Former County Counsel Revealed Closed-Door Board Discussions To DA

(May 29) Former County Counsel Ruth Stringer was serving as an informant against the members of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, reporting confidential information discussed during closed session discussions of the board to the district attorney’s office, the San Bernardino County Sentinel learned this week.
In October 2010, Stringer, who had been appointed as interim county counsel in November 2006 and was given the position of the county’s top in-house lawyer the following year, abruptly announced her retirement from the post which paid $230,317.04 in annual salary and well over $60,000 in benefits. She was 61 at the time, having logged 32 years with county, beginning as an employee relations officer in 1978. She attended the University of La Verne School of Law while working with county and passed the state bar exam in 1982, transferring into the county counsel’s office in 1983, starting as a deputy county counsel.
It was expected that Stringer would remain as county counsel until she reached the age of 65. Her departure came almost eight months after the indictment of Bill Postmus, who had been chairman of the board of supervisors when she was elevated to interim county counsel, and Postmus’ one-time political associate, Jim Erwin, a former sheriff’s deputies union president whom Postmus later appointed as assistant assessor after he was elected county assessor in 2006 and assumed that position in 2007. In the February 2010 indictment, Postmus was charged with 14 counts of bribe soliciting, bribe taking, conflict of interest, perjury, fraudulent reporting and tax evasion related to accepting $100,000 in contributions from the two principals of the Colonies Partners, Dan Richards and Jeff Burum, in return for settling a lawsuit brought by the Colonies Partners against the county over flood control issues at the Colonies at San Antonio and Colonies Crossroads residential and commercial subdivisions in northeast Upland. Erwin, who served as a consultant to the Colonies Partners during negotiations with the county over settling the lawsuit, was charged with facilitating the bribery that allegedly occurred. The vote to settle the lawsuit had taken place on Stringer’s first day as interim county counsel, November 28, 2006, with Postmus and his then-colleagues Paul Biane and Gary Ovitt voting to confer the $102 million settlement on the Colonies Partners and supervisor Josie Gonzales and then-supervisor Dennis Hansberger opposed.
As a consequence of the settlement, the county of San Bernardino made claims against three of its insurance carriers, the California State Association of Counties Excess Insurance Authority, AIG and Travelers Insurance. When the first two of those companies’ drug their feet in settling on those claims, the office of county counsel went to work in making procedural and legal filings to induce payment. Part of Stringer’s function as county counsel was to keep the board of supervisors abreast of the efforts to recoup from the county’s insurance carriers a portion of the Colonies settlement money. Moreover, Stringer was routinely available during the board’s executive discussions outside the view of the public touching on all order of sensitive issues under consideration which California law allows elected officials to consider behind closed doors, such as personnel issues, contract negotiations, real estate sales or acquisition and legal matters.
According to Neil Derry, who replaced Hansberger on the board of supervisors after defeating him in the June 2008 election, in late September 2010 the board was in the midst of a closed session when Stringer let it be known that she had been passing along privileged information originating in the board’s closed sessions to the district attorney’s office.
“We were discussing something related to the Colonies indemnity case against one of our our insurance carriers, which involved Todd Theodora [an outside attorney representing the county at Stringer’s recommendation],” Derry said. “It was clear, from what she said, that she had disclosed information she obtained while being present in our closed sessions to the district attorney’s office.”
The information involved, Derry said, touched on both the efforts to induce the insurance carriers to make good on the money owed to the county as well as the board’s discussion about the settlement vote. Stringer had passed the information along, Derry said, “to assistant district attorney Jim Hackelman” on her own initiative without any direction to do so by the members of the board, Derry said.
“She did it without our permission,” Derry said. “She was asked about it and she said she just did it, without asking permission. It was improper. As county counsel she worked for us. It was a violation of attorney-client privilege. And she could not just do it at one member’s suggestion There needed to be a vote of board for her to do that.”
Asked what the reaction of the board was, Derry said, “I can’t speak for the rest of the board. I can tell you in general they were not pleased.”
Stringer’s acknowledgment that she had gone behind the board’s back to the district attorney’s office convinced him that Stringer had to leave, Derry said.
“She should not have disclosed that to anyone,” he said. “I made a request for her resignation. Soon after that she had an agreement to leave the county with a year’s severance worked out with [county executive officer ] Greg Devereaux. If she had chosen to stay, I made it clear I would file a complaint for breach of privilege with the state bar.”
Five months later, Postmus pleaded guilty to all 14 charges against him. The following month, a newly impaneled grand jury, before whom Postmus went as the star witness, heard further testimony on the Colonies settlement matter and in May 2011 that grand jury issued a superseding indictment in which Erwin was again named, along with Burum, Biane and Ovitt’s chief of staff, Mark Kirk. That indictment essentially reiterated the crux of the first indictment and enlarged upon it, alleging that the Colonies Partners, in addition to providing bribes in the form of monetary donations to political action committees controlled by Postmus, showed an equal level of generosity to political action committees controlled by Biane, in return for his vote in favor of the settlement, and to a political action committee controlled by Kirk, in return for his influencing Ovitt to vote for the settlement.
Erwin, Burum, Biane and Kirk have all pleaded not guilty to the charges and are awaiting trial on the matter.
The county’s efforts to recover the money from its insurance carriers to offset the settlement payment to the Colonies Partners have proceeded very quietly over the past eight years. Those efforts have carried with them the potential for endangering the criminal case against the four defendants. In their initial refusals to make good on the insurance payments, those carriers cited the allegations in the indictment, asserting they should not be forced to make good on the indemnification of a public party with regard to a settlement when that outcome was tainted by bribery, extortion and other public crimes. In response, the county in its effort to force payment of the insurance claims has asserted that the settlement was a legitimate one. One of those making this argument on behalf of the county, assistant county counsel Mitch Norton, was one of the witnesses brought before the grand jury that indicted Erwin, Burum, Biane and Kirk.
Thus, the defense teams for the defendants are now armed with contradictory statements by a key witness against their clients, those made by Norton before the grand jury damning the actions of Erwin, Burum, Biane and Kirk and arguments in court papers in which Norton maintains the $102 million payout was a reasonable one to cover the Colonies Partners’ purported damages.
In the case of the California State Association of Counties Excess Insurance Authority, it took the county’s claims to binding arbitration in which a determination was made that the authority should pay the county $14.5 million. It subsequently agreed to pay $14 million to settle the case.
In 2007, before public accusations of bribery against the board ratifying the settlement were lodged, Travelers Insurance settled an indemnification claim filed by the county flood control district over the colonies settlement for $9.5 million.
The outcome of the county’s claim against AIG has not been publicly disclosed.

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