By Ruth Musser-Lopez and Mark Gutglueck
The prosecution in the Colonies Lawsuit Settlement Public Corruption Case this week managed to offer up one of the more generous servings of red meat in a trial that has for 24 weeks been relatively thin on damning evidence against the four defendants. Over the strenuous objections of defense attorneys, California Supervising Deputy Attorney General Melissa Mandel played 40 minutes of excerpts from the audio recording of what was the first interrogation of the primary informant in the case, Adam Aleman.
Those forty minutes of exchanges between Aleman and the investigators establishes that the essential gravitas of the case originated with Aleman, and controverts defense contentions the Aleman strove to manufacture a narrative matching the needs of a prosecution team seeking to persecute for political purposes four men who were once firmly ensconced within the pantheon of San Bernardino’s power elite.
Aleman is the sine qua non – the absolute linchpin – of the criminal case that hatched out of the November 2006 3-2 vote by the San Bernardino County Board of supervisors to confer $102 million on the Colonies Partners to settle a lawsuit that company had brought against the county and its flood control district in 2002 over storm water drainage issues at the Colonies at San Antonio residential and the Colonies Crossroads commercial subdivisions in northeast Upland.
Aleman had been an employee and confidant of Bill Postmus, who in 2006 was chairman of both the board of supervisors and the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee. Postmus had hired Aleman, then 21-years-old, into a paying position with the county’s GOP political apparatus in 2004 and then gave him another paying assignment working as a field representative in his supervisor’s office that same year. Less than a year later, while still employing Aleman as a field representative in his supervisor’s office, Postmus arranged to have the then-22-year-old become the executive director of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee. In 2006, Postmus ran for county assessor against an entrenched incumbent, Don Williamson. Using his extensive reach as the head of the county Republican Party, Postmus raised more than $3 million – still a San Bernardino County record for spending on a political campaign – and employed Aleman as his campaign manager. After Postmus managed to defeat Williamson in the November 2006 election and was sworn in as assessor, Aleman followed Postmus into the assessor’s office, landing one of two assistant assessor’s posts, a position which paid him $131,000 in salary and another $60,000 in benefits annually, despite his lack of a college degree. Aleman was just 23 years old at that point.
Aleman had no qualifications whatsoever for the job. Rather than involve himself in the actual function of the assessor’s office – determining the value of real estate and other assets within the county for taxing purposes – he spent a good portion of his time literally caring for Postmus, who, despite his rockribbed conservative Republican image, was a promiscuous homosexual with a voracious affinity for methamphetamine. On those days when Postmus had meetings or public appearances he could not avoid, Aleman, armed with a key to Postmus’ home, would let himself in, prevail upon Postmus’ liaison from the previous evening to take his leave, get Postmus to shower and dress, and then dispatch his boss to his destination with all of the pertinent documents or reference materials or drive him there himself. On most weekdays, Postmus did not show up at the assessor’s office at all. Aleman generally spent his time at the office supervising the 13 political appointees Postmus had hired to serve on the assessor’s office administrative staff, among whom were some of Postmus’ boyfriends and all of whom, like Aleman, lacked any practical knowledge or experience germane to the official activity of the assessor’s office. Aleman and the members of his crew who deigned to come to work would busy themselves with promoting the Republican Political Party, primarily making postings to the Red County and Flash Report blogs or assisting various GOP office holders or hopefuls with elements of their campaign preparations.
In 2008, all of this caught up with Aleman after the county’s civil grand jury and the district attorney’s office, which had been looking at the misuse of the assessor’s office and its facilities since shortly after Postmus assumed office the previous year, sent investigators into the assessor’s office and began subpoenaing documents. In a panic, Aleman destroyed or altered documents and when he was called in front of a grand jury in the spring of 2008, perjured himself with regard to what was going on in the office. On June 31, 2008 he was arrested and charged with six felony counts relating to destruction/vandalism of county property, alteration/destruction of public records and perjury. At the end of September 2008, Aleman’s attorney, Grover Porter, made an overture to Supervising San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Lewis Cope about Aleman cooperating with the prosecution in exchange for a reduction in charges and/or recommendations of leniency in sentencing. That dialogue intensified the following month and on November 1, 2008, a plea arrangement was codified and Aleman at that point underwent a nearly three-hour interrogation by district attorney’s office investigators in which he essentially kicked off what would eventually become the prosecution of Postmus, and by extension, the four current defendants.
Aleman told investigators that the $102 million lawsuit settlement with the Colonies Partners was a crooked deal, prior to which Colonies Partners managing principal Jeff Burum, working through former sheriff’s deputies’ union president Jim Erwin, first blackmailed Postmus and then-supervisor Paul Biane with threats of exposing to the public the former’s homosexuality and drug use and the latter’s personal financial difficulties, through “hit piece” campaign fliers mailed to county voters. Those mailers were withheld, Aleman said, and after the settlement was effectuated and the $102 million received by the Colonies Partners, between the months of March and the end of June 2007 the Colonies Partners kicked back four separate $100,000 bribe payments to Postmus, Biane, Erwin and Mark Kirk, all of which were disguised as donations to political action committees which the four created or controlled. Kirk was at that time the chief of staff to supervisor Gary Ovitt, who joined with Postmus and Biane in voting for the settlement, which was opposed by then-supervisor Dennis Hansberger and supervisor Josie Gonzales. Subsequently, Aleman assisted the investigators by surreptitiously audio recording more than 70 of his phone calls with Postmus as well as a number of his face-to-face conversations with his former patron, mentor and boss, as well as turning over to investigators over 1,000 text message exchanges he had with him.
