By Mark Gutglueck
One of the two central witnesses in the Colonies Lawsuit Settlement Public Corruption Prosecution this week testified that he was a primary beneficiary of the corruption of public office and violations of public trust engaged in by the other central witness in the case.
Adam Aleman was 21 years old and working as a waiter at Outback Steakhouse when he met Bill Postmus, who was then the 33-year-old chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee. Postmus hired Aleman, who lived in Upland, to serve as a field representative in his supervisorial office, which represented the county’s First District extending to cover most of San Bernardino County’s desert region. At this point, it has not been publicly disclosed whether or not Postmus and Aleman were lovers; Postmus was a closeted homosexual who was masquerading in his public life as a rock-ribbed conservative. What has been acknowledged was that in this time frame he had an increasingly serious drug problem that he had acquired as a consequence of his sexual promiscuity, in particular his indulgence in an underground internet-based homosexual social network in which he had drug-fueled sexual encounters with men he had never met before on hundreds of occasions. Aleman at this point was seen as Postmus’ protégé and aide-de-camp. Whatever the bounds of their physical relationship, Aleman had an ideal window on Postmus at that time which prosecutors are seeking to exploit in their effort to prove key elements of the criminal case against four of Postmus’ former political associates.
According to a 29-count indictment handed down in May 2011, Jeff Burum, a Rancho Cucamonga-based developer, coordinated with one-time sheriff’s deputies union president Jim Erwin to first extort, through the use of blackmail, intimidation and threats, former supervisors Bill Postmus and Paul Biane to obtain a vote conferring a $102 million payout on the Colonies Partners to settle a lawsuit that company had brought against the county over flood control issues at the Colonies Partners’ residential and commercial subdivisions in northeastern Upland. Burum and Dan Richards were the two managing principals in the Colonies Partners, who over the course of the seven months after the lawsuit was settled provided separate $100,000 donations to political action committees controlled by Postmus, then-supervisor Paul Biane, Jim Erwin and Mark Kirk. Kirk was the chief-of-staff to then-supervisor Gary Ovitt, whose vote to settle the lawsuit was critical in the 3-to-2 decision to approve the settlement.
Postmus, who served as county assessor after he left the board of supervisors in January 2007, was criminally charged in February 2010 along with Erwin in a case predating but related to the allegations contained in the May 2011 indictment which is at trial now. Though Postmus initially maintained his innocence, he subsequently pleaded guilty to 14 separate felony political corruption-related charges, including conspiracy, bribery, conflicts of interests, and perjury. He turned state’s evidence and testified before the grand jury that indicted Erwin on charges superseding those leveled at him in 2010 and which also named Burum, Biane and Kirk. The indictment alleges the political action committee donations were thinly-veiled bribes made to Postmus, Biane and Kirk, the latter of whom prosecutors allege influenced Ovitt and delivered his vote in favor of the settlement.
Between May 1 and May 17, Postmus was on the witness stand 11 full or partial days during which under direct examination he offered up testimony that confirmed nearly every aspect of the prosecution’s narrative. Under questioning by San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Lewis Cope, he acknowledged traveling to China for a trade mission in September 2005 in the company of Burum during which the latter lobbied him with regard to reaching a settlement of the Colonies litigation. Postmus testified that beginning in January 2006, Burum had promised to support him in future political and business endeavors once the settlement was out of the way. Postmus testified as well that when he and Biane had failed to usher the rest of the board of supervisors into a settlement to Burum’s liking, Erwin, working on behalf of Burum and the Colonies Partners in the latter part of 2006, had threatened to expose elements of both Postmus’ and Biane’s personal lives in an effort to persuade them to support the settlement. Postmus testified he believed the $102 million paid out to the Colonies Partners was “ridiculously more” than the development company was due. The threats and promises of reward, he said, along with the desire to put the whole thing behind him, he testified, prompted the settlement. And after the settlement was in place, Postmus testified, the Colonies Partners had come through with two separate $50,000 donations to political action committees he had control over.
