By Mark Gutglueck
(April 25) The surfacing of long-buried criminal court documents indicates San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos withheld crucial information from a panel of Superior Court judges and county lawyers who provided the county board of supervisors with a persuasive recommendation to give attorney Earl Carter and his law firm an exclusive $20 million contract to perform indigent defense work at all of the county’s courthouses.
The documents in question pertain to Carter’s conviction in a criminal case, the details of which are so explosive their public airing would very likely have precluded Carter from obtaining the contract. Additionally, Ramos failed to inform the panel that oversaw the competition for the contract that Carter had not disclosed the conviction to the State Bar, an omission that could have resulted in Carter’s potential disbarment.
Instead, Ramos provided Carter with a letter of recommendation, which was submitted to the indigent defense contract competition panel, providing part of the basis upon which the panel’s recommendation and the ultimate decision to award the contract to Carter and his firm was based.
Documents on file with the California Secretary of State and the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Office show that Carter and his firm have donated a total of $124,600 to district attorney Mike Ramos since 2004.
At its March 11 meeting, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, in the words of County Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereaux, approved an agreement with Inland Defenders “to provide adult indigent defense services in an amount not to exceed $8,000,000 annually and $20,000,000 total over the 30-month term of April 1, 2014 through September 30, 2016 with two additional one-year options if in the best interest of the county.”
The board’s decision stepped over five other law firms that submitted bid proposals for the work, which included providing what is known as criminal conflict defense in all four of the county’s judicial regions.
Competing with Carter’s firm, which had submitted bids for all four regions under the name Inland Defenders, were John Burdick, under the name Contract Defenders; Greenline Partners, headed by attorneys Daniel Greenberg and Raj Maline; Victorville-based attorney Robert Ponce; the law firm of Brown, White and Newhouse; and the law firm of Skipper, Singer & Associates.
Inland Defenders was substantially underbid by two of its competitors for the contracts. With regard to the contract for representation of the North Desert Judicial District, Inland Defenders, which tendered an annual bid of $1,847,880, for the work was underbid by both Greenline Partners, which bid $1,347,840, and Robert Ponce, who bid $1,500,300.
On the East Valley portion of the contract, Inland Defenders bid $3,085,680, which was $943,200 more than Greenline’s bid of $2,142,480.
Despite its higher bids, Carter’s firm was given the contract.
Conflict representation for a defendant without the financial means to hire an attorney to represent him/her comes about when the crime he/she is charged with involves [an]other defendant[s] of likewise modest financial means who is represented by the public defender’s office, which is dedicated to providing a defense to the county’s accused who are without the wherewithal to retain an attorney on their own. In those cases where one or more of the defendants is contending or may contend that he/she is being accused of a crime actually committed by his/her codefendant[s], a separate attorney is needed to prevent one defendant from being exploited by the defense put on by the other defendant.
Defense attorneys, including private attorneys, those employed by the public defender and conflict defenders, are the professional and procedural adversaries of prosecutors. For that reason, Mike Ramos’ advocacy for Carter during the conflict representation contract competition provoked consternation among many who were aware of it. A copy of the Ramos letter of recommendation, written last November, soon leaked out, resulting in a minor scandal within the San Bernardino County legal community. The Sentinel has obtained a copy of that letter. It reads, in part:
“I have been the district attorney for the county of San Bernardino since 2003. We have the largest criminal caseloads in the state and I can say that our law and justice partners, including the defense bar, work hard at being efficient and seeking justice in our criminal courts. Mr. Carter’s defense attorneys’ work is no exception. These attorneys do not shy away from jury trials and are tough advocates for their clients, according to my attorneys who work with them and against them on a daily basis… One may wonder why the district attorney is writing a letter for indigent defense attorneys, but it’s basic. They are tough, yet fair and ethical advocates as we seek justice for victims while protecting the rights of the accused.”
By late December 2013/early January 2014, the panel that had been selected by San Bernardino County Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereux to evaluate the conflict criminal defense competitors, consisting of Superior Court judges Annemarie Pace and John Vander Feer as well as chief assistant county counsel Michelle Blakemore and deputy county counsel Phoebe Chu, were leaning in favor of Carter and his firm. A flap ensued, however, after it was learned that on January 2, 2014 Inland Defenders was permitted, by fax, to submit to the county a revised fee schedule, merely one day before the intent to award was declared. That opportunity to revise its bid was not provided to any of the other competitors. Nor were any of the competitors other than Carter’s firm given an opportunity to see the other firms’ sealed bids.
