06:48 PM PDT on Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Press-Enterprise
Special Section: San Bernardino Co. Probe

Ending a standoff with state and local prosecutors, San Bernardino County supervisors agreed Tuesday to provide them with documents in the Colonies Partners legal settlement that is at the center of an extortion and bribery investigation.

The Board of Supervisors voted 3-0, with Supervisors Paul Biane and Gary Ovitt not participating, to a limited waiver of its legal privilege a week after prosecutors threatened to take the county to court.

The district attorney and state attorney general’s offices asked supervisors for the waiver on March 12 as part of their investigation into the $102 million settlement with Colonies Partners. Prosecutors allege that current and former officials and the developers illegally conspired through bribery and extortion to produce the settlement.

In announcing the closed session vote, County Counsel Ruth Stringer said the county was authorizing only a limited waiver.

The public may never see the documents. County spokesman David Wert said prosecutors are restricted from sharing information publicly unless they consider it relevant to the investigation and introduce it in court.

“They’re not allowed to disclose documents they’re not going to use as evidence,” he said.

County Administrative Officer Greg Devereaux and Assistant District Attorney Dennis Christy were expected to sign an agreement with those terms — which had already been negotiated in two meetings with Stringer — later in the day, Wert said.

In a short statement, the district attorney’s office thanked the supervisors for their cooperation.

“Although it was a difficult decision, we are gratified that the Board placed the public interest first,” the statement read. “We intend to proceed with our investigation as promptly, thoroughly and expeditiously as possible.”

Under the waiver, prosecutors would have access to the documents supervisors used to help them decide whether to settle the case back in November 2006. The waiver also releases attorneys who represented the county from confidentiality requirements, allowing prosecutors to interview them. The county hired three firms before settling the case.

Before Tuesday’s announcement, supervisors had met twice in closed session to discuss the waiver request but held off on making a decision to allow Stringer to complete her legal analysis and recommendation to the board.

Prosecutors released a strongly-worded letter last week asking for a quick resolution.

The three supervisors who made the decision — Josie Gonzales, Neil Derry and Brad Mitzelfelt — all had said they were frustrated by how long the process was taking. All three said they didn’t want the county to be seen as unwilling to work with prosecutors.

Gonzales said the decision carries some risk for the county but “it was the right thing to do and it’s the very least I can do in terms of restoring the integrity and self-respect that the people deserve to feel about their county.”

Mitzelfelt said the district attorney, attorney general and board of supervisors “all represent the same public so to the extent possible I want to continue to cooperate with prosecutors as much as possible.”

Derry said the decision “was necessary to ensure public trust in our decision-making.”

One of the concerns of county officials was how releasing the information could affect related ongoing litigation in which the county is suing Caltrans, San Bernardino Associated Governments and Upland for part of the damages in the Colonies case. That case will not be subject to the legal waiver, Wert said.

The Colonies settlement was reached after four years of litigation by Colonies over the developer’s Upland residential and commercial development. The Rancho Cucamonga company has defended the settlement as a fair and legal compromise.

Bill Postmus, former assessor and supervisor, and Jim Erwin, former assistant assessor and former chief of staff to Derry, have been charged with bribery and conspiracy as part of the criminal case.

The criminal indictment also stated that five unnamed and unindicted co-conspirators, including a supervisor and chief of staff to a supervisor, were part of the scheme.

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