From all of this and other statements Aleman made, prosecutors began assembling criminal cases against Postmus pertaining to his action as both assessor and supervisor, resulting in the serving of further search warrants at his office and home, at the latter of which drugs – methamphetamine and ecstacy – were found in January 2009, precipitating his resignation as assessor in March 2009. In July 2009 Postmus was charged with felony grand theft, misappropriation of public funds and perjury with regard to his tenure in the assessor’s office, together with drug possession and a misdemeanor charge of possession of drug paraphernalia. In the meantime, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office and the California Attorney General’s Office were assembling a criminal filing, which they made in February 2010, charging Postmus and Erwin with involvement in a complex conspiracy, extortion, and bribery scheme related to the settlement of the Colonies Partners lawsuit against the county. Unnamed in that complaint were five unindicted co-conspirators described as Does One through Five. Based on information contained in the complaint and the descriptions of the charges and the alleged overt acts, Burum; his co-managing principal in the Colonies Partners, Dan Richards; Patrick O’Reilly, a public relations consultant who had worked with the Colonies Partners during its effort to reach the lawsuit settlement; Biane; and Kirk could be discerned as the five Does. Both Postmus and Erwin entered not guilty pleas. Thirteen months later, drained of financial resources and at a psychological nadir following further drug arrests, Postmus in March 2011 entered guilty pleas to 14 felony charges pertaining to both the scandal in the assessor’s office and the entirety of the charges leveled against him in the Colonies lawsuit settlement case. He turned state’s evidence, and in April 2011 went before a specially impaneled criminal grand jury formed to look into the Colonies lawsuit settlement matter. He was the primary witness in the troika of star witnesses that included Aleman and Matt Brown, Biane’s chief of staff who had created the political action committee, San Bernardino County Young Republicans, through which prosecutors alleged the $100,000 bribe to Biane, disguised in the form of a political contribution, had been laundered. In his testimony before the grand jury, Postmus essentially corroborated the narrative of events that Aleman had provided investigators. A refined version of that narrative became the indictment that the grand jury returned against Burum, Biane, Erwin and Kirk the following month, with the charges in the indictment against Erwin superseding the criminal charges filed against him the previous year.
The case went to trial on January 4 of this year. After opening statements, the prosecutors’ case bogged down as, in setting the backdrop for the overt events which the prosecutors maintain entailed bribery, they became enmired in the minutiae of the underlying civil litigation between the Colones Partners and the county. The prosecution sputtered, as the defense to a considerable degree sought to establish that the Colonies Partners’ lawsuit had merit because the county had obstructed the Colonies Partners in moving ahead with its developmental agenda, all the while insinuating into this a suggestion that the efforts to induce the members of the board of supervisors to settle the case were in some measure justified.
It was not until May 1, three days short of four months into the trial, that the prosecution truly got on track. The first two-and-half hours of Supervising San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Lewis Cope’s direct examination of Bill Postmus when he took the stand on that day provided the most riveting, dynamic and dramatic testimony of the trial as Postmus provided an unvarnished account of how he had first familiarized himself with Burum during a trade mission to China in September 2005 during which Burum befriended and lobbied him to settle the lawsuit. He reiterated the previous testimony by numerous witnesses who said he essentially commandeered from Paul Biane the role of the major champion for forging a settlement of the civil suit. Burum provided him with an assurance of future financial support in his political endeavors, Postmus testified, as well as in any business ventures he might undertake if he left political life, and that they discussed Burum putting him on the board of a nonprofit corporation Burum had founded, but only if the litigation was settled first. Postmus testified that in the latter half of 2006, Erwin, working on behalf of Burum, had threatened to expose his homosexuality and Paul Biane’s financial travails to get them to support the settlement. Postmus said he considered the $102 million paid out to the Colonies Partners to be “ridiculously more” than the development company was due as a consequence of the litigation, but that the threats and promises of reward and the desire to put the whole thing behind him pushed him into the settlement.
After the settlement was effectuated, Postmus testified, the Colonies Partners came through with two separate $50,000 donations to the political action committees he had control over, the Inland Empire PAC and Conservatives for a Republican Majority PAC.
Under cross examination, defense attorneys, particularly Jennifer Keller, one of the attorneys representing Burum, demonstrated that nearly a decade of escalating methamphetamine use had wreaked havoc with Postmus’ memory and left him in a highly suggestible state in which he was prone to accepting the representations of those he was engaged with at any given time, such that he would in large measure provide a version of events that adhered as much to the the promptings of his questioner as the actual circumstance and activity he was being called upon to recollect. Keller achieved a particularly effective illustration of this by reposing recontexted versions of the questions Cope had asked during his direct examination of Postmus to elicit answers that were less damaging to Burum and Erwin and approached being a recantation of his previous testimony.
The prosecution had Aleman immediately follow Postmus to the witness stand, using him to reinforce and confirm those elements of Postmus’ testimony that had been so damaging to the defendants. Aleman delivered, providing an account that not only mirrored the one provided by Postmus, but enlarged upon it and augmented it with detail that was every bit as problematic for the defendants, as his recollection was not hampered by the same impediments that clouded Postmus’ memory. He was able to illustrate the manipulation and pressure to which his one-time boss had been subjected. During his cross examination, the defense made a frontal attack on his character and criminality, dwelling at length upon his own culpability in the assessor’s office scandal, noting the easy dexterity with which he turned on Postmus, who had favored him with trust, privilege advancement and promotion, and essentially conspired with the district attorney’s office investigators to have his benefactor prosecuted on charges serious enough to send him to prison for more than a decade. Given that Aleman was desperate enough to betray his patron, the defense attorneys propounded that his desperation would drive him to fabricate a case against Burum, Erwin, Biane and Kirk, with whom he had no close affiliation, regard or allegiance. In particular, defense attorneys seized on one of the statements made to Aleman by investigator Hollis Randles during the initial interrogation session with the district attorney’s office investigators on November 1, 2008. “It is very crucial to us and should be important to you and that’s why we’re here,” Randles said. “We need to discuss what occurred at the negotiations and what happened between Jeff Burum and Mr. Postmus and Mr. Biane and what part that played in this settlement of this lawsuit with the Colonies.” This was, the defense suggested, Randles essentially telling Aleman that he could avoid a harsh sentence for his crimes if he provided statements implicating the others in a criminal conspiracy relating to the Colonies lawsuit settlement. Aleman took that as his cue, according to the defense, to use his knowledge of the circumstance to weave a plausible but false tale implicating Burum and Erwin as manipulative extortionists, represent Burum as providing bribes, painting Postmus and Biane as willing recipients of those bribes after they had acceded to the blackmail to make their vote in favor of the settlement and depicting Kirk as willing to cash in on his ability to manipulate Ovitt to vote in accordance with the Colonies Partners’ interests.