On January 31, prior to the board of supervisors ratifying the competition panel’s recommendation, Greenline Partners submitted a letter of appeal in which the firm charged there was “faultiness [in] the evaluation process” or “biases” on the part of the evaluators and/or county officials. Ponce also dissented.
This resulted in what San Bernardino County spokesman David Wert said was a ”delay” in the approval as a multitude of issues pertaining to the Carter firm and the evaluation process were supposed to be subjected to another round of scrutiny. That delay entailed pushing the board’s consideration of the contract approval from February 11 until ultimately, March 11. On that later date, the board, based upon the panel’s final recommendation and given assurance that all of the issues regarding Carter and his firm had been examined and resolved in his and its favor, signed off on the awarding of all four regional criminal conflict defense contracts to Carter’s firm.
Within the last fortnight, however, documentation demonstrating that Ramos withheld, both before Greenline’s challenge and thereafter, pertinent information relating to Earl Carter has surfaced.
In December 1985, the then-38-year old Carter was arrested by Riverside Police and charged with engaging in lewd activity in a public restroom at Fairmount Park.
The Riverside County District Attorney’s Office filed charges against him, case number 165599. Rather than endure a public trial in which the sordid details of the charges against him would be given an open airing, Carter, through his attorney Virginia Blumenthal, entered a guilty plea to the charge for which he had been cited, 647 (a) of the penal code, lewd conduct in public, paying a $350 fine. He was placed on probation, which required that he stay out of Fairmount Park and undergo counseling.
Read the file on Earl Carter’s arrest and conviction by clicking on the portal below.
A member of the California Bar since 1975, Carter was required by law to disclose to the bar his conviction.
According to an employee at the Los Angeles office of the California Bar, however, Carter did not disclose his conviction to the California Bar. A woman who identified herself only by her first name, Frances, because she said her organization has a policy of not releasing the last names of its employees, said Carter had failed to make the required disclosure. “It does not appear he reported any kind of conviction with us,” Frances told the Sentinel.
Under Section 6068 (o) of California’s Business and Professions Code “It is the duty of an attorney to report the conviction of the attorney, including any verdict of guilty, or plea of guilty or no contest, of a felony, or a misdemeanor.”
A little more than a decade and a half after his conviction, Carter had acceded to become a relatively successful attorney, practicing in several counties throughout California, but with much of his work concentrated in the Inland Empire. In 2004, he began investing in the rising legal and political career of Mike Ramos, a Hispanic Republican who two years previously had ousted Dennis Stout, another Republican, as district attorney in San Bernardino County. Simultaneously Carter and his firm were making substantial contributions to other San Bernardino County politicians as well.
Documents on file with the county registrar of voters’ office show that Carter, together with his recently deceased law partner Jim Spring, and his law firm, Carter, Spring, Shank & O’Connor, have made $88,500 in political donations to all five current county supervisors, including $38,000 to Gary Ovitt, $32,050 to Josie Gonzales, $12,750 to Janice Rutherford, and $1,500 each to both Robert Lovingood and James Ramos. The Sentinel has not tallied the amount of his and his law firm’s contributions to four other supervisors who have served in the last decade – Bill Postmus, Paul Biane, Brad Mitzelfelt and Neil Derry.
Carter obtained a return on that political investment. His firm, Carter Spring Shank & O’Connor obtained the criminal conflict defense contracts for two of the county’s four regions, with an $18.75 million contract to represent defendants in the East Valley as well as a $12 million contract to represent defendants in the county’s North Desert Region through December 31, 2013.
Through all of that advancement, Carter’s criminal history and his conviction remained, for the public and most but not all government officials, a buried secret.
In one quarter, however, Carter’s past was known. The district attorney’s office had access to NCIC – the National Crime Information Center, the data base run by the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department – and JDIC – the California Department of Justice’s Justice Data Interface Controller Network. Moreover, the district attorney’s office is a beneficiary of the agency- to-agency privilege by which law enforcement agencies, in this case itself and the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office and the Riverside Police Department, share information.
Prosecutors with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office found themselves in court going up against Carter or members of his law firm on an almost daily basis. While the board of supervisors was conferring the lucrative conflict criminal defense contracts on Carter’s firm, Ramos remained silent about Carter’s conviction, and his failure to inform the California Bar about it, which is itself a violation of Section 5057(o) of the California Business and Professions Code.
