Questions continue to dog the second highest ranking member of the county auditor-controller/treasurer-tax collector’s office with regard to the role he and a political action committee he controlled played in illegally passing through and laundering money for those convicted of or charged with participation in a bribery and extortion conspiracy.
At issue is how Matt Brown, a former member of the Republican Central Committee and the one-time chief of staff to former Second District San Bernardino County supervisor Paul Biane, has been able to avoid being criminally charged after he became entangled in a set of circumstances that led to the indictment of Biane, as well as another former member of the board of supervisors, Bill Postmus, together with the chief of staff to another supervisor, a one-time county employee union president and the businessman accused of bribing them.
Brown was moved into the position of assistant county auditor-controller in 2010 by county treasurer/auditor-controller Larry Walker. Brown is also the founder/principal of two political action committees, the San Bernardino County Young Republicans and the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association.
In 2006, Brown, who was then supervisor Biane’s senior staff member, founded a political action committee (PAC) to assist Biane and other members of Biane’s political circle in distributing money to politicians they supported. That PAC, known as the San Bernardino County Young Republicans, has been alleged by the California Attorney General’s Office and the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office to have been used as a vehicle to launder bribes and kickbacks to Biane.
During the first year of its existence, the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC had raised $7,500. In November 2006, Biane joined with his then-colleagues on the board of supervisors, Bill Postmus and Gary Ovitt, to approve a $102 million payout to Rancho Cucamonga-based Colonies Partners to settle a lawsuit that company had brought against the county over flood control issues at the Colonies at San Antonio residential subdivision and Colonies Crossroads commercial subdivision projects in northeast Upland. Supervisors Josie Gonzales and Dennis Hansberger opposed that settlement.
Campaign finance records show that the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC, received a $100,000 check from Colonies Partners, L.P. on June 17, 2007. In two separate indictments, one returned by a criminal grand jury in February 2010 against Postmus and his one time political associate Jim Erwin and in another indictment returned in May 2011 against Biane, Erwin, Colonies Partners managing principal Jeff Burum and the former chief of staff to supervisor Ovitt, Mark Kirk, it was alleged that Biane actually controlled the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC through Brown and that the $100,000 donation was a quid pro quo paid in exchange for Biane’s vote to approve the settlement. Also delineated in the February 2010 indictment were five unindicted co-conspirators identified as John Does 1 through 5, who are identifiable through information contained elsewhere in the public record including the superseding May 2011 indictment as Colonies Partners managing principals Burum and Dan Richards; Colonies Partners public relations consultant Patrick O’Reilly; Kirk; and Biane. According to prosecutors, Postmus controlled two political action committees, the Inland Empire PAC and the Conservatives For A Republican Majority PAC, which each received separate $50,000 donations from the Colonies Partners principals which were also bribes. Erwin’s Committee For Effective Government PAC likewise received a $100,000 donation from Burum and Richards that was a bribe, according to prosecutors; and Kirk’s Alliance For Ethical Government PAC received a $100,000 contribution from Burum and Richards that was also a bribe, per the indictment.
Postmus last March pleaded guilty to the five felonies alleged against him in the February 2010 indictment, including conspiracy, one count of accepting a bribe, one count of conflict of interest, and one count of misappropriation of funds. Postmus in April was the star witness before the second grand jury which indicted Burum, Biane and Kirk and reindicted Erwin. Erwin, who served as assistant assessor under Postmus after the latter was elected to that post in 2006 and took office in 2007, continues to maintain his innocence on the charges stemming from that case, including conspiracy, two counts of corrupt influencing, two counts of offering a bribe, two counts of extortion, one count of misappropriation of public funds and one count of forgery. Biane, Kirk and Burum maintain their innocence. As of yet, no charges have been filed against Richards or O’Reilly.