Throughout the trial, defense attorneys have demonstrated a pattern of liberally augmenting their questioning of the witnesses with the display of exhibits referenced in the questioning and which are provided to witnesses to examine or refresh their memories. These exhibits – in most cases consisting of documents, communications in the form of letters, emails or texts, transcripts of interviews, interrogations, previous testimony or surreptitiously recorded conversations, and to a lesser extent, charts or maps – have often been displayed on the courtroom’s overhead visual display screens. In some instances, the defense has also relied on playing audio clips of interrogations/interviews carried out by investigators, as well as recorded conversations. While the prosecution has also exhibited such visual or sound evidence consequent to the questioning of witnesses, it has done so relatively sparingly and has been far less energetic in that regard, a practice which has on a number of occasions left courtroom observers, and quite possibly the jury, unclear as to the context, meaning and significance of the testimony. One notable exception to this was the prosecution’s playing, during the direct examination of district attorney’s office investigator Robert Schreiber, of an audio recording Schreiber made of his dialogue with Erwin on the morning of January 15, 2009 when a crew of district attorney’s office investigators served a search warrant at Erwin’s house. That recording was heard by only one of the two juries hearing the case – that one impaneled to decide Erwin’s fate – while the jury hearing the case against Burum, Biane and Kirk – was absent from the courtroom. That is because statements made by Erwin are admissible evidence against him but are not admissible against the other defendants, given their Sixth Amendment right to confront any witness against them and the presumption that Erwin will insist on his Fifth Amendment right not to testify.
During redirect examination of Aleman this week, California Supervising Deputy Attorney Melissa Mandel undertook to play, this time with both juries present, another extensive audio recording, an approximately 40-minute excerpt of the interrogation of Aleman carried out on November 1, 2008, the day Aleman entered into his plea agreement with prosecutors. The interrogation, which lasted somewhere between two-and-a-half to three hours, was the first such session he would undergo with the investigators pursuant to that plea deal. Mandel was not able to play the recording until she had overcome the strenuous objections of defense attorneys, which were made first in open court outside the presence of the jurors and then took place during an extended sidebar discussion involving Judge Michael Smith, the attorneys for the prosecution and the defense and the court reporter, all of which was carried out in hushed tones outside the earshot of the observers in the courtroom. Ultimately, Judge Smith ruled the juries could hear the recording. For a number of reasons, that recording came across as one of the more compelling displays by the prosecution throughout the trial.
A primary purpose in Mandel’s playing of the tape was to convincingly refute defense suggestions that Aleman had gravitated to his extortion and bribery allegations with regard to the Colonies lawsuit settlement after he was alerted by investigator Hollis Randles that the district attorney’s office was fixated on that matter and that he had accommodated the investigators by weaving from whole cloth a lurid tale of greed, graft and corruption.
Impacting upon Aleman’s credibility overall is the consideration that he was interrogated by investigators and testified before a grand jury before he was criminally charged and he was interrogated by investigators and testified before a grand jury after he was criminally charged and had pleaded guilty. The charges upon which he is convicted and his own admissions establish he was not truthful in his pre-arrest and pre-conviction statements to investigators and grand jury testimony. The defense has suggested that his acknowledged lies and perjury prior to his arrest carried over to and has tainted his statements and testimony since his attorney, Grover Porter, forged a plea deal with prosecutors.
Mandel sought to ameliorate this by asking him “Before cooperating and after cooperating, did you notice a change in [your] demeanor?”
“Yes,” Aleman said. “I made a decision [after his plea deal was in place] to be 100 percent honest, I put my guard down. There was nothing for me to gain by being dishonest, whatsoever.”
Mandel asked about the lying and misrepresentations he had engaged in when he was interrogated by the district attorney’s office investigators in March 2008 and when he went before the civil grand jury later in the spring of 2008.
“I was in survival mode for my job and protecting Mr. Postmus and the political apparatus that we controlled,” he said.
After Judge Smith cautioned the jury that they should not consider statements or questions asked by the investigators to be evidence, the recording was played. In it, Aleman is heard raising the subject of the Colonies lawsuit on his own. In discussing how he had gotten to the position of trust and responsibility with Postmus, Aleman said, “Well, Bill hired me to work for the Republican Party.” As he is moving along these lines, Aleman spontaneously offers, that he “never got into what caused the fall of Bill” before going on to say, “The Colonies lawsuit was going on with Bill. That is a whole other chapter. I can go to that.”
In laying out the background, Aleman said, “The Colonies Partners sued the county.”
Aleman said that the Colonies Partners was headed by Jeff Burum and Dan Richards who were both powerful figures in the county and that they were intent on getting the settlement and were naturally focused on Postmus who was the chairman of the board of supervisors.
