By Mark Gutglueck
Information and documentation obtained by the Sentinel indicates that San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos acceded in granting favorable treatment to wealthy developer Reggie King, the largest contributor of political donations to San Bernardino County politicians over the last dozen years, after King and one of his associates were caught with what was described as a significant quantity of cocaine.
In apparent exchange for this favorable treatment, Ramos has received money from King both directly in the form of campaign contributions and in disbursements hidden from view by means of the money being laundered through a third party before it was passed to Ramos.
While the individual arrested with King, Donald Larue Thomas, was convicted of a felony and saddled with a jail sentence, King was given a favorable discharge that entailed drug diversion therapy. In a highly irregular move, the record of King’s conviction was expunged prematurely.
Before the matter was fully adjudicated and while King’s fate hung in the balance, Ramos leaned upon him to vector copious amounts of cash to a political action committee committed to defeating one of Ramos’s longtime political rivals.
Further evidence has emerged to indicate that during and since the district attorney’s office’s compromised handling of the King case, money from King to Ramos has been filtered through various outside entities -including the sheriff’s deputies’ union’s political action committee.
This laundering of the money King has provided and continues to provide to Ramos, taken together with the quid pro quo of campaign cash being delivered in return for Ramos pulling his department’s prosecutorial punches, implicates Ramos in an extortion and bribery scheme.
Young Homes was founded more than a quarter of a century ago by Pat Young. Through what the company touts as thoughtfully designed and appointed floor plans, construction excellence, meticulous attention to detail and careful selection of community locations, Young and his two sons, John and Jack, grew the company into one to be reckoned with among the cream of the scores of highly successful residential builders working the lucrative Southern California development market, concentrating primarily on locations in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. At the turn of the 20th Century into the Third Millennium, actual control over Young Homes passed to the succeeding generation and the family-owned company evolved into a partnership which included King, who shares day-to-day management and operational duties with John and Jack, while Pat, in semi-retirement status, continues to serve as what the company’s website refers to as a “guide.”
King brought to the operation a degree of political sophistication the Youngs had not achieved. Beginning with the 2004 political cycle, Young Homes became, instantaneously, a major political player in San Bernardino County. In the 2003-2004 reporting period for campaign finance documents filed with local city halls, the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters and the California Secretary of State in Sacramento show that King either directly or through Young Homes gave $592,000 in political contributions to candidates and causes, including $76,000 to Assembly candidate John Longville; $42,000 to Josie Gonzales, the Fontana councilwoman who successfully vied for county supervisor; $22,500 to County Supervisor Bill Postmus; $25,000 to Ontario City Councilman Gary Ovitt, who was then running for supervisor, $7,400; to Ontario City Councilman Alan Wapner, who ran unsuccessfully for the California Assembly; $5,000 to former supervisor and assemblyman Fred Aguiar, who had gone to work for then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and was not running for any office; and $7,500 to District Attorney Mike Ramos, who was not up for reelection; and $2,350 to Acquanetta Warren, who was then a city councilwoman in Fontana.
In the 2005-06 reporting period, King through Young Homes provided Postmus, who was at that time running for county assessor, $242,000; Biane, who was unopposed in his bid to remain in office as county supervisor, $73,200; Gary Ovitt $100,000; Josie Gonzales $28,000; District Attorney Mike Ramos, who was running unopposed for reelection, $3,500; Congressman Joe Baca $7,400; Joe Baca, Jr., who was running for the California State Senate, $6,600; Jeremy Baca, who was running for city council in Colton, $3,300; Acquanetta Warren $5,000; Fontana Councilman Frank Scialdone $20,000; Fontana Councilman John Roberts $20,000; Ontario Mayor Paul Leon $13,000; San Bernardino County Treasurer Dick Larsen $12,500; and Rialto Councilman Ed Scott $13,500.
