The fundraising tool will seek out candidates who support open and honest government, according to its founders. It’s also going to set its sights on a certain district attorney.
The four former defendants in last year’s Colonies Crossroads corruption trial have formed a political action committee to support candidates they believe will practice open government.
Business Leaders for Fair and Ethical Government was certified by the California Secretary of State’s Office on Feb. 8 and has raised $250,000, said James Erwin, San Bernardino County’s former assistant assessor.
The committee expects to raise another $500,000 by March 9, the filing deadline for the June 5 primary, and continue raising money after that
“It’s going to be non-partisan, and it’s going remain in place after the 2018 elections,” Erwin said.
The committee will concentrate on several Inland Empire races, but its main focus will be the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s contest, where four-term incumbent Mike Ramos is facing multiple challengers.
“We’re looking to support people we believe will practice good government, and we’re going to oppose anyone we believe operates in their own self interest,” Erwin said last week. “But I think it’s accurate to say the district attorney’s race will be our main concern.”
That’s not a surprise.
Ramos tried unsuccessfully to convict Erwin, Rancho Cucamonga developer Jeff Burum, former Supervisor Paul Biane and Mark Kirk, one-time chief of staff to former Supervisor Gary Ovitt, on multiple bribery and corruption charges.
Biane, Burum and Kirk were acquitted of all charges last August after an eight-month trial. Erwin, who was tried separately, had all charges against him dismissed when the jury deadlocked and the district attorney’s office declined to retry the case.
The idea to form a political action committee – which raises money from private sources, then uses it to try to influence elections or pending legislation – took root after Erwin’s case was dismissed.
“We decided to form a political action committee because it’s the best way to raise money when you want to address a certain issue,” Burum said. “It’s the best forum for addressing one issue, or one candidate, over time. But it’s not just the [four] of us. A lot of people aren’t happy with the way the district attorney has been behaving.”
What then-California Attorney General Jerry Brown called the largest corruption case in San Bernardino County’s history, and perhaps California, got started in the spring of 2002.
At the time, Burum was a co-developer in Colonies Partners. That development group was trying to build Colonies at San Antonio and Colonies Crossroads, the 434-acre residential and retail development in Upland.
A dispute about repairs to a flood control channel was keeping both projects from being built, prompting Burum to file a lawsuit on behalf of the development group. Four and a half years later, the board of supervisors ended that dispute when it approved a $102 million settlement that favored Colonies Partners.
Shortly after the settlement, Burum made $100,000 contributions each to Erwin and three other county officials.The district attorney’s office claimed that those payments were disguised bribes, even though they were made after the board’s vote, not before.
“I never thought anyone would say those donations were illegal,” Burum said. “Our lawyers said they were legal. But the district attorney tried to make it look like they were illegal.”
Prosecutors further charged that the donations were made through bogus political action committees, each of which was controlled by the recipient: Biane, Erwin, Kirk and Bill Postmus, former county assessor and board chairman.
Testimony began in January of last year, and the prosecution’s case was on shaky ground from the start.
Before the first witness was called, Superior Court Judge Michael Smith dismissed a criminal conspiracy charge against all four defendants, weakening the prosecution’s case. Testimony was complicated and sometimes difficult to follow, and prosecutors never produced evidence that anyone was bribed.
Defense attorneys were able to discredit several prosecution witnesses, and they were so confident the prosecution hadn’t proven its case that none of them called witnesses to testify.
Ramos took the case to trial to generate publicity for himself, because his ultimate goal for years has been to win higher office, Erwin said.
“He’s using his current office to get out of San Bernardino County,” Erwin said of Ramos, who has been San Bernardino County’s top law enforcement official since 2002. “He was going to run for Congress, he tried to get appointed U.S. attorney for Los Angeles, he tried to get appointed [state] attorney general, but none of that worked out.
“He wants to go elsewhere, but we want people who want to serve here.”
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