“Bill was very involved,” Aleman said. Aleman said the pressure Postmus was under with regard to the settlement was getting to him. “Bill started going downhill,” Aleman said. “It was the stress of the Colonies settlement.” Aleman then related that Postmus had broken down during or at the end of a mediation session on the lawsuit held in Los Angeles in March 2006. He was due to make a speech at the annual County-City conference in Lake Arrowhead that weekend, but had gone on a methamphetamine-fueled sexual bender with a Hispanic man in his hotel room next to where the mediation had taken place and could not be located. Postmus’ chief of staff, Brad Mitzelfelt, dispatched one of the office’s employees, John Richardson, to retrieve Postmus and get him to Lake Arrowhead on time for the scheduled speech. Richardson was unable to locate his boss however, and had resorted to simply waiting in the lobby of the hotel in the hopes of encountering Postmus. Aleman said after he fielded a call from Mitzelfelt he relieved Richardson who had been at that point waiting for some ten hours for Postmus to show up, and then drove to the hotel in Los Angeles. There, Aleman said, he used the stratagem of checking into the hotel as member of Postmus staff, asking in so doing for the room next to Postmus.’ Aleman then knocked on Postmus’ door and when it was answered by Postmus’ companion, who, Aleman said, was completely unclothed, he tore past him and confronted Postmus, sitting in his underwear on the room’s bed, “dazed out of his mind,” Aleman told the investigators. He said he told Postmus, “Bill, you have to give this speech.” Postmus was in an utter state of confusion, Aleman told the investigators. He said he collected up Postmus’ belongings and then got Postmus to take his leave of the hotel. “He was high out of his mind,” Aleman said. “The Hispanic guy left. I got Bill out of there.”
Leaving his own vehicle there, Aleman said, he drove with Postmus’ in Postmus’ car to Lake Arrowhead at 3 a.m. so the supervisor could make his speech later in the morning. “We drove his county car back,” Aleman said.
By 2006, while he was engaged in the Colonies settlement negotiations, Postmus was, Aleman said, “75 percent there and 25 percent high all the time. The board ultimately settled on the lawsuit. Bill was very involved. Jeff Burum got what he wanted. Bill’s mission was complex.”
In the recorded interrogation, investigator Morey Weiss asked Aleman, “What exactly is Bill Postmus concerned about that we will learn about the Colonies?”
Aleman responded, “How it got done. How he engineered the settlement.”
Aleman told the investigators about the March 25, 2005 meeting at Biane’s supervisor’s office inside the West Valley Courthouse in Rancho Cucamonga that has been a recurrent focus of the criminal trial. During that meeting, Burum and Richards, together with their attorneys Heidi Timken and Scott Sommer, discussed with Postmus and Biane, county counsel Mitch Norton and two of the county’s outside attorneys, Paul Watford and Steve Kristovich, the implication of a recent tentative decision by the appellate court that recognized the county had easements on the Colonies property. Also present at the meeting was former state senator Jim Brulte, who was working as a consultant with the Colonies Partners to help them effectuate the lawsuit settlement. Postmus at some point dismissed all of the attorneys from the room. Those remaining – Burum, Richards, Brulte, Biane and Postmus – then set about hashing out an agreement to end the litigation in exchange for the county giving the Colonies Partners $22 million in cash and surplus flood control property in Rancho Cucamonga valued at $55.5 million.
Aleman had come to the meeting held in Rancho Cucamonga to deliver paperwork to Postmus. Aleman remembered “the Colonies [Burum and Richards], Paul Biane, Jim Brulte and Bill” being there. “All the attorneys were squabbling outside because Bill had dismissed them,” Aleman said. “That was in Paul Biane’s office.”
At that point in the interrogation, Aleman provided information that throughout the trial has not been previously referenced. He indicated that in addition to being paid by the Colonies Partners, Brulte was on the county payroll as well. “Bill was frustrated with him because he was getting paid $24,900 to help with the Colonies settlement,” Aleman said. “He was a consultant for county and a consultant for the Colonies [Partners] at the same time.”
County spokesperson David Wert previously told the Sentinel that Brulte was not working as a consultant for the county at that time.
Aleman told the investigators at the November 1, 2008 interrogation that Bill Postmus told him Brulte was being paid by the county, under a provision of county policy allowing the county’s top administrator, then known as the county administrative officer and subsequently titled the county chief executive officer, to enter into a contract with a vendor or service provider without the approval of the board of supervisors on contracts for less than $25,000. “It was frustrating to Bill,” Aleman said. “Bill said he [Brulte] was supposed to get 1 percent of the agreement on the settlement. That was upsetting to Bill because it was a large sum of money and he thought Brulte was playing both sides. Jim was close to Richards and Burum.”
According to Aleman, Erwin was led to believe he, too, would receive 1 percent of the settlement, but Burum and Richards crossed him up. “Jim was very pissed,” Aleman was heard telling the investigators. “Jim was close to Richards and Burum. He was supposed to get 1 percent. They gave him a gold Rolex watch instead of the 1 percent” along with, Aleman said, “a trip on Jeff Burum’s private plane.”
In addition to Brulte, public relations consultant Patrick O’Reilly was straddling, to his own financial benefit, the interests of the county and the interests of the Colonies Partners, Aleman said. O’Reilly was being paid $25,000 per month by the Colonies Partners, Aleman said. At the same time, Aleman said, O’Reilly had a $200,000 contract with the county. “He got a public contract,” Aleman said, which was to “help with how to make Bill more likeable.” Aleman said he worked with O’Reilly all the way up to the assessor’s election and that “My job was to produce two articles a month… an email was sent out.” Aleman said O’Reilly’s services came into play when as a result of the “Colonies thing, the press started bashing on Bill. O’Reilly was paid by the county and Colonies and for that public message. Brad Mitzelfelt [Postmus’ chief of staff] met with him on multiple occasions to craft the county’s message.” In this way, Aleman said, O’Reilly was engaged in “what the county’s message would be and the Colonies’ in terms of messages and communications to help put Bill in a better light.”