Under cross examination that began on May 3, however, one of Burum’s defense attorneys, Jennifer Keller, established that Postmus had engaged in a prodigious use of drugs, primarily methamphetamine, throughout the entire timeframe relevant to the events and overt acts alleged in the indictment, and that his recall of crucial events was no better than spotty. In this way, she cast doubt upon the accuracy of much of what Postmus said. Moreover, through a skillful framing of questions which exploited Postmus’ imperfect recall, she extracted from him answers that came close to recantations of his testimony on direct examination or which, at the least, offered a varying interpretation of facts that was favorable to the defense.
The prosecution thus found itself dependent upon Aleman to essentially recover the ground initially laid out by Postmus in his testimony under direct examination, and reinforce it from his perspective as one of Postmus’ closest associates who witnessed in large measure what Postmus witnessed and experienced during that time. Aleman’s value to the prosecution consists of his memory being unhampered by the drug use that so consumed Postmus. He can clarify the events that Postmus was able to only vaguely trace and fill in the gaps that mar the continuity of the account provided by his one-time boss. He is also in a position to add further detail to the circumstances in which Postmus, once the most powerful politician in San Bernardino County, was subject to blackmail because of the sordid secrets of his private life. This vulnerability, prosecutors allege, led to his capitulation in settling the lawsuit on terms that had been dictated to him by Burum and Erwin. Aleman is the witness who was closest to Postmus and able to testify as to that vulnerability.
Despite his value as a witness to the prosecution, Aleman simultaneously embodies elements that make him, just like Postmus, an extremely awkward tool in the prosecution’s array of weapons. Foremost among these is that Aleman is a convicted felon, whose crimes included destruction of county property, perjury and the alteration of public documents. That consideration alone makes his testimony problematic; worse still, is that the district attorney’s office cut a deal with him in which his sentencing for those crimes is to be meted out based upon his degree of cooperation with the prosecution in its pursuit of the case against Burum, Biane, Erwin and Kirk. Indeed, it was Aleman’s cooperation with the district attorney’s office that in large measure created the circumstances that led to Postmus’ guilty plea to the charges against him and his agreement to testify against the remaining four defendants.
On Monday morning California Supervising Deputy Attorney General Melissa Mandel, who is teaming with Cope in prosecuting the case, engaged in a set of questions aimed at illustrating for the jurors the full range of Aleman’s criminal culpability while he was associated with Postmus as a county employee. Knowing that attorneys for the defense are lying in wait to attack Aleman and his credibility when they begin their cross examination of him, Mandel sought to explore those issues in her own way, such that the two juries hearing the case are not introduced to that information by the defense, precluding leaving the jurors with the impression that the prosecution is giving them a selective sampling of the relevant facts that leaves out crucial details of the overall story bearing upon the accuracy of Aleman’s version of events. Two juries are hearing the case, one deciding the fate of Erwin and another passing judgment on Burum, Biane and Kirk. This is because some testimony that is inadmissible against Burum, Biane and Kirk is admissible against Erwin.
“You personally were involved in criminal activity while you were working for Mr. Postmus?” Mandel stated.
“Yes,” Aleman confirmed.
Aleman testified that at the end of 2006 and the last months of Bill Postmus’ tenure as county supervisor, during which he was chairman, Postmus took action to allow himself to engage in political patronage as county assessor. In November 2006, Postmus had been elected assessor, turning incumbent Don Williamson out of office.
“Do you remember discussing with Mr. Postmus while he was still a member of the board of supervisors creating more staff positions when he would go to the assessor’s office?” Mandel asked Aleman.
“He wanted to create a strong executive team, so he worked with Mr. Biane and Mr. Kirk to establish more executive staff positions in the assessor’s office,” Aleman said, including creating a second assistant assessor position. Aleman said Postmus simultaneously “created a communications shop” within the assessor’s office that entailed “multiple advocates… so he could bring over political surrogates and political allies into these paid positions.” These were, Aleman said, “political operatives. They had no assessment experience. They had no experience at land valuation or real estate assessment.” Those hired had been active in Postmus’ campaign, Aleman said, or had “worked on the campaigns of other politicians or were politicians or elected officials themselves.”
“Was he successful in creating paid positions for other politicians?” Mandel asked.
“Significantly,” responded Aleman.
Aleman said he personally reaped tremendous profit from this part of Postmus’ misuse of his elected authority.
