Jim Erwin smiling during a September court hearing he will not be re-tried on any charges regarding the Colonies corruption case, Friday, at San Bernardino Justice Center in San Bernardino, Ca., September 22, 2017. Judge Michael A. Smith dismissed all of the remaining counts against the former assistant county assessor and sheriff’s labor union president. (John Valenzuela/The Sun/SCNG)

By Joe Nelson | jnelson@scng.com and Richard K. De Atley | rdeatley@scng.com | San Bernardino Sun
Published: June 7, 2018 at 5:54 pm | Updated: June 7, 2018 at 7:51 pm

A former county official who escaped conviction in the Colonies corruption case has filed a $25 million federal lawsuit accusing San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos and other prosecutors of malicious prosecution, fabricated evidence and retaliation.

Former Assistant Assessor Jim Erwin’s claims are based on an alleged “illegal campaign of retaliation, intimidation, and harassment” by the county and state, according to the lawsuit, filed late Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Riverside. It marks the third federal lawsuit filed since Erwin’s case was dropped by prosecutors at the District Attorney’s and state Attorney General’s offices last September following a nine-month trial.

In April, vindicated defendant and Rancho Cucamogna developer Jeff Burum filed a $50 million malicious prosecution lawsuit in federal court, and in March, Colonies Partners, the Rancho Cucamonga-based investor group of which Burum is a co-managing partner, filed an $80 million federal lawsuit alleging the ill-fated criminal case damaged its reputation.

Erwin’s lawsuit brings the total in damages sought by the plaintiffs to $155 million. Vindicated defendants Paul Biane, a former county supervisor, and Mark Kirk, the former chief of staff to former county Supervisor Gary Ovitt, are expected to soon be filing federal lawsuits as well.

A month before Erwin’s case was dismissed after a jury deadlocked in favor of acquittal, his three co-defendants, who had a separate jury, were acquitted after their jury deliberated only one day. Jurors said prosecutors failed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and did not introduce any evidence showing that Burum bribed Biane and Kirk to deliver or facilitate a $102 million settlement between the county and Colonies Partners in 2006.

The settlement ended a longstanding lawsuit over flood control improvements at Colonies’ 434-acre residential and commercial development in Upland, Colonies at San Antonio and Colonies Crossroads, respectively.

“This thorough repudiation of the prosecution’s case, and the lengths to which prosecutors, investigators, and certain county-affiliated witnesses went to manufacture some semblance of a case against Mr. Erwin, is evidence of the unjustified and retaliatory motives that drove the criminal investigation from the outset,” according to the lawsuit. “There was never any credible evidence of criminal conduct involving the settlement agreement or subsequent PAC contributions — just a relentless drive by the defendants to punish Mr. Erwin and Colonies for having exercised their constitutional rights, and to chill Erwin from daring to exercise his constitutional rights in the future.”

The former defendants maintained their innocence from the start and said the prosecution was politically motivated, which Ramos denies.

The lawsuit also names as defendants now retired Deputy District Attorney R. Lewis Cope, Supervising Deputy Attorney General Melissa Mandel, retired Assistant District Attorney Jim Hackleman, former Attorneys General Kamala Harris and Jerry Brown, and former Assistant Attorney General Gary Schons, among others.

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