In that first interrogation, Aleman also held forth on the September 2005 trade mission trip to China during which prosecutors now allege Burum initiated his focus on building Postmus into the architect or engineer of the lawsuit settlement.
“Bill decided to go to China,” Aleman told the investigators. “He went with Jeff Burum. It was and eye opening experience for Bill. Brulte went on that trip, too.” Aleman called it “a friendship conference with the State Assembly. State officials went. It was paid for by Jeff Burum,” Aleman said.
Aleman said that as the Colonies lawsuit dragged out, “Jim Erwin started inserting himself in the situation. Jim Erwin could really put political pressure on elected officials. Bill was sliding down the path of drugs, so Jim Erwin was there to whip Bill into shape.”
At some time prior to the settlement materializing, Aleman told the investigators, “Bill was set up at the Sheraton and Jeff Burum was at the Double Tree [hotels in Ontario].”
Aleman’s description appears to line up with earlier testimony about mediation sessions involving former California Supreme Court Justice Edward Panelli, which took place on October 19 and November 1, 2006.
Aleman was there, apparently, to facilitate an effort just ahead of the mediation session to work out the terms of an agreement that Postmus could bring forward during the mediation.
“I took a printer, and printed things off,” Aleman said. Aleman described a negotiating arrangement that avoided having Postmus and Burum together in the same room working out those terms to avoid the appearance that Postmus was in collusion with the Colonies Partners on arriving at a settlement. “Patrick O’Reily would go from the Double Tree to the Denny’s [a restaurant near both of the hotels] or go from the Sheraton lobby,” Aleman said. “Patrick O’Reilly acted on the part of Colonies and receiving [input] from Burum and he would then meet with Jim Erwin who represented Bill. They did not meet together one on one,” Aleman said.
Aleman said Erwin was pressuring Postmus, telling him, “You need to get this done, Bill.”
Meanwhile, Aleman said, “Jeff Burum was making things miserable for Bill” through the use of “private eyes.”
At this point in the interrogation, Aleman broached an issue that Mandel used to offset the defense suggestion that Randles had instructed Aleman to concoct a false narrative implicating the defendants with his statements, “It is very crucial to us and should be important to you and that’s why we’re here. We need to discuss what occurred at the negotiations and what happened between Jeff Burum and Mr. Postmus and Mr. Biane and what part that played in this settlement of this lawsuit with the Colonies.”
Before the recording was played, Mandel brought out that the day of the November 1, 2008 interrogation was a Saturday. Aleman and his attorney had gone to the district attorney’s office that day to meet with Cope, Randles and Weiss to avoid being seen, Mandel said, as Monday through Friday Aleman ran the risk of being seen entering the building. Thus, Mandel suggested, Randles’ words “that’s why we’re here” alluded to them being there on a Saturday, as a precaution against anyone learning that Aleman was cooperating with the district attorney’s office.
Following his reference to the “private eyes” employed by Burum, Aleman said, “This is why I get really nervous, because Burum has a lot of influence in the county.”
To illustrate his point, Aleman said that earlier in that week, the last several days of October 2008, Postmus had begun calling him. When Aleman had phone contact with Postmus on Thursday, October 30, 2008, two days before the interrogation that was at that moment taking place, Postmus told him that Burum knew that Aleman was scheduled to meet with members of the district attorney’s office.
“Bill said ‘Jeff Burum said you are going to be meeting with the DA.’” Aleman said.
Aleman said that he believed Burum would “kill me” if he found out he was talking to district attorney’s office investigators.
Randles attempted to reassure Aleman.
“He [Ramos] did not know that I was meeting with you today,” Randles said.
Aleman was skeptical. “How do I know what I am saying here is not going to trickle back to Mr. Burum?” Aleman asked. “He had an army [of private investigators] camped outside Bill’s house.”
When the investigators again sought to reassure Aleman that word of his cooperation was not going to make its way back to Burum, Aleman said, “My concern is, and I may seek an attorney, but I know that Jeff Burum is a personal friend of the DA.”
When Randles asked how Aleman knew that, Aleman responded, “I know it is a fact. I met with Mike Ramos and Jeff Burum.”
The investigators downplayed the contact between Burum and the district attorney, saying that Ramos has a lot of associates and that Burum associated with all kinds of elected officials.
“How did you get information that Jeff Burum knew you were here?” Randles asked. “Bill told me about it,” Aleman said. “Bill is all ‘Hey it is my understanding that you are meeting with the DA to discuss things.’ Bill was frantically trying to get hold of me. That is why I got nervous and upset. He got a hold of me on Thursday. He said, ‘If you meet with the DA, hang tough. Don’t let them intimidate you. We’ll be able to get you taken care of. That is all Bill said.”
At that point, Randles grew concerned that Aleman had given too much away by acknowledging his attorney, Grover Porter, had opened up a dialogue with the district attorney’s office.
“No one knows that I am talking to you,” Aleman said. “I don’t want Bill to know. He’ll tell everyone. He has such a big mouth. This is what I told him: ‘I know that Grover is meeting with them. They want to play hard ball. “Bill is like, ‘BS, Mike Ramos is not going to want this.’ The message I am giving everyone is they want to take this to trial.”
Aleman further evinced knowledge during the November 1, 2008 interrogation of the Colonies Partners’ donations to the various political action committees.
Aleman said that Erwin was supposed to get 1 percent of the settlement but that had not been forthcoming, and that he instead received a $100,000 donation to his political action committee.