In the 2007-08 reporting period, King through Young Homes handed out $51,000 to Supervisor Gonzales; $37,000 to Supervisor Ovitt, who was not running; $40,000 to Assessor Postmus, who was not running; $25,000 to Fontana Councilwoman Warren; $3,000 to Ontario Councilman Wapner, who was not running; $3,500 to Ontario Mayor Leon, who was not running; $8,600 to Rialto Councilman Ed Scott; $23,600 to Supervisor Biane, who was not running; and $20,000 to then-Fontana Councilwoman Janice Rutherford.
In the 2009-10 reporting period, King directly and through Young Homes provided Josie Gonzales with $5,000; Gary Ovitt with $6,000; Janice Rutherford, who made the successful transition from the Fontana City Council to the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, with $10,000; Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt with $2,000; Paul Biane with $1,200; and Ontario City Councilman Jim Bowman with $1,000.
In the 2011-12 reporting period, King and Young Homes went atypically dormant in terms of making political contributions.
In 2013 they came back with a vengeance, putting up a whopping $131,000 to support the recall of Sophia Green and Leticia Garcia from the Fontana School Board; $50,000 to support Acquanetta Warren in her run to be reelected mayor of Fontana; put up another $20,000 to support Warren’s opponent in that election, Joe Baca; $20,000 to support Rialto Councilman Ed Scott in his failed bid to be elected mayor; gave $26,562.09 to Fontana Councilman Michael Tahan, $10,000 to Fontana Councilman John Robert; $10,000 to Ontario Mayor Paul Leon; $14,925 to Ontario Councilman Alan Wapner; $2,500 to Ontario Councilman Jim Bowman; $2,500 to Ontario Councilwoman Debra Dorst-Porada, who was not up for reelection; $4,100 to James Ramos, who was not up for reelection, $4,100 to County Treasurer Larry Walker, $4,100 to Mike Morrell, who was running for State Senate; $4,100 to Rancho Cucamonga Councilman Mark Steinorth, who was running for assemblyman; $4,100 to Chad Mayes who was running for assemblyman; $5,000 to Matt Slowik, who was running for the Fontana School Board; and $24,000 to Jesse Armendariz, who was running for the Fontana School Board.
In 2015, King and Young Homes donated $7,000 to Mike Ramos; $5,200 to Congressman Pete Aguilar; $5,000 to Fontana Councilman Michael Tahan; $4,200 to Josie Gonzales; $3,000 to Supervisor James Ramos; and $4,200 to State Senator Mike Morrell.
Young Homes has grown to become the second largest home builder in San Bernardino County and the fourth largest in Southern California.
Though he had proven virtually unapproachable to the man on the street, King moved to the forefront of the county’s movers and shakers, hobnobbing with the county’s top-ranking elected officials, who could, because of his prodigious generosity toward them, be counted upon to take his phone calls.
On November 8, 2013, Reggie King’s seemingly charmed existence came under challenge. On that day, while he was with one of his closest friends, Don Thomas, and both were in possession of a substantial amount of cocaine, they had an encounter with the Fontana police. The cocaine was found and both were taken into custody by the Fontana Police and charged with felony possession of cocaine.
What ensued has been described as a remarkable chapter in the corruption of an already corrupted legal system in San Bernardino County. Relying upon the considerable reservoir of “good will” he had purchased with millions of dollars in donations to those who oversee the various functions and levels of government throughout the county, in particular the district attorney, King was able to insulate himself from the machinery of the justice system, obtaining a disposition of his case that would be impossible for someone without his connections.
During the run-up to the 2014 electoral season, Joe Baca was looking to make a political comeback. Baca had served in the California Assembly from 1992 until 1998, as a California State Senator in 1998 and 1999 and then as a Congressman from 1999 to January 2013. He had been blasted from office in the November 2012 election by an infusion of $3.2 million from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s super political action committee into the coffers of challenger Gloria McLeod in the final weeks leading up to the election. Baca lost to McLeod.
Subsequently, Baca’s desire to remount the political horse from which he had been thrown was no secret, but he was still licking his wounds, and he was enough of a realist to know that running for office was not something he or anyone else could do without adequate funding. Seemingly out of the blue, Baca and his wife were invited to break bread with King at Mimi’s Cafe. King outright told Baca that if he would run for mayor of Fontana, King would not only back him with his own money and that of Young Homes but induce others in the development and construction industries to come forward with enough money to fund a winning campaign against the incumbent, Acquanetta Warren.