The indictments allege that Burum in 2006, with the assistance of Erwin and O’Reilly, had brochures prepared which purported that Postmus, who was then the chairman of the board of supervisors as well as chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee and was running for county assessor, was a homosexual who was addicted to methamphetamine, and that Biane, who was then the vice chair of both the board of supervisors and the Republican Central Committee and at that time engaged in an election campaign, was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Burum’s company, the Colonies Partners, had filed a lawsuit against the county in 2002 over flood control issues at the companies Colonies at San Antonio development in northeast Upland. Ultimately, Burum withheld the mailing of those brochures. It was three weeks after the November 2006 election, in which Postmus and Biane were elected and reelected, that the board of supervisors voted 3-2 to confer the $102 million settlement on the Colonies Partners. The indictments allege that the series of $100,000 donations to the political action committees founded and controlled by Postmus, Brown, Kirk and Erwin were in fact quid pro quos — bribes — paid in exchange for the approval of the settlement. Prosecutors allege that Biane, through Brown, secretly controlled the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC.
The Sentinel is informed that a complaint has been filed with the state Fair Political Practices Commission citing a PAC founded by Brown in 2008, the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association, which is separate from the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC alluded to in the indictments. According to well placed sources, both the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association and the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC were involved in the activity now under further investigation.
On March 17, 2008, Brown formed the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC and named J.M. Olchawa as the PAC’s treasurer. Both Brown and Olchawa are residents of Grand Terrace. Olchawa endowed the PAC with its first operating capital in the form of a $100 contribution. Less than a month later, on April 9, the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC contributed $40,000, which had apparently originated with the $100,000 contribution from the Colonies Partners the previous year, to the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC. The following month, on May 29, 2008, one of the political action committees controlled by Postmus, the Inland Empire PAC, infused the San Bernardino County Taxpayers PAC with $3,000 and the month after that, on June 2, 2008, with another $2,000. That $5,000, too, had apparently been originally provided by the Colonies Partners.
In the less than two month period between the $40,000 contribution from Brown’s own Young Republicans PAC on April 9 and Postmus’ Inland Empire PAC’s $2,000 donation on June 2, the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC received a substantial amount of money in the form of both contributions and loans, all from other political figures. On April 25, 2008, the Committee to Elect Paul Biane gave the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC a $15,000 contribution. On April 29, 2008 the Committee to Elect Dick Larsen provided the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC with a $10,000 loan. Larsen was then the county treasurer. On May 5, 2008 the Committee to Elect Gary C. Ovitt made a $15,000 contribution to Brown’s San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC. That money may have originated with the Colonies Partners before being provided to Kirk’s Alliance For Ethical Government PAC and then being provided to Ovitt. On May 9, 2008, the Josie Gonzales for Supervisor campaign provided a $15,000 contribution to the San Bernardino County Taxpayers PAC. On May 16, 2008, Bill Emmerson for Assembly 2008 made a $5,000 contribution to Brown’s recently formed PAC. The same day, the San Bernardino Public Employees Association PAC provided Brown’s PAC with a $10,000 contribution. On May 23, 2008, the Committee to Elect Gary C. Ovitt provided Brown’s PAC with a $10,000 loan. On May 27, 2008, the Hansberger for Supervisor Committee made a $25,000 contribution to the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC. The next day, May 28, the Paul Cook for Assembly 2008 Committee provided Brown’s PAC with a $5,000 loan. The same day, the Committee to Elect Paul Biane made a $10,000 loan to Brown’s PAC. On May 29, Bill Emmerson for Assembly 2008 made a $5,000 contribution to the PAC and on June 2, 2008, the Hansberger for Supervisor Committee made a $15,000 contribution to the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC.
The lion’s share of the money Brown’s PAC took in was used to fund Hansberger’s effort to be reelected as county Third District supervisor that year. According to campaign disclosure documents, the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC on May 18 provided the Hansberger for Supervisor Committee with $57,030.70 and on June 30, 2008, more than three weeks after Hansberger had lost the election to Neil Derry on June 3, Brown’s PAC gave the Hansberger for Supervisor Committee $100,920.29.