“He told me he was upset because he did not get the 1 percent,” Aleman said. In the November 1, 2008 interrogation, Aleman misidentified the name of Erwin’s PAC as “the Committee Against Corruption.” It was actually called the Committee for Effective Government.
Burum, Aleman said, “gave Jim Erwin $100,000. He gave Bill $100,000.” In his statement to the investigators, Aleman conflated the two political action committees Postmus controlled, the Inland Empire PAC and the Conservatives for a Republican Majority PAC, both of which received $50,000 each, into one, which he identified as the Inland Empire PAC, which he said received $100,000.
As an elected official, Postmus could not have control over a political action committee, Aleman said, so the Inland Empire PAC was ostensibly put under the control of Postmus’ business associate Dino DeFazio and his political associate Mike Richman.
Aleman also identified Mark Kirk as a recipient, through his political action committee, of $100,000 from the Colonies Partners.
Aleman said that Gary Ovitt was lined up to support the settlement, but that Kirk had a relationship with Burum and that Kirk and Postmus were competing to convince Burum that each was responsible for delivering Ovitt’s vote in favor of the Colonies lawsuit settlement. “Mark Kirk and Bill were tugging at who could deliver this for Burum,” Aleman said, “so Mark Kirk got $100,000, too.”
And, Aleman said, the Colonies Partners delivered $100,000 to Matt Brown, Biane’s chief of staff in the form of a donation to his political action committee, the San Bernardino County Young Republicans.
“Bill was always expecting this $100,000,” Aleman said. “He couldn’t take anything from it, but he could travel, eat, or direct it to others for other races.”
Kirk, Aleman said, was the only recipient of the money who did anything overtly “shady” with the money, withdrawing $10,000 from the political action committee he had created to accept the donation, The Committee for Ethical Government, “within three days” of having received it, Aleman said.
During that November 1, 2008 interrogation, Aleman explicitly raised the issue of extortion.
“They [Burum and Erwin] were holding, they had a gun to both Paul Biane’s and Bill’s head,” said Aleman. “That was Jim Erwin’s thing because they had investigators on Bill, and Jim would say, ‘Hey, they’re looking at you,’ you know, ‘Bill, you know how cops are. They have people following you.’ Jim was antagonizing Bill in that way.”
Aleman went on to say that Erwin and Burum had used the then-ongoing campaign for Measure P, which called for upping supervisors’ pay from $99,000 to $151,000 per year and was sponsored by Paul Biane, as a means of blackmailing Biane. “Paul Biane wanted to get a pay raise, Measure P,” said Aleman. “Who contributed money against Measure P? The Colonies. According to Jim Erwin, they had these records where Paul could not make his car payments, pay his bills. The Colonies were going to use it. Jim Erwin went to lunch with Bill and said, ‘Come on.’ He showed what they had on Paul. That got Paul to settle.”
Aleman said that the Colonies Partners and the sheriff’s deputies union, the Safety Employees Benefit Association (SEBA), over which Erwin then had control, were on the brink of coordinating the attack. Aleman said he saw copies of hit piece mailers to that effect on Erwin’s computer at SEBA headquarters.
“The Colonies gave SEBA money,” Aleman said. “There was a lot of money from Jeff Burum and the Colonies partners.” Aleman said Erwin told him, “How do you go wrong washing money through a cops’ organization?”
Aleman said Erwin was “prepared to release these flyers” as a “way to pressure them to settle.”
Ultimately, Aleman said, the hard-edged hit pieces were withheld. “The dirty dirty ones did not get released,” he said.
The roughly 40-minute recording proved to be as densely-packed with material, minute-by-minute, as any of the previous expositions by the prosecution, with the lone exception of the first hours of testimony provided by Postmus on May 1. Beyond the damage the 40 minute recording inflicted outright on Burum and Erwin, it carried with it the effect of dismantling the bulwark the defense had built against Aleman’s testimony on direct examination, that is, the theory that Aleman had crafted a patently false tail of wrongdoing by some of the county’s most powerful personages after being directed to do so by unethical investigators in order to ensure he would be given a lenient sentence, and that his narrative was constructed along the lines of information suggested to him by those investigators. The recording of the interrogation illustrated the lion’s share of the details in the narrative of guilt now propounded by the prosecution followed the version of events Aleman described, more or less, in that first interrogation rather than a storyline forced upon him by the investigators. In short, the account Aleman provided was his own, accurate or not.
Finding themselves back at square one, the defense attorneys reinitiated on re-cross examination an attack on Aleman and his credibility.
Jennifer Keller, Burum’s attorney, locked onto a possible $3,314.40 embezzlement Aleman had engaged in while he was still employed by the county when he deposited into his own personal account with Washington Mutual Bank a check for that amount as reimbursement for airfare to and from China related to a 2006 junket he and Postmus took. Keller demonstrated that Aleman had not paid for the airline ticket. Rather, the fare was charged against the American Express charge card that had been issued to Aleman as the manager of Postmus’ campaign for assessor. “You never reimbursed the campaign for this $3,314.40, did you?” asked Keller, who implied as well that there was no listing of such on the Form 460 finance reporting document for Postmus’ assessor’s campaign. This trapped Aleman into admitting he had either embezzled the money or had engaged in election campaign finance reporting fraud as the manager of the Postmus for Assessor campaign.
Aleman sought to get out from underneath the question by taking the middle ground, saying he could not recall. Keller characterized that as “another lie.”
Keller then took issue with Aleman’s statement to investigators that he was concerned Burum would have him killed for talking to them.
“Were you afraid Mr. Burum might kill you if you were talking to the DA’s office?”
Aleman tried to duck the question and then Keller asked him if the DA’s office had taken steps to protect him. He said it had not.