“He met with me and my wife and encouraged me to run,” said Baca. “He said that he would provide help and get other developers to contribute and that they could raise up to $200,000.”
Intent on getting into the public fray once again, Baca said he was in. King followed through with a $20,000 donation.
Warren was an obstacle to the resurrection of his political career, Baca recognized, but not an insurmountable one. She had nowhere near the political track record Baca could claim, and she had been able to climb no further up the chain than local municipal office, having lost in a previous stab at being elected to the State Assembly. She did, however, hold the advantage of incumbency and name recognition among Fontana’s voters that was on a par with that of Baca. Beating her was indeed possible, Baca, an old political hand, calculated, but he would need to hustle, raise money to equal or match hers and limit, to the extent he could, her political reach by beating her to the punch in capturing campaign donations from the same set of potential donors who can be counted upon to bankroll local political races. King’s overture matched up with that calculation in every particular.
Confident in King’s backing and that of others King could with a flick of his wrist line up for him, Baca jumped in and used the money King had provided to set up the framework of a campaign that would soon be, he believed, flush with the money King promised would be forthcoming.
That King was looking to back the recently displaced Congressman in the contest was somewhat remarkable, given King’s penchant for sticking with incumbents in general and his history of backing Warren in particular over the years. Fontana, as much as any city, was of special interest to Young Homes. Having experienced, beginning in the 1970s, constant if only moderate growth, Fontana in the 1980s captured the imagination of the development community when it approved the 9,100-unit Southridge project. By the 1990s the city was experiencing explosive growth, the eventual upshot of which is that its population has ballooned to 203,000, making it the county’s second largest city population-wise. King and Young Homes had solid reason to stay on the good side of the political leadership in Fontana, including Warren. Yet something had begun to drive a wedge between King and Warren. Perhaps it was an incipient reluctance to accommodate further growth on the part of Fontana city officials who had belatedly begun to recognize the growing pains of a municipality that had expanded too much too fast and, because the city had overleapt its existing infrastructure, were looking to put the brakes on future development. Or maybe in sizing up the two, King had concluded that Baca, the one-time Congressman with national, state and local interests beholden to him for the legislation he carried and the votes he made, was simply a faster and stronger political racehorse than Warren, whose political horizon ended at the Fontana City Limits.
Whatever the reason, King was in contact with Baca and pushed him into running for Fontana mayor.
“I thought he was up front,” Baca said of King, “and I could trust him. He had supported me before when I was in Congress, so I assumed when he said he would back me he really wanted me to run. He gave me check for $20,000 and I figured I could count on him.”
Banking on the monetary support King had committed to providing, Baca actuated his electoral effort.
Before Baca got very far down the road, though, things fell apart.
“Reggie said he was going to support me and the money would be there and then, boom, he just pulled out,” Baca said. “All of a sudden he just turned on me.”
Baca said he kept trying to get a hold of King, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, King gave Warren $50,000 to use in her campaign. Simultaneously, he provided another $30,000 to a political action committee headquartered in Elk Grove known as the Inland Empire Citizens Committee. The Inland Empire Citizens Committee used the $30,000 to draw up and mail out to Fontana’s voters three mailers, each of which was a “hit piece” attacking Baca.
Unbeknownst to Baca, as that year’s campaign was heating up, the criminal case against the man he thought was going to be his political patron, Reggie King, was nearing its crescendo. King’s provision of money to Warren, as well as another $26,562.09 given to councilman Michael Tahan, and $10,000 given to councilman John Roberts, the other incumbents in that year’s race, was intended to influence the police department’s handling of the matter pertaining to King’s cocaine possession arrest.
“I heard he had a problem with the police,” Baca said. “He suddenly needed to get back close with Acquanetta and the others. I don’t know what that was or what they did for him. Apparently he got what he wanted and his personal problem was taken care of.”
