Published January 22, 1010
There has been a significant change in the manner in which the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office is handling suspected or alleged violations of the state’s income disclosure requirements.
Within the last month, San Bernardino County prosecutors have opted to refer such cases to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, a departure from the office’s past approach of filing criminal charges against those who have made no or inadequate disclosure of outside income.
That change follows an embarrassing episode involving district attorney Mike Ramos’s failure to make full disclosure on his California Form 700s of household income he had himself received. California Form 700s are documents used by public officials in the state to list the full range of their incomes and economic interests.
The San Bernardino County district attorney’s office announced on January 17 that it sent a referral to the California Fair Political Practices Commission relating to county Second District Supervisor Paul Biane and newly hired county administrator Greg Devereaux, asking for an opinion as to whether they violated disclosure laws by failing to report gifts they received in the form of charter jet flights.
According to available records, Biane flew to West Virginia on Sept. 26, 2008, for the purpose of “meeting donors.” His campaign fund subsequently reimbursed Ray Crebs, of Rancho Cucamonga, $380.40 for the flight and another $131 for tee fees so Biane could “golf with donors” on Sept. 28, 2008. Biane reimbursed Daniel Richards, one of two managing partners with the Colonies Partners development firm, $300 for tee fees that same day. Crebs is a partner with the Colonies Partners.
Biane did not initially report the trip on two separate Form 700s he filed in October 2008, but entered the information onto an amended form dated March 11, 2009 after a spate of negative publicity in early 2009 over other public officials’ failures to make full disclosure on their Form 700s. There appears to be a discrepancy in Biane’s reporting of the matter in that his Form 700s, which list expenses for hotel and meals during the California Republican Party Convention in Anaheim the same weekend Biane was in West Virginia.
The district attorney’s office also referred a situation involving Devereaux to the state Fair Political Practices Commission which stemmed from the same trip to Morgantown, West Virginia.
Both Devereaux and Richards are alumni at the University of West Virginia. That weekend the West Virginia University Mountaineers hosted the Marshall University Thundering Herd in an NCAA football match-up.
Devereaux failed to note the trip on his Form 700s that he was required to fill out as Ontario city manager.
Less than two weeks ago, on January 12, Devereaux was hired as San Bernardino Couinty’s chief executive officer. He has been employed as Ontario city manager for 13 years. He is scheduled to officially go to work for the county on February 13.
There are complicating considerations to both Biane and Devereaux’s acceptance of plane rides.
First, a change in the law that went into effect just prior to the September 2008 trip called for any reimbursement that government officials make for travel accommodations aboard a private plane correspond to the actual cost of chartering a private plane rather than to commercial fare.
The $380.20 Biane reimbursed Crebs does not meet that criterion.
On the advice of Ontario City Attorney John Brown, Devereaux reimbursed Crebs an amount calculated to be twice the value of a commercial trip to Morgantown. That amount falls short of the requirement under the law as well.
Typical cost of a cross country flight on a private jet can run from $2,000 to $5,000.
In November 2006, Biane voted with supervisor Gary Ovitt and then-supervisor Bill Postmus to confer upon the Colonies Partners a $102 million payment to settle a lawsuit the company had filed against the county over flood control issues at its development project in northeastern Upland.
In Ontario, the city redevelopment agency worked out a deal earlier in the decade that provided, at well below the going market rate, property to a company owned by Richards in accordance with a development plan there.
There were conflicting reports as to who actually owns the plane upon which Biane and Devereaux flew. One held that the plane belonged to Crebs. Another account was that the plane belonged to another developer, Jim Previti.
Under the standard previously applied by the district attorney’s office, criminal charges against both Biane and Devereaux could have been filed.
The Fair Political Practices Commission has the authority to levy fines of up to $5,000 for Political Reform Act violations such as failure to meet the state’s income or campaign finance reporting requirements but does not have the authority to pursue criminal charges relating to those violations.
Two former San Bernardino County officials – Bill Postmus and Jim Erwin – were charged with felonies for failure to properly report income or gifts on their Form 700s.
Postmus, who was once a county supervisor and county assessor, was charged with one count of perjury for failure to disclose the receipt of a $12,000 cashier’s check from developer John Dino Defazio on his Form 700 Statement of Economic Interest. Erwin, who served as an assistant assessor as well as chief of staff to supervisor Neil Derry, was charged with ten felony counts pertaining to his having been provided with air fare and accommodations pertaining to a round trip to New York City and Washington D.C., as well as a $12,765 Rolex watch by Jeff Burum, another managing partner with the Colonies Partners. Like Biane and Devereaux, Erwin belatedly reported receiving the gifts on an amended Form 700.
Erwin has denounced the charges against him as politically motivated and vindictive. He maintains that his transgressions should have merited no more than an FPPC fine.
Despite the district attorney’s office’s recently adopted policy of referring income reporting violations to the Fair Political Practices Commission, it has not dismissed the previously filed charges against Erwin or Postmus.
Despite the hard-nosed approach Ramos and his prosecutors have taken with Erwin and Postmus, the district attorney himself engaged in activity that was practically indistinguishable from those he has criminally charged.
Documents on file with the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters office covering the period between January 1, 2008 and June 30, 2008, shows that The Friends of Mike Ramos paid Gretchen Ramos $10,000 for “campaign services” and $124.64 in reimbursement money for a “CDAA [California District Attorneys Association] dinner.”
Gretchen Ramos is Mike Ramos’ wife of 28 years.
Ramos’s payment of $10,000 to his wife for “campaign services” in 2008 represents a potential issue for investigators, prosecutors and regulators in that 2008 was not an election year for the district attorney’s post in San Bernardino County. Ramos elevated the issue into a potential legal question by failing to disclose the $10,000 payment to his wife on his California Form 700 he filed in 2009.
Erwin noted that discrepancy and in October 2009 filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission.
Ramos overcame that problematic legal issue by agreeing to pay a $200 fine to close out the California Fair Political Practices Commission’s inquiry into his failure to disclose income his campaign provided to his wife.
Under the Political Reform Act, elected officials in California are required to fill out the Forms 700 statements of economic interest to provide disclosure of the full range of their economic interests, including all income and gifts to his or her entire household. Since California is a community property state, Ramos should have declared the payment to his wife as income to his household.
In the district attorney’s office’s filing against Erwin, prosecutors alleged that Erwin’s failure to disclose the income from Burum constituted felonious activity since he had signed the Form 700 that omitted the report of the gifts under the penalty of perjury.
Erwin maintains that Ramos likewise signed his Form 700 under the penalty of perjury. Moreover, Erwin has suggested, Ramos’ provision of money to his wife for campaign services during a year – 2008 – during which no election for the post of district attorney in San Bernardino County was held – very likely entailed fraud on Ramos’ part.
Unlike Ramos, however, Erwin lacks prosecutorial authority.
Ramos maintains that his failure to disclose the money paid to his wife does not rise to the level of criminality and that the omission he made “was simply an oversight.”