“Has anyone ever tried to kill you?” Keller asked.
Aleman conceded that had not occurred but said “I have suspected hacking.”
“We all get hacked,” said Keller, pressing beyond that to remind Aleman that he had told investigators that Burum would kill him.
Aleman said that what he meant was Burum had considerable “political reach at that time. I said that I was very fearful because of his connection to various political figures, including the district attorney himself.”
On Wednesday morning, June 14, Raj Maline, Erwin’s attorney, began his re-cross examination of Aleman. An issue he took up was the use of the assessor’s office’s administrative division for political purposes while Aleman was assistant assessor. The previous day Aleman had testified while under questioning by Mandel, that “Mr. Erwin had been working on a blog that was critical of Mr. Hansberger” and mentioned the dennishansberger.com site. When Mandel asked him if it was his understanding that Mr. Erwin was also involved in using the assessor’s office for political purposes, he answered “yes” and said that Erwin would come to him when he was working on political activities.
Maline managed to get Aleman to acknowledge that he and Postmus had worked in conjunction with William Fanning, who made a practice of purchasing domain names based upon elected officials and likely political candidates. This enterprise would churn a profit, or attempt to, in any of several ways. One was holding those domain names hostage and then selling them to the office holder or would-be politician at an exorbitant rate. Another was to cooperate with the office holder or candidate by setting up a web page to promote that politician or his candidacy, getting paid for doing so. Yet another was to work with the politician or office holder’s opposition to create a web site damaging to the politician and get paid by the opponent for that work. Maline attempted to ask about Aleman’s connection to legal action supervisor Dennis Hansberger had taken in September of 2007 seeking to get an injunction against the use of the domain name dennishansberger.com. Aleman managed to confound Maline by saying he had no recollection of the legal action Hansberger had taken. He did though, as he has done previously, work into his response information calculatedly damaging to Maline’s client, in this case noting that Erwin, who at that time held the other assistant assessor’s post, was himself involved in the political activity relating to dennishansberger.com as part of an effort to promote the supervisorial candidacy of Neil Derry.
This is at a variance with testimony Maline extracted from previous witnesses to suggest Erwin, whose assistant assessor’s assignment extended to that portion of the office involved in operations, i.e., the actual assessing of property for tax purposes, had been a whistleblower with regard to the political activity in the assessor’s office. Erwin resigned from his position in October 2007 and the following month went to the district attorney’s office with complaints about the political activity in the administrative division.
Remaining true to the established pattern of the defense making more thorough and imaginative use of the technical resources available in a modern courtroom than has the prosecution, Maline made an effort to reverse the gains Mandel had achieved with the playing of the 40-minute audio tape excerpt by utilizing the court’s overhead visual projectors to play a video of portions of the same November 1, 2008 interrogation.
Maline noted, as had Keller before him, that the first hour-and-a-half of the interrogation dealt with issues wholly separate and aside from the Colonies lawsuit settlement. That was because, Aleman said, he was involved in the assessor’s office scandal and he was for the most part moving through the information he had in a chronological fashion.
Maintaining his animated and intense approach, Maline then casually slipped in a set of questions to set up a display he and the other defense attorneys project might recapture the ground lost to Mandel on the previous day. Maline noted that well into the interrogation, there had been a break in the session. Upon returning to the interrogation room, investigator Morey Weiss broached with Aleman the subject of blackmail. Maline asked what the investigators meant by that. Aleman responded that he could not peer into their minds. “They started asking about blackmailing,” Maline said. “They never asked about it before. Didn’t that seem kind of strange?”
“No,” Aleman responded.
Maline then rolled a portion of the video of the November 1, 2008 interrogation. In that excerpt, the positions at the table where Aleman and his lawyer, Grover Porter, were sitting previously are empty, indicating, as was suggested by Maline with his previous questions, that Aleman and his attorney have yet to return from the break. Off camera, but audible, are Randles, who goes by the nickname “Bud,” rather than his first name Hollis, and Weiss.
“Bud, basically we just, go at it with this intimidation factor and uh, all this that uh, he’s – he’s trying to say but not saying,” Weiss can be heard saying.
“And get what?” Randles responded.
“Just that it was Bill being blackmailed by them for the settlement,” said Weiss.
“Okay, that’s good,” said Randles.
“Yeah,” said Weiss.
Upon returning to the room, after Porter mentions that he will need to leave at some point because of another engagement, the questioning of Aleman resumes, with Weiss asking, “And you, you talked about this intimidation factor and, and things of that nature with Bill and that they’ve got private investigators sitting on Bill at all, you know, things – – do you think anybody was holding something – – you know, I mean – – it sounds to me like it may have been common knowledge amongst all these people about Bill’s lifestyle.”
Thus, Maline suggested, Aleman was being prompted in the direction he was expected to take by the investigators.
By Wednesday of this week, both the prosecution and defense were through with Aleman, who had spent more time on the witness stand than any other witness, including Postmus. Dennis Wagner, the interim county counsel who was the county’s top in-house lawyer from May 2006 to November 7, 2006 as the legal battle over the Colonies project was reaching its acrimonious crescendo, followed him to the stand.
Already, both juries hearing the case have heard extensive testimony from several of the lawyers who were involved in defending the county against the Colonies Partners’ lawsuit, both those working for the county’s stable of staff attorneys, known as the office of county counsel, or ones in private practice retained by the county. Wagner is valuable to the prosecution from two perspectives. Wagner had been a member of county counsel as a line attorney from 1994 to 2004, at which point he went into private practice. In 2006, however, he was prevailed upon to come back to the county by Postmus, who had been a client of another member of Wagner’s firm, Tristan Pelayes. Postmus at that time was militating in favor of a settlement of the Colonies lawsuit, and was displeased with what he considered the resistance of the county’s lawyers in working toward that end. The county counsel immediately preceding Wagner’s appointment, Ron Reitz, had resigned over his unwillingness to comply with Postmus’ increasingly surly demands that the settlement be effectuated. In hiring Wagner, which he did unilaterally in his capacity as board of supervisors chairman pursuant to a later confirmation vote by the full board, Postmus had the expectation that Wagner would usher the county’s legal team toward the acceptance of a settlement.