Eventually, he gave up trying to contact King, he said. “I just said to myself, ‘It’s over with.’” Baca said. “It’s part of politics.”
The effort to insulate Reggie King from the machinery of the law was not limited to attempting to compromise or politically override the Fontana Police Department, the agency responsible for his arrest. The record shows that while the case against King was yet pending, the public official ultimately overseeing that case – San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos, whose political career had already been boosted by donations from King – was leaning on him, through San Bernardino Supervisor James Ramos, to support a political effort to prevent the political comeback of another former office holder widely considered to be Ramos’s major political rival.
In 2008, Neil Derry, a San Bernardino City Councilman, had succeeded in defeating Dennis Hansberger, who had been a member of the board of supervisors for five four-year terms over four decades, representing the county’s Third District. Hansberger and Ramos were members of the same Redlands-based political machine which included then-congressman Jerry Lewis. Derry’s ascendency in 2008 was widely seen as a heavy blow against the Redlands political machine, as much of Derry’s political support had been derived from supporters on the west side of the Inland Valley. Historically, the Redlands area was the most affluent community in San Bernardino County and the base from which many of its most dynamic politicians and their network of donors and supporters operated. This political machine was fueled largely by established money.
In the closing decades of the Twentieth Century, the communities of Rancho Cucamonga, Ontario, Upland, Chino and Chino Hills were on the rise. By the dawn of the Second Millennium, upstart Rancho Cucamonga and Ontario and Fontana would supplant San Bernardino as the most economically dynamic of San Bernardino County’s 24 incorporated cities. Prior to the sustained economic downturn that began in 2007, the city of Ontario had some $660 million running through all of its municipal accounts – nearly two-thirds of a billion dollars – dwarfing the budget of the next closest San Bernardino County city. Rancho Cucamonga would likewise establish itself as a something of a cultural and governmental capital. What was originally called The West Valley Courthouse and is now referred to as the Foothill Communities Courthouse was established in Rancho Cucamonga in the early 1990s, largely at the instigation of Rancho Cucamonga Mayor-turned Second District San Bernardino County Supervisor Jon Mikels, whose political leadership in his day represented the advancement of San Bernardino’s West End. And in a county where law enforcement agencies are considered a leading element of the social and political establishment, Rancho Cucamonga boasted being the host of a second law and justice institution, the West Valley Detention Center, the county’s main jail, what was then an-ultra modern 3,357-bed facility opened in 1991.
Moreover, the City of Chino Hills, located at the extreme southwest corner of San Bernardino County and incorporated in 1991, emerged as the most affluent of the county’s cities, with both the highest per capita and per household income of any of the county’s municipalities.
Derry rode the monetary crest of political donations raised on the west end of the county, as opposed to the old money and traditional backing emanating from Redlands and the Lewis-Hansberger-Ramos political machine based there, though ironically, Derry relocated from his San Bernardino home to one in Redlands after he was elected Third District supervisor. Once in office, Derry had proven the strongest of Mike Ramos’s political impediments on the board of supervisors. When the sustained economic downturn that first hit the nation, state and region in 2007 persisted, reducing available revenue to governments and resulting in severe belt tightening, Derry had insisted that those economies be applied across the board, without granting exceptions to the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office. In the end, Derry prevailed in convincing his board colleagues to not exempt law and justice operations from the ongoing budget cuts. In a 2009 meeting with the district attorney’s office’s general staff, Ramos told his minions that it was Derry and Derry alone who was responsible for the cuts being imposed on the district attorney’s office’s operations.
Derry proposed the formation of a county ethics commission. Ramos, seeing an opportunity to increase his reach, influence and pay, gave tentative endorsement to the concept while advancing the proposal that he be given the function and title of ethics adviser, which would provide a yearly stipend of $20,000. Derry resisted the inclusion of the ethics adviser position and the boosting of Ramos’s pay. Ramos never got the position, or added pay, he coveted.
