By Mark Gutglueck
(January 13) Investigators with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office prevailed upon several county employees to record their conversations with their colleagues in an effort to gather evidence and political and operational leverage.
The Sentinel has obtained transcripts and documentation showing that three current or former county employees were wearing “wires” during face-to-face encounters with their colleagues while interacting with them in county offices or otherwise recorded phone conversations with their employers, who were elected officials.
There are further indications that other county officials, including the county’s former highest ranking staff member, were engaged in an effort to compile information implicating both elected county officials and other county employees in wrongdoing or criminal activity, apparently at the behest of the district attorney’s office.
Bill Postmus, who was elected First District Supervisor in 2000 and served in that capacity until his resignation in January 2007 to assume the position of county assessor following the November 2006 election, had employed Paula Nowicki as his deputy chief of staff throughout his six year run as supervisor. Paula Nowicki was the wife of Dennis Nowicki, one-time Hesperia mayor and councilman. As a couple, the Nowickis had been instrumental in supporting Postmus when as a 29-year-old he began his meteoric political rise with his defeat of Kathy Davis as supervisor in 2000. When Postmus stepped down as supervisor to become assessor, he was able to persuade the board to appoint his chief of staff, Brad Mitzelfelt, to succeed him as supervisor. Postmus flirted with the idea of having Paula Nowicki accompany him to the assessor’s office to become assistant assessor until Mitzelfelt upon becoming supervisor immediately appointed Paula Nowicki as his chief of staff.
Upon becoming assessor, Postmus hired Wanda Nowicki, Paula and Dennis Nowicki’s daughter-in-law, to serve as his executive secretary. Postmus created a second assistant assessor’s position, and then filled both with two of his political associates, Jim Erwin, a former sheriff’s deputy union president, and Adam Aleman, a then-23-year-old friend he had previously employed as a field representative when he was supervisor.
Neither Postmus, nor Aleman nor Erwin had any experience in assessing property for tax purposes. Rather, Harlow Cameron and Dan Harp, two of the assessor’s offices most experienced employees under former assessor Don Williamson, provided much of the operational guidance during Postmus’s first year in office.
Aleman, in particular, was unqualified for the position he held. Moreover, he occupied himself with a whole host of political activities relating to the promotion of Republican candidates and causes during normal business hours while utilizing the assessor’s office’s facilities and equipment.
On August 8, 2007, the public integrity unit within the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office received a complaint, which according to district attorney’s office investigator Maury Weiss, originally emanated from the board of supervisors but which was routed through county counsel’s office. That complaint alleged Postmus and a consultant to the assessor’s office, Mike Richman, were misusing the county’s email system and were using county facilities to engage in partisan political advocacy. Richman likewise had no experience assessing property but had been given by Postmus a questionable $49,200 contract for less than clearly defined work. Shortly thereafter, Erwin resigned as assistant assessor and he went before the county grand jury, which had begun looking into improper political activity in the assessor’s office. Erwin provided a statement to the effect that he had informed Postmus and Aleman about political activity Richman was engaged in during working hours at the assessor’s office but that Aleman and Postmus “didn’t care” about the reports and took no action, according to an affidavit later written by Weiss. Subsequently, investigators for the district attorney’s office subpoenaed minutes from the assessor’s office’s executive staff meetings. Aleman provided those minutes to investigators. Upon speaking with Nowicki, who had compiled those minutes, investigators learned that Aleman had, according to Wanda Nowicki, “ordered her to alter certain minutes of the assessor’s office executive staff meetings.”
Two slightly different versions of those minutes were eventually located, though the significance of the alterations is not apparent. In an effort to ascertain Aleman’s motive for having Nowicki alter the documents and perhaps implicate himself in some order of criminal wrongdoing, investigators had Wanda Nowicki outfitted with an electronic recording device. The precise nature of what Nowicki was able to capture on those recordings has not been publicly revealed. Nor is it known whether any of the statements Aleman uttered to Nowicki had any prosecutorial value. Aleman was subsequently arrested and charged, ultimately pleading no contest to two felony counts of theft, destruction, alteration, or falsification of a public document, one felony count of presenting a false claim to a public board or officer, and one felony count of vandalism.
In something of an ironic twist, investigators prevailed Aleman to have him engage in conversations with targets of their various investigations, either in person or over the phone, which were surreptitiously recorded. Investigators provided Aleman with a digital voice recording device, which he used to record every conversation he had with Postmus from late November 2008 until April 2010.
