Superior Court on Oct. 27 for sentencing, and Aleman’s sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 1. Burum said he plans on testifying on behalf of Postmus at his sentencing and against Aleman at his.

Officials at the California Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Burum’s attorney, Stephen G. Larson, said, “The Attorney General’s Office shares responsibility with the District Attorney and other government officials for this ill-conceived and unjustly pursued prosecution.”

IMPACT

Erwin was no exception when it came to the impact the criminal case had on his personal and professional life.

To read expanded article, click here.