In March 2009, Mike Ramos took the first of a series of actions to attenuate Derry’s political authority when he had Derry’s chief of staff, Jim Erwin, arrested by district attorney’s office investigators at the County Government Center. Erwin was charged with several reporting violations relating to gifts and income he had received and had not disclosed on economic interest declarations government officials are required to file. This resulted in Erwin resigning as Derry’s chief of staff and an undercutting of Derry’s effectiveness and credibility with his board colleagues.
Two years later, Ramos used his prosecutorial authority to go directly after Derry when he laid the groundwork for a criminal case against the supervisor. He assigned Hollis Randles, a district attorney’s office investigator, to assemble a case against Derry, which was then handed off to Shannon Williams, a special agent with the California Attorney General’s Office’s Bureau of Investigations and Intelligence. The California Attorney General subsequently charged Derry with two felonies and one misdemeanor relating to a $5,000 donation from San Bernardino developer Arnold Stubblefield to Derry’s supervisorial electoral effort in 2008 which, it was alleged, was laundered through a diversion of the funds to a political action committee controlled by then-county assessor Bill Postmus. Ultimately, Derry would plead guilty to a single misdemeanor charge, weakening him for an electoral challenge in 2012 by a Mike Ramos ally, one-time San Manuel Tribal Chairman and San Bernardino Community College Board Member James Ramos, who is of no actual known familial relation to Mike Ramos. In the 2012 election, Derry was defeated by James Ramos.
Two years later, Derry sought to reemerge on the political stage, this time seeking a position on the Redlands City Council.
At that point, the dual forces of Mike Ramos and James Ramos, working through Gilliard Blanning & Associates and the Willows, California-based California Homeowners Association political action committee (PAC) along with another entity, Redlands Residents Against Corruption Opposing Neil Derry for City Council 2014, converged on Derry, assailing him with a number of hit pieces. King provided $20,000 to Redlands Residents Against Corruption Opposing Neil Derry for City Council 2014 and another $20,000 to the California Homeowners Association.
Hansberger, whom Derry defeated in 2008 and who was a principal in the Lewis/Hansberger/Ramos Redlands political machine, was the treasurer of the Redlands Residents Against Corruption Opposing Neil Derry.
Gilliard Blanning & Associates, a political consulting firm based in Willows, California, provided services to James Ramos during his 2012 election victory over Derry. Four members of the San Manuel Tribe, including James Ramos, together made $9,000 in donations to the California Homeowners Association PAC in support of the Derry opposition effort.
When questioned by the press about his support of the Redlands Residents Against Corruption Opposing Neil Derry and California Homeowners Association PAC, King declined comment. Privately, however, he acknowledged that he had to comply with Mike Ramos’s requests for monetary support, relayed to him through James Ramos, while his legal matter was hanging over his head.
Indeed, the criminal case against King was given its penultimate resolution on September 4, 2014 roughly two months before the election, at which time he came before Judge Michael Libutti and entered a no contest plea to Health and Safety Code Violation 11350, possession of a controlled substance, a felony. But the punishment accorded him was not in line with what most felons normally receive. He was ordered to pay an administrative fee of $500 and a diversion restitution fee of $150, and required to attend a drug diversion program which he was to complete by April 6, 2015.
He received no jail time.
Thomas, by contrast was given 210 days jail time and probation until 2017.
The real payoff, or what was supposed to be the real payoff, for King came, however, in April 2015, when after completing his drug diversion program, he came back to court, this time before Judge Cara Hutson. Word was that the fix was in and King’s felony conviction would be reduced to a misdemeanor. The pressure was on Hutson to go even further, however, and she refused to yield to the pressure. The record shows that King was in her courtroom on April 24, 2015 at 8:30 a.m. The matter was then removed forthwith to the courtroom of Judge Michael Libutti. In accordance with King’s completion of the drug diversion program and his attorney’s request according to Penal Code Section 1203.4 and 1170.18 that the conviction be reduced to a misdemeanor, the motion was granted. Then, without any motion by King’s attorney, Judge Libutti sealed the record of the conviction. The deputy district attorney present, Ted Smith, made no objection. All information relating to King with regard to the case was removed from the court’s electronic registry, though the full record regarding Thomas remained intact.