Wagner, however, remained steadfast with the attorneys he oversaw, who continued to oppose a settlement, even in the face of the county’s apparent setback with regard to the matter in a bench trial that was ongoing before Judge Christopher Warner at the time Wagner was hired. On July 31, 2006, Warner issued his statement of intended decision on that case, which he had heard as both judge and jury between April and June of 2006. Warner found Burum to have been a credible and forthright witness and he characterized the county’s flood control district director, Ken Miller, as having been evasive on the witness stand. Warner’s tentative ruling stripped the county of its flood control easements on the Colonies property that was at issue in the lawsuit.
In the face of Warner’s ruling, the county’s lawyers were advising the board of supervisors to wait for the decision to be finalized and to then appeal it to the appellate court in Riverside, which had overturned a ruling by the judge previously hearing the case, Peter Norell, who had entered a finding that the easements had been abandoned. Simultaneously, Wagner had launched a complaint to the California Commission on Judicial Performance with regard to both judges, Norell and Warner, based on a report from Hesperia Mayor Jim Lindley which reached him through deputy county counsel Carol Greene, that Burum had been a golfing partner with one of the judges hearing the case. Wagner and the county’s attorneys were still advocating appealing the matter and were advising the supervisors against settling the case while awaiting the outcome of the Commission on Judicial Performance inquiry when the board of supervisors in the fall of 2006 persisted in considering a series of settlements. This prompted Wagner to inform the board he would not sign off on any settlement. On November 7, 2006, the board in closed session voted 3-2 in favor of a settlement of the suit that contained a monetary payout and land exchange element. That proposal failed, however, because the inclusion of land in the deal necessitated approval by at least four supervisors. At that point, Wagner tendered his resignation, though he helped in transitioning supervision of the office to his successor, Ruth Stringer. Wagner’s departure came 21 days before the board’s 3-2 vote on November 28, 2006 to settle the matter for $102 million in cash. In this way, Wagner was not party to the subsequent efforts by the county to recover insurance money to cover the settlement cost. He thus never contended, as did the lawyers that remained with the county after the settlement, that the settlement could in any fashion be considered a reasonable one.
Under direct examination by Supervising San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Lewis Cope, Wagner testified, “I had no idea how crazy the board of supervisors was when I came in as county counsel,” referencing what he characterized as “the fighting and infighting among board members. It was a difficult time period.” While the Colonies lawsuit represented problems and tremendous complication, Wagner said, he and his team of lawyers were further bedeviled with challenging “interactions with board members” as well as “leaks from closed session.”
Wagner told Cope he informed the board, “The best course of action would be to file an appeal.” A majority of the board was gravitating toward settlement, Wagner said, though he added that the opposition of supervisors Josie Gonzales and Dennis Hansberger prevented the inclusion of county land in making that closure.
Wagner maintained his resistance and that of the other attorneys to the settlement was based both on the merits of the county’s position as well as on the consideration that settling the matter anywhere near the terms demanded by the Colonies Partners would be deemed unreasonable and potentially a “gift of public funds” which would complicate the county’s ability to pursue its own litigation against the City of Upland, Caltrans and the transportation agency for the county, all of which the county’s lawyers felt had greater responsibility with regard to the situation vis-à-vis the Colonies Partners than the county did. Wagner said he told Postmus and the other supervisors that he would not remain as county counsel if they insisted on settling the case. “I simply advised Postmus of my intentions that I would not be there if this thing were to pass,” Wagner said.
Stephen Larson, the lead defense attorney for Burum, began his cross examination of Wagner on Thursday. Larson propounded in his questioning the assumption that the Colonies Partners’ lawsuit was an entirely legitimate one in all of its aspects and that the county coming to an accommodation with the development company based on the facts of the matter and especially in light of Warner’s ruling was absolutely reasonable.
While Larson’s questioning of Wagner began civilly enough, it grew increasingly tense as it progressed. Larson at one point sought, but failed based upon a ruling by Judge Michael Smith, to demonstrate that Wagner had misled the Commission on Judicial Performance by suggesting that Lindley had personally overheard Burum brag that he had golfed with one of the judges hearing the case.
The complaint was an effort by Wagner and the county’s lawyers, Larson said, “to poison the settlement.”
Wagner took umbrage at Larson’s suggestion, insisting that he had a duty to determine if the judicial process had been tainted, and that he was “simply documenting what I’m ethically bound to do. You know that.”
As it turned out, the commission did make a finding that brought Norell into disrepute, but stopped short of a determination that Warner had acted improperly. Larson insisted that the commission’s findings would have in no way impacted upon Warner’s decision.
Nevertheless, Wagner held that Warner’s decision was fraught with error and would have very likely been overturned upon appeal. He said Warner’s characterization of Miller as deceptive was “ludicrous.” Moreover, he said, the Colonies were claiming damages they could not substantiate. “It was essentially the Colonies word what they felt they were entitled to as far as damages,” he said.
Larson did get Wagner to acknowledge that the county had lost decisively in the case heard by Warner, at least insofar as Warner’s ruling went, which Wagner admitted “slammed the county.” And in response to Larson’s pointed question, he said “The county was spending a boatload of money” on lawyers.
By Ruth Musser-Lopez and Mark Gutglueck