Transcripts or portions thereof of some of those recorded conversations have been obtained by the Sentinel.
On January 21, 2009, Aleman had a conversation with John “Dino” DeFazio, one of Postmus’s political associates who was chairman, at least on paper, of the Inland Empire Political Action Committee. Prosecutors would later develop a theory, which was then wrapped into an indictment, that Postmus secretly controlled the Inland Empire Political Action Committee. Prosecutors would subsequently allege that Postmus was using the Inland Empire Political Action Committee to launder bribes and that DeFazio was assisting him. In the January 21, 2009 conversation, Aleman can be heard attempting to inveigle DeFazio into a discussion of Postmus’s drug use.
The district attorney’s office in 2009 attempted to use Aleman as a window into the world of Bill Postmus. The previous year, in August 2008, Postmus had gone missing for nearly two months, leaving the top position in the assessor’s office essentially vacant. This departure came about at first with no explanation. Later, a vague statement relating to his being under medical care was trotted out for public consumption. Rumors manifested at once, at first in the form of suggestions that he was dealing with an addiction problem. A published report, which the Postmus camp refused to comment on or confirm, was that he was undergoing rehab. Postmus returned to his office in October, spurning all efforts to be engaged on why he had taken his extended hiatus. The board of supervisors, which had begun an inquiry into the matter, in November 2008 censured Postmus. Then, at the first board of supervisors meeting in 2009 on January 6, Postmus came before the board of supervisors and acknowledged that he had indeed been in rehab, battling he said, “the scourge of methamphetamine addition,” against which he said he had “successfully struggled.” That very public mea culpa left many people believing Postmus had indeed put that problem behind him. But nine days later, on January 15, 2009, investigators with the district attorney’s office served upon Postmus’s Rancho Cucamonga condominium a search warrant issued as a consequence of the investigation into allegations of malfeasance in the assessor’s office, finding methamphetamine, ecstasy and drug paraphernalia. On February 6, 2009, he resigned as assessor.
In the days and weeks thereafter, Postmus again disappeared and the district attorney’s office investigators turned to Aleman to assist them in keeping tabs on the former assessor. Postmus, who had gone into virtual seclusion, was communicating with only a limited number of his former associates.
In particular, the investigators wanted to know whether Postmus was still using drugs.
The Sentinel has obtained the transcript of a recorded conversation between Aleman and San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office Investigator Hollis “Bud” Randles on February 8, 2010. That transcript reads, in part: “Randles: So you say Bill seems to be lucid or he does not?
Aleman: He seems – seems to be lucid, but he doesn’t seem to be as sharp as he does, he was in the past. So I really can’t say whether he’s on drugs or not. I really, really can’t tell. He does seem a bit more jittery and, uh, paranoid.”
In another transcript of a recorded phone conversation between Aleman and Randles on April 15, 2010, Aleman tells Randles, “Bud, I think he’s been hitting it hard, the drugs, again.”
A few weeks later, the investigators set their sights on two other elected officials – supervisors Paul Biane and Gary Ovitt. Intent on tracking down any evidence to support reports that they too had received bribes, the investigators focused on political action committees with which the two supervisors were associated, through which it was thought Biane and Ovitt might be laundering those bribes. While in the case of Postmus, one of those political action committees had been represented as being under the control of his personal, professional and political associate Dino DeFazio, in the cases of Biane and Ovitt the investigators were intrigued by the action of their respective chiefs of staff, Matt Brown and Mark Kirk. Brown had a demonstrated pattern of creating political action committees for any of a host of political causes, candidates or campaigns he was involved with. One of those in particular, the San Bernardino County Young Republicans, was of special interest to the investigators because money intended for Biane had been deposited into it. Kirk created a PAC of his own, dubbed the Alliance For Ethical Government Political Action Committee. That entity appeared to be a holding entity for funds to be used by Ovitt and Kirk, who had political ambition of his own. Having developed the theory that these political action committees were actually fund laundering vehicles secretly controlled by Biane and Ovitt, the district attorney’s office investigators – Maury Weiss, Hollis Randles and Robert Schreiber – quietly and out of the view of the public approached Brown and Kirk. They used essentially the same tactics on both, telling them solemnly that their fundraising activity on behalf of the politicians who employed them had long been under suspicion and scrutiny and that the district attorney’s office had already accumulated enough evidence to convict them – Brown and Kirk – of conspiracy, aiding and abetting bribery and money laundering. The only hope they had of avoiding being criminally charged, Brown and Kirk were told, was to cooperate with the investigation and assist in putting a case together against their respective bosses – Biane and Ovitt.
