By Mark Gutglueck
(July 31) Newly discovered and additional information regarding public conflict of interest violations engaged in by former Grand Terrace City Councilwoman Bea Cortes surfaced this week.
Details suggesting Cortes was mired in a more involved series of conflicts of interest than was previously publicly disclosed have now emerged, more than five years after district attorney Mike Ramos, who was widely alleged to be having an affair with Cortes, quashed the prosecution of the councilwoman on a previously known conflict of interest matter arising from Cortes’ activity as an elected official.
Both of the now-recognized conflicts of interest related to votes she made and action taken through her authority as a public official benefiting or potentially benefiting herself financially, which were prohibited under section 1090 of the California Government Code and defined as felonies.
The district attorney’s office’s failure to prosecute Cortes, given the facts known then and now, is particularly pointed, given that contemporaneous with the violations of the public trust engaged in by Cortes, the district attorney’s office took up and prosecuted a case against one of Cortes’ city council colleagues over an alleged Government Code Section 1090 conflict of interest violation.
An examination of documents and an evaluation of statements made by Cortes and other former Grand Terrace city officials demonstrate that the case against Cortes outlined in the documentation provided to investigators attached to the district attorney’s office’s public integrity unit exceeded the level of proof used as the standard Ramos applied in the prosecution of Jim Miller, who was serving on the city council with Cortes and was removed from office as a consequence of the charges filed against him.
The unpursued criminal case against Cortes and the district attorney’s personal relationship with her have resulted in the prosecutor’s office now being plagued with questions of favoritism and selective prosecution and attacks upon the integrity of its deputy prosecutors for having failed to prosecute, based solely upon the subject’s ties to Ramos, someone who would have otherwise been charged.
The criminal activity Cortes was entangled in consisted of two distinct matters, each of which was prosecutable as a felony or series of felonies. One of those sets of circumstances, relating to payments from the city of Grand Terrace to her employer that she had voted to approve as a member of the city council, was publicly known at the time. The other, pertaining to her purchase of property within one of the areas targeted for improvement by the city’s redevelopment agency, was not widely known.
Coincidentally, the matter involving Cortes came to the district attorney’s office’s attention within the same timeframe when a womanizing scandal besetting Ramos lurched into public view. While some members of the district attorney’s office, including those working in the public integrity unit, knew of Ramos’s liaisons with many different women, including three of his own deputy prosecutors, two of his office’s evidence technicians and two of his office’s clerks, some in the office did not know or claimed they were not aware or informed of the brewing scandal that fully manifested in May of 2009, when Ramos was publicly linked with a dozen women to whom he was not married.
Cortes was not identified as one of Ramos’s paramours in the initial public disclosure relating to his serial womanizing. But six months later, when according to Ramos himself his office was evaluating the mounting evidence against Cortes, the relationship between Cortes and Ramos was publicly revealed. The following year, Cortes, at least partially as a consequence of the negative publicity attending that revelation, was voted out of office.
In the intervening years, 12,352-population Grand Terrace has seen five city managers/interim city managers come and four go, into each of whose custody passed, at least temporarily, the files once kept by former city manager Tom Schwab, who served as city manager from 1989 until he was felled by a subdermal hematoma in 2008.
Two months ago, on June 1, G. Harold Duffey, the former city manager of Compton, was brought in as Grand Terrace city manager. Duffey has no link to previous city councils and no incentive to protect Cortes. Since Cortes was on the council, the composition of the council has entirely changed, with no member that was there during her tenure still in office. Indeed the turnover and transition in Grand Terrace over the last five years has been so rapid and complete that only one city employee who was working with the city when Cortes was a councilwoman is still employed there.
This changeover has obliterated any institutional and political protections previously extended to her and further information and details of the depredations she engaged in while in office are consequently coming to light.
