By Mark Gutglueck
In the face of evidence that Matt Brown, San Bernardino County’s current assistant auditor-controller-treasurer and the one-time chief-of-staff to former county supervisor Paul Biane, engaged in the wholesale laundering of political contributions, questions are emerging about San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos’s action in protecting Brown from prosecution.
The malfeasance on Brown’s part had been due for a public exposition at some point later this winter as the Colonies Lawsuit Settlement Public Corruption Prosecution was scheduled to go to trial on February 1. It was widely anticipated that once the trial was under way, Brown would have been subject to several hours or maybe even days of grilling on the witness stand. But Judge Michael Smith’s decision to postpone the start of the trial until October has given Brown, and by extension Ramos, a temporary reprieve from exposure with regard to a host of issues that throws the integrity of both men and the consistency of the district attorney’s offices standards for prosecution into question.
This matter is playing out against a backdrop in which politicians and their associates in San Bernardino County have historically been pretty much at liberty to test, bend, break or even flagrantly shatter the rules and laws relating to the collection and distribution of political money as is codified in the State of California’s election, government and criminal codes.
In decades past, politicians in San Bernardino County, their campaign managers and advisers, their cronies and confederates have made use of a number of devices ranging from the crude to the very sophisticated, to capture campaign donations and steer that money to themselves or other politicians, to mask in some cases where the money originated and where it was actually spent or to divert what contributors intended to be money to further a specific cause or candidate to some other purpose or candidate or brazenly convert those donations into cash that simply went into someone’s pocket or personal bank account.
A tried and true method for carrying out this political money laundering is the formation of political action committees, known by the acronym PACs. PACs do many things and can be a legitimate collecting entity for people of a given political mindset to pool their money and effectively vector it to a cause in which they collectively believe. A political action committee can also be used more nefariously, however, and serve to allow a candidate to receive money from an individual or entity with an unsavory reputation or record, who or which, if directly connected to the candidate, might hurt his or her electability.
By early in the first decade of the current century, Matt Brown, a self-styled Republican Party activist, in Horatio Alger-fashion had lifted himself by his boot straps into a position whereby his political activism was transformed into a career. In 2002, Rancho Cucamonga Councilman Paul Biane, a real estate professional and the scion of the Biane family, descendants of Marius Biane who established what was perhaps the grandest winery in the Cucamonga Wine District at the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century, challenged and defeated longtime Second District San Bernardino County Supervisor Jon Mikels. Both Biane and Mikels were Republicans; Biane represented the up and coming generation of West End Republicans; Mikels, once an upstart himself, had aged into a member of the Old Guard. With Mikels’ vanquishing, Biane turned to a set of Young Turks, in this case Brown and Tim Johnson, another youthful GOP acolyte, to assist him in his role as supervisor, making them his chief-of-staff and senior field representative, respectively.
Shortly after taking his new position with the county, Biane formed a political alliance with another up and coming young Republican, Bill Postmus. Within two years of his election to the board, Biane would accede to the position of vice chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, second only in the county GOP hierarchy to Postmus, who was then chairman. Three years later, at the height of his political power, Biane would obtain the simultaneous positions of chairman, like Postmus before him, of both the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee.
The foundation of Biane’s advancement to that enviable position of power had been laid by Brown working on his behalf. For several years, the relationship between Brown and Biane had been a synergistic one. In 2003, Brown, newly enabled and newly empowered by his status as Biane’s chief of staff, had embarked on an energetic project to upgrade Biane’s recent electoral victory in the Second District into a political machine – the Biane Political Machine in which he would be the vicar. As part of this effort, Brown worked to extend Biane’s reach – and that of his own – beyond the Second District. This involved the creation of political action committees that he would control at Biane’s behest and which would gather sizable contributions from Republican donors which the pair could then dole out to candidates of their choosing, including those vying for municipal, county, state and federal office. In this way, their efforts matched those of Postmus and his chief of staff, Brad Mitzelfelt, who likewise created a PAC of their own. This was in time augmented by a bold move by Postmus, who in 2005 asserted that the sheer expanse of 20,105-square mile San Bernardino County prevented many of the GOP’s representatives in the furthest-flung sections of the county from attending the central committee meetings. He proposed, and the central committee accepted, creating an executive committee of the central committee that would be empowered to vote in the central committee’s stead on all issues related to the county Republican Party. Postmus then set about naming himself, Mitzelfelt, Biane and Brown as four of the executive committee members and recruiting the remainder of the executive committee members from the ranks of those loyal to him exclusively, all of whom were employed by him as members of his supervisorial staff. The four – Postmus, Biane, Mitzelfelt and Brown – had become virtual kingmakers in a county which at that time had more registered Republican voters than registered Democrat voters. In only the rarest of circumstances could a candidate for public office achieve success without first paying homage to Postmus, and by extension, to Mitzelfelt, Biane and Brown.
This homage often took the form of tribute – monetary tribute – after a candidate was elected with money doled out by the Central Committee. Once in office, those endorsed by the Central Committe were expected to show their gratitude and allegience by firing up their own fundraising machinery which by virtue of incumbency was able to put the arm on potential donors, and kickback to the PACs controlled by Postmus, Mitzelfelt, Biane and Brown, i.e., make fund transfers to those accounts for future king-making efforts.
For his part, Brown, a resident of Grand Terrace, created several PACs, some of which were used to fund political campaigns near his home turf, such as races for the Grand Terrace City Council or Colton City Council. Those were peripheral efforts, however. Brown’s primary PAC was the San Bernardino County Young Republicans, which he set up in 2005.
Two years later, the San Bernardino County Young Republicans would play a critical role in what now-California Governor Jerry Brown, who was in 2010 California Attorney General, said at that time was “the most appalling corruption case in decades, certainly in the history of San Bernardino County and maybe California itself.”