Throughout his silence, Ramos came to rely upon Carter, Carter’s partners and his law firm for making substantial contributions to his electioneering fund, donations that flowed in from Carter or his law firm at $2,500, $5,000, $7,000 or $10,000 a pop. On April 12, 2004 Carter made a $2,500 donation to Ramos’s campaign fund. The same day, Jim Spring, Carter’s partner, made a $2,500 donation to Ramos, as well. On August 11, 2004, Spring provided Ramos’ campaign fund with $5,000. On May 6, 2005, Carter and Spring wrote checks to Ramos’ campaign fund, each for $5,000. Seventeen days later, on May 23, 2005, Carter and Spring again provided Ramos’ campaign fund with another $10,000, consisting of matching $5,000 checks. Fourteen months later, on July 21, 2006, Ramos received another $10,000 from the duo, again in the form of $5,000 checks. A year later, on July 13, 2007, Carter and Spring upped the tribute they paid to Ramos, each providing his campaign fund with a $7,000 check. On May 27, 2008, Jim Spring donated $14,000 to Ramos’ campaign fund. On June 9, 2009, Carter and Spring each wrote separate $5,000 checks to Ramos’ campaign fund. Two months later, on August 1, 2009, the law firm of Carter Spring, Shank & O’Connor provided a $10,000 check to Ramos’ campaign fund. On January 1, 2010, Carter Spring Shank & O’Connor gave Ramos’ campaign fund another $10,000. On May 21, 2010, Sean O’Connor, one of Carter and Spring’s law partners, wrote Ramos’ campaign fund a $5,000 check. On May 18, 2011, Carter Spring Shank & O’Connor donated $2,500 to Ramos’ campaign fund. On February 29, 2012 Carter Spring Shank & O’Connor donated $2,500 to Ramos’ campaign fund. On September 20, 2012, Carter Spring Shank & O’Connor donated $2,500 to Ramos’ campaign fund.
As time went on, the stakes grew higher until just a few years ago, Carter cemented his position as the most prosperous of defense attorney’s plying their trades at San Bernardino County’s courthouses. Beginning in 2004, Carter had secured for his firm the first of what would be a series of criminal defense conflict representation contracts that would pay him and his firm at least $50.75 million dollars. Initially, Carter had to share the conflict representation spoils with other firms. By last year, Carter had a monopoly on the conflict representation in two of the county’s four regional divisions, both the East Valley and the North Desert Region. The law firm of David Goldstein at that time did conflict representation in the West Valley region of San Bernardino County and attorney John Burdick had the most modest of the conflict representation contracts, being paid $1.875 million for his work in the East Desert region.
Last September, when the county undertook to renew the contracts countywide through a request for proposals process, Carter jockeyed into position to seize an absolute monopoly of the county’s conflict representation work. He and his firm submitted proposals on all four regional contracts. Despite being underbid by two of its competitors, Carter’s firm managed to convince the selection panel to give it the nod. After word of the competition panel leaning in favor of Carter’s firm for all four contracts leaked out and Greenline Partners and Ponce raised their objections, the board hesitated in rubberstamping that selection and initiated what was supposed to be a review of the selection process and its criteria and the qualifications and bona fides of the competitors. As that review was under way, the county missed its earlier goal of ratifying the contract with Carter’s firm at the February 11 board of supervisors meeting. Two days later, as the continuation of Carter’s firm’s status as the county’s preeminent conflict representation contractor hung in the balance, Carter on February 13, 2014, made a $4,100 donation to Ramos’ campaign fund, the maximum a single donor can make under the county’s recently enacted campaign finance limitation ordinance.
David Wert, the county’s official spokesman, who in February told the Sentinel that the approval of the contract had been delayed at that point because the county was intent on “thoroughly” reexamining the contract award process and the various competitor, this week told the Sentinel that neither county CEO Greg Devereaux nor the competition panel knew about Carter’s conviction, either at the earlier stages of the contract competition or later, when the reexamination of the panel’s tentative decision was under way. Nor did Ramos inform Devereaux or the panel, consisting of two of the county’s superior court judges and two members of county counsel, about Carter’s conviction, Wert said.
“We never heard about that,” said Wert.
Wert said the request for proposals contained language that required applicants to disclose civil judgments or criminal convictions but that Carter was able to sidestep that specific requirement because the county was seeking information with regard to criminal convictions relating to financial crimes occurring within the last decade.
