San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos at his office in San Bernardino, Calif. on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. Ramos, who served since 2002, is seeking re-election. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The San Bernardino Sun/SCNG)

By Joe Nelson | jnelson@scng.com | San Bernardino Sun
March 12, 2018 at 6:00 am

For the better part of seven years, San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos would not comment publicly about the Colonies corruption case while it was pending.

Even after the case ended last summer with all the defendants vindicated, Ramos still reserved comment, given that key witnesses who entered into plea bargains with prosecutors in exchange for testifying at trial had yet to be sentenced.

Ramos broke his silence on the case during a recent interview at his office, first addressing the problems with evidence and witness testimony that quickly went south for the prosecution during the marathon eight-month trial.
Making the case

“Like any other case, the evidence you have in the beginning, especially when you get to trial, can turn, and I’ll just say that generally,” Ramos said. He said he was not alone in pursuing the case, and was backed by his assistant DAs and prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s Office.

Ramos said that, given the evidence and information investigators had prior to the May 2011 indictment, he’d likely do it again.

“I don’t know if there would have been a different decision. If I could predict the future and what some of the witnesses did, perhaps, but in saying that, no, we did what’s ethically right,” he said.

In the epic Colonies case, prosecutors from the District Attorney’s and state Attorney General’s offices alleged Rancho Cucamonga developer Jeff Burum, former county Supervisor Paul Biane, former Assistant Assessor Jim Erwin, and Mark Kirk, former chief of staff for former county Supervisor Gary Ovitt, engaged in an elaborate bribery scheme to fix a historic $102 million settlement between the county and Burum’s investor group, Colonies Partners LP, in November 2006 in exchange for bribes. The settlement ended a longstanding flood-control dispute between the county and Colonies Partners.

The vindicated defendants maintained their innocence from the beginning, alleging the prosecution was politically motivated. In February 2010, Ramos and then state Attorney General Jerry Brown held a news conference announcing the Colonies’ case as the “biggest corruption scandal in county history, if not the state of California.” Ramos was re-elected District Attorney that year and Brown was elected governor.

Ramos denies the case was politically motivated.

The former defendants have taken legal action against the county and state. And on March 1, Colonies Partners filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the county and state in U.S. District Court in Riverside.

Stephen G. Larson, attorney for vindicated Colonies corruption case defendant Jeff Burum, said District Attorney Mike Ramos is “throwing his subordinates under the bus” and distancing himself from the bungled bribery case.

Hits and misses

Despite the failed Colonies prosecution, Ramos touted the successes of his office and the Attorney General’s Office, including the conviction of former Rancho Cucamonga councilman and Assessor’s Office employee Rex Gutierrez, who was sentenced in December 2010 to two years, eight months in prison for stealing $147,000 in taxpayer money in the form of fraudulent pay and expenses from March 2007 to January 2009.

Another win for prosecutors, said Ramos, was the attorney general’s prosecution of former county Supervisor Neil Derry, convicted of a misdemeanor for failing to properly report a $5,000 campaign contribution he received from a Highland developer in 2007.

Like the vindicated Colonies defendants, Derry believes his criminal case was politically motivated because, while serving as county supervisor, he pushed to trim the district attorney’s budget and eliminate take-home vehicles for its investigators.

“Ramos uses his office to pursue and charge his political adversaries for minor infractions. In my case, he had the attorney general charge me for one, single campaign violation that was actually properly reported, after I had him investigated for sexual harassment that cost taxpayers $140,000,” Derry said in a statement.

Initially charged with two felonies, Derry entered into a plea agreement with the AG’s Office, pleading guilty to the misdemeanor count. His conviction was subsequently dismissed and his probation terminated.

Ramos was cleared in 2010 of sexual misconduct allegations by former investigative technician Cheryl Ristow, who claimed to have had an affair with Ramos from September 2003 to February 2005. A six-month investigation by an outside law firm determined that Ristow’s allegations were unfounded, and that she had a history of disciplinary action at the DA’s Office.

Ethics and integrity

Ramos stands by his office’s record of ethics and integrity. He maintains the Colonies case was completely above board and justified. He stressed, however, that he was not involved in the case on a day-to-day basis. He said his focus was cracking down on gang crimes and human traffickers and working to reform the death penalty, leaving the Colonies case to the team of prosecutors assigned to it.

“The people who are attacking me about that case think that I was involved in it on a daily basis. The team was put in place years ago,” Ramos said. “So I want to make it very clear that people who may have thought I was involved in that on a daily basis, I was not. I had trusted my team.”

Stephen G. Larson, attorney for former Colonies defendant Jeff Burum, interpreted that as Ramos trying to distance himself from the case.

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