Aleman said that Postmus originally arranged for him to be hired as the assessor’s office’s communications director. Postmus intended to hire as his two assistant assessors Erwin and Paula Nowicki, who had been the chief analyst in Postmus’ office when he was supervisor and was the wife of one of Postmus’s political associates, former Hesperia councilman/mayor and assistant Ontario municipal finance manager Dennis Nowicki. But when it turned out that Paula Nowicki had only a high school diploma, she was not provided with the position. Instead, Aleman said, he landed the position of assistant assessor at the age of 24 based on his having made an application to attend college and having been accepted as a student.
“I was matriculating toward a college degree but I didn’t have any experience in the area of real estate, none,” he testified.
Asked if he felt he was qualified to perform the duties of assistant assessor, Aleman said, “No.” Nevertheless, Postmus installed him into the position, which paid, he said, over $120,000 per year in salary plus benefits.
It was obvious to just about everyone, Aleman said, that he was a political appointee. Most of those serving under him, he said, had been “brought over as political favors, so I really had no authority over them, even though on paper I was their immediate supervisor. They knew Mr. Postmus controlled their ultimate fate.”
“Did you have difficulty holding people accountable because you were performing political work on county time?” Mandel asked.
“Yes,” Aleman said, saying that, essentially, his entire division performed little or no work at all and virtually no work relating to the assessor’s office’s intended function. “My concern was they weren’t coming into work at all,” he said.
“Were you aware it was illegal for Mr. Postmus to be conducting political activity on county time?” Mandel inquired.
“Yes,” said Aleman.
“Were you concerned this would be discovered?” Mandel asked.
“Yes,” said Aleman.
When Mandel asked Aleman “were you involved in covering up” illegal acts Postmus had engaged in, Aleman responded, “Yes.” That extended to, he said, “retrieving tools and prying into” one of Postmus’s county-issued computers that was already broken. “Mr. Postmus informed me to get rid of the hard drive,” Aleman said. Mandel asked why Postmus wanted the computer rendered completely inoperative. “He told me it was part of his deliberative process and no one was entitled to it,” Aleman said.
Aleman said he and Postmus “were using multiple devices and just being cagey about how we communicated.” Aleman said Postmus had instructed him to delete all of the email and text message exchanges that passed between the two of them.
Aleman said he had destroyed the computer “to protect my boss.” Mandel asked Aleman, “Did you know it was criminal [to wreck county property]? Did you sense that it was wrong?”
“It was wrong,” Aleman said.
Aleman also acknowledged that when he learned the grand jury was looking into the activity at the assessor’s office, he had arranged to have a department secretary alter meeting notes and minutes to make it appear that another of Postmus’ political appointees, Mike Richman, had done work that he had not done but which he was being paid for.
To Mandel’s questions, Aleman acknowledged he had been arrested on June 30, 2008, the same day the civil grand jury which he had lied to issued its report on the misuse of public assets at the assessor’s office for political purposes.
One aspect of Aleman’s and Postmus’ shared criminality that has a direct bearing on the case against the four current defendants pertains to the two political action committees – the Inland Empire PAC and the Conservatives For a Republican Majority PAC – that Postmus had set up in the spring of 2007, through which the prosecution says the bribes to Postmus in the form of political contributions from the Colonies Partners were laundered.
Aleman said he created the two political action committees by filing their incorporation documents in such a way that they were not connected to Postmus. The Inland Empire PAC’s articles of incorporation purported that it was headed and controlled by Dino DeFazio, who was a real estate developer who had a business partnership with Postmus. DeFazio had little to do with the actual function of the committee, although at one point when the committee’s bylaws were submitted for the second time to Betty Presley, who served as a treasurer on numerous committees in which Postmus and other Republican politicians in his circle were involved, DeFazio did sign it. Aleman acknowledged forging DeFazio’s signature on the previous document containing the committee’s bylaws. Aleman testified that he created an email address for DeFazio and used it to communicate with regard to the committee from his BlackBerry. He would send emails representing himself as DeFazio from the email address in DeFazio’s name to Presley with regard to requested disbursements from the Inland Empire PAC’s bank account.
“This is you posing as Mr. DeFazio?” Mandel asked Aleman with regard to several of those emails.
“Yes,” he said.