One of those depredations was given a public airing in 2009 at the time her relationship with Ramos was revealed. For four years while she was on the city council Cortes had a professional relationship with Terra Loma Real Estate. She also consistently voted, as a member of the Grand Terrace City Council, to approve the city’s contractual arrangement with Terra Loma as well as the consent calendars that are a part of the council’s agenda at its twice monthly meetings. The consent calendar, in Grand Terrace as in all cities, typically contains multiple items pertaining to the function of the city government, all of which are deemed non-controversial and routine matters and are bundled together so they can be approved in a single yes or no vote of the council. It is unheard of, in Grand Terrace and elsewhere, for the consent calendar not to pass and it is generally approved by a unanimous vote of the city council, although on rare occasions, a member of a city council requests that a specific item on the consent calendar be removed from it so it can be voted upon separately. Occasionally, a dissenting vote on the passage of an item originally on a consent calendar is registered.
In Grand Terrace as elsewhere, the consent calendar contains the city’s check register, that is, a listing of the checks that have been written to the city’s various vendors and contractors.
During Cortes’ tenure on the city council, Terra Loma Real Estate provided property management services to the city. City payments to Terra Loma, as to all other companies, were made by check. Those payments were then ratified by the city council as an item on the consent calendar.
Records first obtained by the Sentinel in 2009 show that the city made 13 payments totaling $8,558.47 to Terra Loma between August 2008 and September 2009. Cortes participated in the votes to approve at least ten of those.
Cortes insisted she did nothing illegal in casting those votes. Government Code Section 1090, however, prohibits an elected official from participating in a vote on any matter in which he or she has a financial interest. A payment to a business owned by that official or a business that employs the official or one with which the official is professionally affiliated is construed as having a bearing on that official’s financial interest.
In August 2009, Cortes said she had not made any money in the previous 24 months as a real estate agent with Terra Loma so she therefore had no interest tied up with the company. “I have not received money from Terra Loma Real Estate,” she told the Sentinel at that time. “Due to the economy, I have not been able to sell any property. For two years I have not been selling any property in affiliation with them [Terra Loma]. I have never sold anything for them.” She said she had been working out of the Terra Loma office “a little over three years.”
The sales drought, Cortes said in 2009, had lasted “at least two years.”
Moreover, she said, “I spoke with the city attorney and he advised me there was no conflict.”
Then-Grand Terrace City Attorney John Harper told the Sentinel he had made no such finding.
Cortes acknowledged that she was professionally affiliated with Terra Loma Real Estate and its owner, Gene Carlstrom, but said that payments the city made to Terra Loma for property management services were not passed along to her. In August 2009, Cortes acknowledged, “I have my real estate license in his [Carlstrom’s] office. Whenever I sell any property, I have to have a licensed broker over me. He is the broker. I have my license under Mr. Gene Carlstrom.”
In September 2009, after a minor controversy broke out in Grand Terrace following publicity about Cortes’ votes to approve a contract for and payments to Terra Loma, Cortes ceased voting on the consent calendar items related to the company with which she was professionally affiliated and the city’s contract for services with Terra Loma was cancelled shortly thereafter. In the same time frame, Cortes obtained her own real estate broker’s license and ended her affiliation with Terra Loma.
In 2009, the councilwoman insisted that city attorney John Harper had examined the potential for conflict inherent in the circumstance that existed up until August of that year and found her in compliance with the law, including Government Code section 1090 and any other statutes that are applicable.
Cortes said that both she and Harper deemed her votes as a member of the Grand Terrace City Council to approve the contract with Terra Loma and make the payments to it as legal.
Those claims were not verified by Harper. No such opinion in writing by Harper absolving Cortes of criminal liability or a conflict of interest through engaging in such votes could be found in the files at Grand Terrace City Hall.
In the fall of 2009, a complaint about the matter went to the district attorney’s office’s public integrity unit. The investigation dragged on for months. On December 2, 2009 at the Colton Rotary Club luncheon, Ramos was directly asked about the Cortes investigation.
“I can’t answer that,” Ramos said. “There is an ongoing investigation.”
Confronted about his personal and sexual relationship with Cortes, Ramos offered no response at all, meeting the question with a stony silence.
