County Lawyers Wrestling With Ramos Conflict-Of-Interest Questions

(November 16)   San Bernardino County’s in-house lawyers are analyzing the legal issues pertaining to Third District supervisor-elect James Ramos’s pending assumption of office, including a host of conflict-of-interest issues that at least two credible legal authorities say could prevent him from serving in the capacity to which he was elected.
James Ramos made history last week, becoming the first Native American in San Bernardino County history to be elected county supervisor, defeating incumbent Third District Supervisor Neil Derry convincingly, 59 percent to 41 percent. But questions are emerging as to whether Ramos will even be sworn in to office, and if he is, how long he will be able to remain in that position.
The Sentinel has learned that the office of San Bernardino County Counsel, led by Jean-Rene Basle, is exploring the California Government Code, case law, a slew of state Attorney General’s opinions and previous quo warranto proceedings to determine if James’ Ramos’s personal holdings together with his interest in the holdings, contracts and actions of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians entail conflicts of interest that rise to a level that could not be cured by Ramos selectively abstaining from votes that would impact those holdings and interests. A quo warranto proceeding is one in which an individual’s legal right to hold an office or governmental privilege is challenged.
At issue is whether Ramos’s  duties as supervisor will come into conflict with his material financial interests in the San Manuel government and gaming operations.
Until earlier this year, Ramos was chairman of the tribal council for the 167-member San Manuel Band, which exists as an independent sovereign Indian nation and owns and operates the San Manuel Casino in Highland, generating an estimated $400 million in revenue per year. Ramos derives roughly $1.5 million in income from his share of the casino operation and has a further interest in investments the tribe has made within the county, particularly within the Third District, which he was elected to represent.
Under California law, an elected official can involve himself in the governmental decision making process if his interests to be impacted by those decisions are deemed remote. With regard to Ramos and the Third District, however, Ramos’s interests are not remote, but material as the law specifies. As such, any decision affecting the wealth of the tribe impacts Ramos’ interests.
San Manuel has millions of dollars in non-competitively bid contracts with the county for the sheriff to provide law enforcement patrols on the reservation and the district attorney for the review of criminal cases involving casino patrons and the tribe’s own Native American members.
For example, a contract executed August 10, 2010, and expiring on June 30, 2013, has the tribe paying $1,048,909 to the county for the services of the district attorney. Ramos, as then-tribal chairman, personally signed the agreement.
Also present within the Third District is the Inland Valley Development Agency (IVDA) and San Bernardino International Airport Authority (SBIAA). Both those entities are charged with utilizing isolated property tax for the civilian reuse and redevelopment of the former Norton Air Force Base, as well as the vast area surrounding the base, which is now being converted into San Bernardino International Airport through a joint powers arrangement involving the county of San Bernardino and the cities of San Bernardino, Highland, Colton and Loma Linda, under the auspices of IVDA and SBIAA.  Traditionally, the Third District supervisor, in whose district the airport is located, has served as chairman or co-chairman of both IVDA and SBIAA.
Intrinsic to the potential conflict  is the convergence of the San Manuel Tribe’s real estate holdings and the authority of IVDA and SBIAA.
As an example, the tribe now owns the areas of the one-time military installation that were used for on-base housing and the facility and property occupied by the U.S. Air Force Combat Camera Operation.
The tribe further is currently party to an agreement with Majestic Realty, a Ramos campaign supporter, to develop the former base housing property.
The Third District supervisor also is appointed to the Indian Gaming Local Benefit Committee, which was established for the purpose of doling out funds paid by local tribes in an effort to offset their gambling casinos’ impacts on the local community.
There are currently efforts under way to establish Indian gaming establishments in Barstow and Yucca Valley, both of which lie within the Third District. Ramos would potentially be impacted financially if these competing gaming interests found approval. His membership on the board of supervisors during the county’s processing of these casino proposals, even if he abstains from consideration of them, could form the basis of lawsuits contesting the denial of those applications if they are in fact denied.
Two law firms, Sacramento-based DLA Piper and Los Angeles-based  Prata & Daley, have composed briefs that assert Ramos’s duties in office will bring him head-on into a clash with the California Government Code, specifically Government Code sections 1090 and 1092.
According to DLA Piper and Prata & Daley, given the degree to which the prospects for the growth in the valuation or viability of the tribes assets and holdings are subject to the direct or indirect control of local, i.e., county, governmental regulatory oversight, most notably land use and permitting processes, Ramos has an unequivocal conflict given the degree to which his material financial interests can be impacted by his decisions in office. These conflicts are so substantial, according to Prata & Daley and DLA Piper, that they are incapable of being cured by either recusal or abstention. The only way the conflicts can be resolved is for Ramos to divest himself of his holdings and affiliation with the tribe altogether or resign from office, according to the two law firms. There is precedent for the resignation cure. A similar dilemma beset former San Bernardino City Councilman Jason Desjardins, who owned a tow company that was subject to city regulation and franchising. That conflict was so pervasive, lawyers concluded, that Desjardins would be afoul of the law even if he recused himself on votes relating to the city’s several tow franchises, including his own. Rather than sell his business, Desjardins chose to resign his council position.
The Sentinel has learned that the discussion of Ramos’s conflicted status has advanced to the point that county chief administrative officer Greg Devereaux has taken an active part in at least a portion of the discussions. Devereaux expressed particular interest in the impact Ramos’s seating on the board would have on the county’s various contracts with the San Manuel Tribe, contracts that provide more than $3 million in revenue to the county per year. At one point, Devereaux proffered the solution of terminating the county’s contracts with the tribe, only to be informed that this would create an equally thorny legal problem, that of the county making illegal gifts of public funds to the tribe.
Inquiries made at an official level by the Sentinel did not churn up much in the way of substantive information.
“I’m not aware of any potential conflict or an inquiry or opinion by county counsel,” county spokesman David Wert said.

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