While as a first time drug offender, King was eligible for leniency in the form of drug diversion and an eventual expunging of his record, he was not entitled to early termination of his case nor to the sealing of the record pertaining to it well under a year after his case was adjudicated and he was sentenced.
Shortly thereafter, however, an individual somewhere in the loop, outraged at the kid gloves treatment King received, took action.
Joe Nelson, a longtime reporter with the San Bernardino Sun, picks up the narrative.
“Someone who was at the courthouse who had used their IPhone to take a picture of the minute order sealing the case sent it to me,” Nelson said. “The strange thing was the record was sealed and no motion to do that was filed. Just prior to that, the matter had been moved into the court of Judge Michael Libutti. I looked into that and it turned out Reggie King and Judge Libutti had a relationship going back years to when the judge was on the Upland City Council.”
Nelson continue, “So, at that point all information about the case was gone. It had just disappeared. I didn’t know what to make of it. It didn’t seem right, based on what I know as a reporter working the courts. I called Chris Lee, the district attorney’s spokesman, and said, ‘What’s this with this judge sealing the county superdonor’s criminal case without any motion having been made?’ Chris said ‘I’ll look into this.’
“It was one of those things where everyone knew it should not have been sealed,” Nelson said. “When Chris got back to me, he said it had just been a total screw-up and that it should not have been sealed. They didn’t want the story to go out and they totally threw the court reporter under the bus, essentially blaming it on her. Chris insisted it was nothing serious or nefarious, just a mistake.”
But the inquiry by the Sun, the widest circulating newspaper in the county, had given those militating to protect King and his reputation pause. Shortly thereafter, Nelson said, the information pertaining to King’s case had reappeared in the court record. “A couple of days later when I went online, the case had been unsealed,” he said.
Contacted by the Sentinel, Libutti said he could not explain what had happened.
“I cannot comment on anything because of the ethical requirements of being a judge,” he said. “You will have to get comment from someone else, whether it is the DA or another attorney. The best I could do is tell you to get what you need from another person. Ethically I cannot talk to you about that.”
While King’s legal problem was on the front burner and as whispers of Ramos’s efforts to remove him from jeopardy spread, efforts to hide King’s monetary contributions to Ramos were made. In 2014, when Ramos had to stand for reelection, King’s provision of money to Ramos was laundered through the union for San Bernardino County’s sheriff’s deputies, the Safety Employees Benefit Association, known as SEBA.
On February 25, 2014, Young Homes made a $50,000 contribution to SEBA.
On May 15, 2014, the SEBA Local PAC made a $31,271.79 expenditure to finance a mailer in support of Ramos’s reelection that year. In an effort to prevent the origin of that money with King and Young Homes from being revealed, SEBA did not report to the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters the February 25, 2014 $50,000 contribution made to it by Young Homes.
Ramos, as in the case involving Derry, has either prosecuted, or instigated a California Attorney General’s Office prosecution of, other politicians engaged in fund laundering activity indistinguishable from the fund laundering activity he himself engaged in when accepting money from Young Homes and King.
That King has proven to be a major donor to Ramos’s electioneering fund over the years is not surprising. During the 12-year period from 2004 to 2016, King, on his own and through Young Homes, has made 3.2 million in donations to politicians and political organizations, most of them Republicans and most of them incumbents. Ramos is a Republican and has held office since 2003, the year that marked his beginning as the county’s largest ongoing political donor.
In February 2015, with his legal case having moved pretty much behind him, King was more straightforward in donating to Ramos, providing him with $7,000 of his own money and another $7,000 from Young Homes.
King has not returned any of more than a dozen calls seeking his input for this article.
Christopher Lee, the district attorney’s official spokesman, did not respond to a request for the DA office’s position with regard to the case prosecuted against King and his simultaneous generosity to the district attorney. Nor did Lee facilitate a request for an interview with Mike Ramos.
By Mark Gutglueck