In the same time frame, Cortes publicly offered a somewhat equivocal disavowal of a liaison with Ramos when she was directly approached with regard to the issue by the Sentinel.
“Of course, I am denying it,” she said of reports, including ones that had been posted on the Internet, relating to an affair between her and the district attorney and that they remained involved. “Who would intimate that? Who would say that?”
Cortes, who had been active in Republican circles within the county, acknowledged a public association with Ramos, who is also a Republican. Nevertheless, she said, “My relationship with Mike Ramos is a professional business relationship, a political one. It is not sexual.”
Under less formal circumstances, however, Cortes was far less discrete, engaging in rodomontade in which she claimed Ramos as her inamorato, or otherwise alluded to those within her circle that she enjoys an uncommon communion with the district attorney on both a personal and political level, bragging that her relationship with him provided her with a shield against prosecution. And, she claimed, her level of entrée with Ramos provided her with the ability to vector the prosecutorial authority of the district attorney’s office against others.
Indeed, that was the case in the matter of People vs. Miller, the prosecution of Cortes’ rival on the Grand Terrace City Council, Jim Miller.
An examination of documents released by the district attorney’s office indicates it was Cortes, along with then-Grand Terrace City Manager Steve Berry, who approached Ramos and his office’s public integrity unit with regard to Miller.
According to district attorney’s office investigator Robert Ransdell, on October 27, 2008, “the district attorney’s office public integrity unit received information, which had been sent to the district attorney’s office by an informant who wished to remain anonymous. This information alleged that Grand Terrace City Councilman Jim Miller had possibly violated Government Code 1090 by engaging in a conflict of interest.”
A little less than nine months later after Cortes and Berry approached the district attorney’s office, on July 15, 2009, Miller was arrested by San Bernardino County district attorney’s investigators and charged with violating Government Code section 1090. That charge stemmed from votes Miller had made to approve the consent calendar which contained check registers showing payments for the city’s legal advertisements that were printed in his wife’s newspaper, the Grand Terrace City News. Miller’s wife was the sole owner of that paper and two others, the Colton City News and the Loma Linda City News.
Shortly thereafter, Cortes was taking credit for having arranged, through Mike Ramos, to have Miller arrested
Miller, in fact, had not voted to authorize the city of Grand Terrace to purchase the ads that ran in his wife’s newspaper. The decision to run advertisements and legal notices in the Grand Terrace City News had been made by city staff members who had determined that the Grand Terrace City News, as the only adjudicated newspaper in Grand Terrace, was the sole venue in which legal notices for the city could run. Miller said he had relied upon an assurance provided by city attorney Harper that as long as the newspaper was his wife’s sole property, the city’s purchase of the ads from her represented for Jim Miller no conflict. Miller’s circumstance differed from that involving Cortes and Terra Loma in that Miller had not voted to approve the city’s contract with his wife’s newspapers as Cortes had voted to approve the city’s contract with Terra Loma.
By 2008 Miller’s formerly cordial relationship with Cortes had grown somewhat strained in that he had emerged as the leading opponent to promoting then-acting city manager Steve Berry to the permanent city manager’s position. Cortes was the most enthusiastic of Berry’s supporters on the city council.
As the effort to elevate Berry to the unquestioned top municipal management post progressed, Cortes, in conjunction with Berry, undertook to compromise Miller’s authority. Both began providing the district attorney’s office with information relating to the city utilizing Miller’s wife’s newspaper, as well as the consent calendar voting that ratified payment for city legal notices and ads that ran in that publication.
Brazenly, Cortes made this approach to the district attorney’s office despite her own parallel entanglement in the similar circumstance involving Terra Loma and the city, as well as another conflict, one which was not publicly disclosed at that time, but which had been recognized by both Harper and then-city manager Tom Schwab. That matter involved Cortes’ purchase, in association with her son, of a town home in the Cape Terrace residential development in Grand Terrace. Cape Terrace fell within one of the city of Grand Terrace’s redevelopment project areas. Municipal redevelopment agencies were banned by state legislation which passed in 2011 and was upheld after a court challenge in 2012. But at that time, redevelopment agencies were adjuncts to city governments and city council members were prohibited from owning or purchasing or otherwise acquiring any property in their city’s redevelopment project areas other than a primary residence.