The Fair Political Practices Commission is now investigating the lack of any subsequent accounting for the $35, 000.00 in loans made to the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC by the Larsen, Ovitt, Cook and Biane campaign committees. All references to those loans disappeared from subsequent campaign filing statements made on behalf of the PAC by Olchawa. The loans in question appear to be outstanding. No explicit reference to repayments to any of the lending parties can be found in any of the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC’s financial disclosure statements. While the online filing made by the Committee to Elect Gary Ovitt shows an outstanding loan of $10,000 to the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC committee as of 12/31/2010, online filings for the other lending parties were not immediately available. There is no indication in any available documentation showing any of the loans were repaid.
The lack of repayment, and lack of accounting of the still existent outstanding loans or failure to note the loans were forgiven is alleged to be multiple violations of the Political Reform Act. Moreover, the lack of notation of the loans might suggest that the funds received by the committee during the 2008 electioneering season from the Larsen, Cook and Biane campaigns were being laundered for Hansberger, according to the complaint received by the FPPC.
Another issue in the complaint and the follow-up FPPC investigation is the connection between the PAC and the Hansberger Campaign, which contributed money to the PAC and was also the major beneficiary of the PAC’s expenditures. In this way, money provided to Brown’s PAC is suspected of having been used to attack Derry without adequate disclosure of the origin of that money. Those mailers sent out attacking Derry did not disclose that Hansberger’s campaign was involved in funding them.
Many familiar with Brown’s role in the Colonies matter have questioned why prosecutors did not seek and obtain from the grand jury an indictment of Brown. The indictment itself describes how the political action committee he founded and controlled served as a laundering vehicle through which bribes allegedly provided by Burum were passed, action virtually indistinguishable from that engaged in by the indicted Kirk, another chief of staff to a board member who voted to approve the Colonies settlement.
Brown was one of 45 witnesses who testified before the grand jury this spring before it handed down the indictment naming Burum, Biane, Kirk and Erwin. In that testimony Brown said SEBA, the sheriff’s deputies union that Erwin once headed, had promised to provide, but then failed to come through with, backing for a countywide measure Biane was sponsoring in 2006 to boost the pay for county supervisors. An examination of campaign reporting documents and other material, however, indicates that SEBA in fact did support the Biane-backed proposal, known as Measure P, which passed, resulting in an immediate $22,000 annual increase to supervisors’ salaries. Prosecutors declined to say whether Brown’s misstatement of fact before the grand jury constituted perjury. No charges have been filed against him.
A possible explanation of how it is that Brown has avoided prosecution on several counts is that he has been working as an informant for the district attorney’s office. It is known that beginning in 2009, Brown began wearing a “wire,” that is, a hidden electronic audio device at work while he was serving in the capacity of Biane’s chief of staff. Reportedly, the target of this effort was Biane himself. To date, no incriminating statements by Biane on any of those tapes have surfaced or been produced by the prosecution, despite requests by defense attorneys for their production. Transcripts of some of those conversations have been turned over to defense attorneys.
At some point in the spring of 2010, Biane became aware that his chief-of-staff was seeking to entrap him. There ensued strained relations between the two and Brown was put on paid leave after he filed a claim in which he alleged he was being harassed. Brown was then transferred to the county treasurer/auditor-controller office under Larry Walker. Walker installed Brown as his second-in-command, i.e. as the assistant auditor-controller. In so doing, Walker ousted his longtime assistant and close associate Betsy Starbuck, who was ignominiously sacked after having served more than twenty years as Walker’s right hand woman, both when Walker was Fourth District supervisor, the position he held before he ran for auditor-controller, and as auditor controller.
The displacement of Starbuck, who after more than eight years in the position of assistant auditor-controller practically ran the division, to accommodate the inexperienced Brown has sparked a widespread belief in the halls of the county that the move was imposed on Walker by county chief executive officer Greg Devereaux and district attorney Mike Ramos as part of an effort to protect a witness seen as crucial to the prosecution of the Colonies settlement criminal case. Collectively and individually, Walker, Brown, Devereaux and Ramos were unwilling to comment on the matter.