Blindsided by this psychological onslaught, Brown and Kirk reacted differently. Sensing he was being bluffed and stampeded, Kirk insisted on being allowed to consult with an attorney before saying anything. Panicked, Brown entered into a dialogue with the investigators, forgoing his opportunity to lawyer up. After being provided assurances that he would be given immunity from prosecution, Brown agreed to wear a recording device and see if he could get Biane to speak freely about certain things and, in so doing, implicate himself.
For almost a year, Brown surreptitiously recorded nearly all of his conversations with Biane as well as others on Biane’s staff. In late 2009, investigators even prevailed upon Brown to take stab at reestablishing contact with Postmus and see if he could, in his dialogues with him draw out any further information about improper political activity in the assessor’s office, money having changed hands, bribes paid or efforts to launder illicit funds through political action committees and what Postmus might know about Biane’s actions in this regard.
In some of the recorded exchanges with Postmus, the degree to which he is besotted with drugs is apparent, his utterances replete with non-sequiturs and strings of essentially nonsensical gibberish in response to Brown’s statements and Brown’s sometimes subtle and at other times not-so-subtle probing.
On November 24, 2009, this exchange between Brown and Postmus is reflected in one of the transcripts:
“Brown: You have this internal conflict on your staff with your two top people. At the same time you are on drugs and not of sound mind.
Postmus: Yes, Yes. Yes. Yes. That was real good, wasn’t it?
Brown: It was a nice, dysfunctional, uh…
Postmus: It sounds like a county operation, doesn’t it? Yeah. Yeah. That was…that was real swift, right? Ugh, yeah, don’t remind me about it.”
In February 2010, Postmus was indicted and charged with soliciting and accepting bribes, conspiracy, conflict of interest, and perjury. Biane was not indicted nor named, nor was Kirk. But they were among five unnamed John Does identified as unidicted co-conspirators in that indictment, whose identities could be pieced together by the events described in the indictment. In April 2010, Biane began to suspect that his chief of staff was cooperating with the district attorney’s office.
There ensued strained relations between the two, and Brown was put on paid leave after he filed a claim in which he alleged he was being harassed. Brown was then transferred to the county treasurer/auditor-controller office under Larry Walker. Walker installed Brown as his second-in-command, i.e. as the assistant auditor-controller.
Brown remains in place as Walker’s chief assistant. Kirk and Biane have since been indicted. Kirk is charged with having accepted bribe money into his political action committee. Biane is charged with having received bribe money placed into the political action committee Brown created. Despite Brown having engaged in activity that is nearly identical to that engaged in by Kirk, Brown has not been indicted or charged with any crime.
Former county chief administrative officer Mark Uffer was the county’s top administrator from 2004 until 2009, and held that position during most of the time frame in which Wanda Nowicki, Adam Aleman and Matt Brown were being tasked by the district attorney’s office to carry out their surreptitious recordings. While no audio recordings by Uffer have surfaced, it is known that Uffer was engaged in another form of electronic surveillance targeting members of the board of supervisors as well as other county employees.
In 2009, then-supervisors Gary Ovitt, Neil Derry and Brad Mitzelfelt voted to terminate Uffer as county administrative officer, the post corresponding with what is today known as the county chief administrative officer. That sacking was opposed by then-supervisor Paul Biane and supervisor Josie Gonzales. Ovitt, Derry and Mitzelfelt cited no official cause in removing Uffer. One major reason for his firing, the Sentinel has learned, was that the supervisors had discovered that Uffer had used his authority as the county government’s top staffer and his command over the county’s information technology division to have all order of emails from, to and between various high ranking county elected officials and employees routed to him. He then reposited those emails into a folder he created, thereby providing himself with what he thought was material that would assure his continued tenure as county administrative officer.
The extent to which Uffer was encouraged by the district attorney’s office to “make book” upon the members of the board of supervisors and other high ranking employees is unclear. What is known is that at least some of the information he accumulated was eventually obtained by the district attorney’s office.
Whether Uffer was acting on his own initiative entirely or with the guidance and blessing of the district attorney’s office, upon learning that he was putting himself into a position to potentially blackmail members of the board of supervisors and other high ranking county officials, Ovitt, Derry and Mitzelfelt became sufficiently uncomfortable with the situation to push them into terminating Uffer.
By Mark Gutglueck