Schwab this week confirmed that documentation on file with City Hall showing Cortes had run afoul of that law was valid.
“John Harper, who was the city attorney at that time, wrote Bea a letter telling her she had to be removed from the title of a residence, which was either a condominium or town home, at Cape Terrace she owned with her son,” Schwab said. “I don’t know if she every complied with that.”
The district attorney’s office, the Sentinel has learned, was informed of the Cape Terrace matter.
No charges were ever filed against Cortes, whose personal involvement with Mike Ramos explicates in good measure how it was that she had the confidence to seek a prosecution of Miller when she was similarly caught up in a matter involving a potential Government Code 1090 violation herself.
An apparent implication is that her relationship with Ramos provided her with de facto immunity from prosecution. What is more, her relationship with Ramos endowed her with the ability to influence the district attorney’s office to take action against her political opposition.
In the district attorney’s office at this point, there was no sense of urgency in dispelling the perception that a double standard had been applied with regard to Miller and Cortes or that the office had engaged in selective prosecution based upon the district attorney’s personal relationship with a target of a criminal investigation.
Supervising District Attorney Lewis Cope oversees the public integrity unit in the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office. He was highly guarded in discussing the Cortes matter, noting that he was constrained from disclosing any information about a matter that did not rise to the level of an actual prosecution.
“Unless there is a criminal filing, I cannot provide you with anything that is not a public document,” Cope said. “We do not comment on complaints made to our office. We do not say we are or are not pursuing an investigation. Usually an investigation is revealed when we file criminal charges. That is our unit’s policy.”
Informed that Ramos had acknowledged that the district attorney’s office had taken up an investigation of Cortes, Cope sought to deflect questions angled at the integrity of that investigation and whether it had adhered to the same standards applied in the Miller case.
“I am not allowed to make comment on what has occurred,” Cope said. “Your questions seek an answer that would give a confirmation or denial that there was an investigation. I am not at liberty to make that kind of comment. We conduct fair investigations when we are given a complaint. Our investigators do a thorough and impartial job. We are going to use the best professional judgment we have to call it the way the facts may play out. So, if there is a crime that has been complained about and the facts show that, that would result in a prosecution and charges are going to be filed. If the facts and law do not support a criminal filing, then we do not file.”
When queried directly about the seeming paradox between the charges lodged against Miller and the set of facts that would have informed a prosecution of Cortes, Cope claimed he was hamstrung by circumstance from resolving that contradiction, saying at one point, “That may or may not have occurred” with regard to Cortes’ purchase of property within the city’s redevelopment agency and her votes conferring payments upon Terra Loma Real Estate. At a different point in the phone interview, he seemed to take issue with the assumption of Cortes’ guilt. “You are making assumptions after you looked at the documents,” he said. “There is not much I can say. By implication, you assume a lot of facts that would indicate the law was broken. It seems you are not particularly well informed. Beyond that I should not go.”
Cope declined to spell out why, precisely, no charges were filed against Cortes.
Cope said, “In our office we get a lot of complaints. We believe [the cases taken up] are well investigated and well researched. We follow the law. It is easy for some people to draw conclusions that are not accurate. The nature of these cases is they are very complicated and very fact specific. We have to evaluate each one in light of the facts and in light of the law that exists at the time. Some people are not happy with our decisions. It is difficult to make a blanket statement. The Miller case is on the record and I would refer you to that. There is nothing I can give you about the other [Cortes] case.”
Cope referred any further questions to Ramos himself and his spokesman, Christopher Lee. Neither Lee nor Ramos responded to phone calls to their respective offices this week seeking information and comment.
By Mark Gutglueck