“That would not have covered” Carter’s conviction, Wert said, since it was not “within the last ten years.” Nor did it involve “financial fraud or misconduct,” Wert said.
Wert was less exact about state regulations that require contract holders with public agencies to disclose criminal convictions in the course of the contract application process and he acknowledged that Carter’s failure to disclose his conviction to the state bar could result in complications with regard to his ability to fulfill the contract. Nevertheless, the possibility that Carter’s failure to disclose his criminal conviction might result in his being disbarred, Wert said, was “too long a road to look down .”
As to Ramos’ comportment, Wert indicated reluctance to pass judgment on his having militated in favor of Carter during the contract competition, given that the district attorney is an independently elected official outside the direct oversight of the county administrative office and the board of supervisors. ”I don’t know that what the district attorney does in terms of sending out recommendations or accepting campaign contributions is even something the board of supervisors can address,” he said. He then sought to downplay the effectiveness of Ramos’ letter of recommendation.
“I have serious doubts whether the evaluation panel considered the recommendation from the district attorney,” Wert said.
While acknowledging that Ramos left other county officials in the dark about Carter’s conviction, Wert refused to be drawn into commenting on the charges swirling around the county seat to the effect that the awarding of the conflict representation contracts for the county’s four geographical regions had been tainted by extortion and kickbacks.
“What the DA might have known since he had had access to the data base that contained that information before he wrote that recommendation… is not something the county is going to get involved in,” Wert said.
In the last week, an electronic file containing copies of the documents pertaining to Carter’s arrest and conviction have circulated widely throughout the county. Given the previous publicity about the hefty political contributions that Ramos has received from Carter, members of the legal community have been openly remarking about the appearance of an extortion and kickback scheme involving them.
Sharon Caldwell, a long time deputy prosecutor with San Bernardino County serving under Ramos for the last eleven-and-a-half years who just retired, said she was aware of the speculation about Ramos extorting Carter in exchange for political donations.
“I don’t buy it,” Caldwell said of the extortion allegations, although she did say she believed Ramos accepting the money was tantamount to taking kickbacks.
“There is no need for extortion here,” Caldwell said. “This is a good ol’ boy thing. People are giving him [Ramos] way too much credit. Earl gives him money and he makes sure good things go to Earl. It’s that simple. I think it is inappropriate for the DA to be making a recommendation for him. I think it is inappropriate for Earl to be making those contributions. It is absolutely appalling that if you have enough power and money you can buy the DA., but as far as him [Ramos] knowing about Earl’s history and agreeing to be quiet about it, I would never believe it.”
Robert Ponce, who underbid Carter’s firm for the conflict representation contract in the North Desert region, said he was troubled by the one-sidedness of Ramos’s letter to the evaluation committee.
“It is remarkable that he would write a letter about someone who was competing for the contract and not mention that he was convicted,” Ponce said. “I would be interested in what the state bar would say about the elected district attorney taking that kind of money from someone who is in an adversarial role and then writing a letter of recommendation for him.”
Ponce said that Carter was “brilliant when it comes to garnering influence” and he called the donations he and members of his firm had made to Ramos “another example of money being placed in the right hands.”
When queried by the Sentinel about Carter’s provision of hefty political donations to Ramos and Ramos’ authoring of the letter of recommendation, Laurie Levenson, a former assistant U.S. Attorney who is now a law professor at Loyola Law School, said, “The appearance of it is troubling. It gives the appearance of impropriety because by making those donations, he [Carter] looks as if he is currying favor with the district attorney. Although it may be permitted, I don’t think it is ethical.”
A relationship of the type Carter and Ramos have developed can compromise the processes of justice, Levenson said.
“Even if with this letter all the DA is saying is this is a zealous adversary who performs his job ethically and well, the impact is this may have helped him get the contract,” she said. “From my perspective you want both sides to be independent, zealous advocates and you don’t want the defense lawyer pulling any punches and you don’t want the DA providing better deals to the defense attorney’s clients because the defense attorney is making contributions to the prosecutor.”
Carter declined to respond to questions about why he felt compelled to donate to Ramos’ political fund in the amounts that he and his law firm have.
Both Ramos and his official spokesman, Christopher Lee, spurned the Sentinel’s effort to engage them on the topic of the district attorney’s relationship to Carter.
Read the Sentinel’s letters to District Attorney Mike Ramos and his spokesman, Christopher Lee, by clicking on the portals below.