“With the intention of making Ms. Presley believe you were Mr. DeFazio?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
At Postmus’ direction, Aleman, in the guise of DeFazio, requested a $12,000 check be made out to the Biane for Supervisor campaign on March 1, 2007, he testified. Aleman testified that while the Inland Empire PAC received donations from sources other than the Colonies Partners, the Conservatives For A Republican Majority never received money beyond the single $50,000 contribution that came from the Colonies Partners.
The misrepresentation of himself as DeFazio had some complications and more than one pitfall.
Aleman testified under questioning by Mandel that he had mistakenly sent to Presley an email in which he was posing as DeFazio from his own email address, necessitating that he send her a follow up email from DeFazio’s email address in which he offered a rather improbable explanation that “Adam was helping me with my BlackBerry” to explain the mix-up.
Another time Aleman relayed an email that came from Postmus to Presley without altering it to make it appear as if it came from DeFazio. That email requested that checks be written to various candidates. Aleman sought to backtrack on that slip-up and he sent a second email to Presley. “These are me correcting the error because Dino DeFazio as the president or chairman of the committee needed to be the one to make the decision on who received the money,” Aleman testified.
Aleman also testified that while posing as DeFazio he had sent Presley an email authorizing Mike Richman, one of Postmus’ political appointees in the assessor’s office, to make disbursements at will from the committee’s account. “Mike Richman may conduct all the business for the IEPAC and request checks on my behalf. He is the executive director. –Dino,” the email stated.
Presley testified early in the trial. It is not clear to what extent she recognized that Postmus was using Aleman, DeFazio and Richman as cutouts to prevent Postmus from being linked to the Inland Empire PAC, nor the degree to which she understood that the Conservatives For A Republican Majority was also controlled by Postmus.
Aleman testified that Erwin had consulted with him about setting up the political action committee, Committee For Effective Government, he created in March 2007, which was used to receive the $100,000 donation provided to him by the Colonies Partners. While Erwin was not a public employee at the time he was working on behalf of the Colonies Partners in attempting to facilitate a settlement in 2006, by the time the Committee For Effective Government received the $100,000, Erwin was employed as assistant assessor, and prosecutors allege the donation was a kickback. Aleman testified that in the spring of 2007, despite Erwin’s level of sophistication based on his previous role as the president and executive director of the county deputy sheriffs’ union, he did not know how to go about setting up a political action committee. Aleman said he put Erwin into touch with Presley and walked him through the process. “We just discussed the name and how he was envisioning using the money and the benefits of running a committee with a large amount of cash in it, what was the nature of setting up a PAC, its formation and all the required documents, forms from the secretary of state and engaging Ms. Presley’s services as treasurer to run the PAC,” Aleman testified. Aleman said that Erwin set himself up as the treasurer, and Clyde Boyd, who was then a deputy district attorney, was the committee’s chairman.
He said he had “one brief conversation with Mr. Kirk about setting up a PAC,” but indicated Kirk did not need his assistance. “He was well versed in how to set up a committee,” Aleman said. “He knew Ms. Presley, as well.”
Prosecutors allege the $100,000 donation the Colonies Partners made to Kirk’s PAC, the Committee For Ethical Government, was a kickback given to reward him for delivering Ovitt’s vote for the settlement.
Mandel zeroed in on how the Colonies Partners’ donations to the political action committees were a way of laundering bribes to the ultimate recipients, i.e., Postmus, Biane, Kirk and Erwin, which the prosecution alleges were made in exchange for the vote to approve the $102 million settlement. She asked Aleman, “At some point did you learn that Mr. Kirk had taken money out of his PAC as a consultant fee?”
Aleman said he had and that “Mr. Postmus was furious. He felt it was going to blow the cover, and people would be able to trace the money to the Colonies Partners, that it would expose the link back to the Colonies Partners.”
Before the end of testimony on Monday morning, which is the only time the trial was in session this week, Aleman was questioned by Mandel with regard to his decision to cooperate with the district attorney’s office, which included surreptitiously audio-recording his phone and in-person conversations with Postmus.
Aleman said there had been publicity surrounding his arrest. He said that he had been represented by attorney Grover Porter. At some point, which he at first could not precisely fix, Aleman said Porter had approached the district attorney’s office about cooperating with them in the hope of having Aleman’s eventual sentence on the charges he faced reduced. After being provided with the communication that passed between Porter and the district attorney’s office, Aleman identified that as having occurred on October 14, 2008. He said that the district attorney’s office made no promises to him with regard to his cooperation, though there was the prospect that what he might accomplish by his cooperation is that his charges and consequent sentence might be reduced. The date of his first interrogation by the district attorney’s office investigators was November 1, 2008, at which San Bernardino County Supervising Deputy District Attorney Lewis Cope, Grover Porter, and district attorney’s office investigators Hollis Randles and Maury Weiss were initially present. Cope left early on in the encounter as did Porter somewhat later. The ground covered initially in the exchange had nothing to do with the Colonies case but was more closely related to issues in the assessor’s office, according to Aleman, who said he had come to the session with a chronology of events relating to political issues of which he was aware going back several years. Over time, the issues discussed, he said, were wide ranging. Mandel got into the record during her questioning of Aleman that it was not until page 69 on the transcript of the November 1, 2008 interrogation that there was any mention of a Colonies settlement-related issue. When that subject was broached, according to the transcript, Aleman uttered something to the effect of “That’s a whole other chapter.”
Aleman remembered the interrogation as lasting for “hours.” He said that before Cope left the interrogation he had simply told Aleman to “be completely honest and say everything you know.”
With previous witnesses, the defense has made much of the onerous and heavy-handed approach of the investigators. Mandel sought to put that issue to rest vis-à-vis Aleman. She asked him about how the investigators came across to him. He said they were “cordial” and “very nice.” The understanding was that prosecutors would be able to use any information he provided on the charges that were then outstanding against him but they would be inadmissible with regard to any other charges to be brought against him subsequently, Aleman said. Aleman said that while he was nervous about the interrogation initially, he was not fearful. With regard to Randles, Aleman noted that he had been one of the investigators who had investigated the criminal case previously brought against him. He said that Randles was “grouchy” at times and sometimes grew “flustered.”
Aleman said he did not feel intimidated by the investigators, but acknowledged they asked him to support his claims and that he had provided them with materials to do that as he was asked to do so. In this way, he testified, he had provided the investigators with a raft of emails, text messages and pin messages. He said that he had previously heeded Postmus’ instructions to delete such communications, but that at some point, “probably around my arrest,” he had discontinued making those deletions.
Aleman said that his second interrogation took place on November 11, 2008 and that it lasted “longer than nine hours.”
Mandel asked if Aleman had provided to the district attorney’s office or its investigators anything about “Postmus engineering the Colonies settlement” prior to those interrogations. Aleman said he had not and that the subject was brought out into the open at that point.
Mandel asked Aleman if he was allowed to consult with his attorney during those interrogations. He said that he was. Mandel asked why he had been so cooperative and Aleman said because Porter “trusted Mr. Cope.”
On occasion when Randles expressed skepticism over some of his claims, Aleman said he allayed that suspicion by directing him to the reporting of political contributions made to the California Secretary of State’s office or to check with Betty Presley, who had kept detailed records of the income and expenditures of various campaigns and PAC accounts.
Mandel further sought to preclude possible upcoming defense suggestions that Aleman had been browbeaten into accepting the investigators’ version of events.
“If they assumed things that you knew to be inaccurate, did you tell them they had things wrong?” she asked.
“Yes,” Aleman said. At that point Mandel drew out from Aleman another key element of the case, that relating to extortion and blackmail.
“Did you express concerns about being candid with them about what you knew about the Colonies case?” Mandel asked.
“I was very fearful of intimidation tactics,” Aleman said. “I saw the intimidation tactics Mr. Erwin had used against Mr. Biane and Mr. Postmus, and was fearful he would use those tactics against me.”
Aleman said he was aware that Burum had employed private investigators to stalk both Postmus and Biane in the context of civil litigation, that there were “private investigators parked in front of [Postmus’] home and talk about digging through trash. I was fearful about what they would do to me if they got more seriously involved into criminal activity.”
Aleman said that the intimidation and pressure Postmus was subjected to by Burum and Erwin was a cause of Postmus’ ultimate undoing. “It destroyed him,” Aleman said. “It wasn’t the only thing,” he said, alluding to the prodigious drug intake that accompanied Postmus’ toppling from the perch of near absolute power in San Bernardino County. “But I saw how it [the pressure] destroyed him. I saw how he spiraled down and out of control. It was a major contributing factor.”
By Mark Gutglueck