Then-attorney general Brown’s reference was to the events and circumstances leading to a $102 million payout of taxpayer money in 2006 to settle a lawsuit brought against the San Bernardino County and its flood control district in 2002 by by the Colonies Partners over flood control issues at the Colonies at San Antonio residential and Colonies Crossroads commercial projects in northeast Upland. The Colonies Partners was a consortium of investors led by managing principals Jeff Burum and Dan Richards.
After Postmus and Biane together with then-supervisor Gary Ovitt voted, with then-supervisor Dennis Hansberger and supervisor Josie Gonzales dissenting, to confer upon the Colonies Partners a $102 million payment in November 2006 to end the lawsuit, Burum and Richards in the late winter, spring and fall of 2007 made three separate $100,000 payments to the San Bernardino County Young Republicans; another political action committee set up by Ovitt’s chief of staff, Mark Kirk, known as the Alliance For Ethical Government PAC; and to the Committee for Effective Government PAC, an entity controlled by former sheriff’s deputies’ union president Jim Erwin. Burum and Richards also made two $50,000 donations to the Inland Empire PAC and the Conservatives for a Republican Majority PAC, both of which were associated with or controlled by Postmus.
In February 2010 prosecutors with the California Attorney General’s Office working in tandem with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office charged Postmus with receiving a $100,000 bribe, paid in the form of the two $50,000 installments to the Inland Empire and the Conservatives for a Republican Majority political action committees he controlled. Also charged was Erwin, who worked as a consultant to the Colonies Partners during their efforts to have the lawsuit settled and was later hired by Postmus to serve as assistant assessor after he was elected to that position. Prosecutors alleged Erwin participated with Burum in an extortion scheme targeting Postmus and Biane that preceded the November 2006 vote and assisted in the delivery of bribes to them after the vote was made. Identified in that criminal complaint as unnamed and unindicted coconspirators were Burum, Richards, Biane, public relations professional Patrick O’Reilly and Kirk. Both Postmus and Erwin, who were charged variously with a host of crimes including conspiracy, extortion, soliciting bribes, accepting bribes, perjury, filing falsified documents and other violations of the public trust, pleaded not guilty to those charges. But in March 2011, Postmus pleaded guilty to all fourteen counts contained in the charges filed against him the previous year along with one other unrelated drug possession count and agreed to turn state’s evidence. He was the star witness before a newly-impaneled grand jury that heard evidence and testimony from a total of 45 witnesses in April 2011. In May 2011, that grand jury handed down a superseding 29-count indictment that collectively charged Erwin, Burum, Biane and Kirk with conspiracy relating to the alleged bribery scheme. Erwin was hammered with multiple counts, including receiving a bribe, acting as Burum’s agent, perjury, filing falsified documents and tax evasion. Biane was charged with soliciting and receiving a bribe in exchange for his vote. Kirk was charged with receiving a bribe in exchange for influencing his boss, Ovitt, to vote to approve the settlement. Burum was not charged with bribery. Rather, prosecutors fashioned charges against him that alleged aiding and abetting Postmus, Biane and Kirk in receiving bribes. The defendants were also charged with conflict-of-interest and misappropriating public funds. No substantive counts of extortion were charged in the superseding indictment and the extortion counts against Erwin in the February 2010 criminal complaint were dispensed with, although extortion implications were wrapped into the broad conspiracy count contained in the May 2011 indictment.
After more than four years of legal sparring between defense attorneys and prosecutors, including demurrers filed on behalf of the defendants, several of which were granted by the Superior Court, sustained upon appeal by the prosecution at the appellate court level and ultimately overturned by the California Supreme Court, the long delayed case against the four was set to go to trial a month from today, on February 1, but last month was delayed until October because of a health issue involving Biane’s attorney, Mark McDonald.
In October 2016, Burum will come to court to stand trial on charges of aiding and abetting of bribery, and misappropriation of funds, as the conspiracy charge against him and the others that is key to the case has been thrown out on statute of limitations grounds. Erwin will face charges of aiding and abetting, tax evasion and failure to properly report gifts or income, and perjury. Biane will need to contest acceptance of a bribe charges and Kirk will be obliged to fend off charges that he received a bribe in the form of the $100,000 donation from Burum to his political action committee in exchange for influencing his boss, Ovitt, to vote to approve the settlement and that he misappropriated $20,000 from that political action committee for his own use.
The prosecution, yet faced with the burden of proving its case to a jury, had previously been set to rely upon Postmus to reprise his role before the 2011 Grand Jury as the central witness. As an admitted participant in the bribery scheme, Postmus held promise of being a damning witness, one whose testimony as to his intent and the action of others would likely sway jurors that something with regard to the payout of $102 million was gravely amiss. But in the intervening four and a half years since the indictment, the defense has made severe inroads on Postmus’ credibility, succeeding in portraying him in court documents and in arguments before Judge Smith that he had developed an addiction to methamphetamine well before he left public office and that his use of the drug continued, even up until the time of and after he provided testimony to the grand jury. That resulted in the prosecution moving toward an alternate strategy of relying less on Postmus and more on Brown to provide a narrative that will support their accusations. Prosecutors are, or at least were, hopeful Brown can serve to propound information they believe is damaging to the defendants and lay out a context of events crucial to the understanding of what occurred. But Brown presents some major credibility challenges of his own that will need to be overcome if the case is to go the way prosecutors want. And inherent in Brown’s status as the “King of San Bernardino County PACs” are issues which will literally stand logic on its head when jurors are asked to make a finding of guilt with regard to Kirk, Ovitt’s chief of staff, when it is demonstrable that Brown, as Biane’s chief of staff, engaged in conduct far more egregious than Kirk’s.
Key to the bribery element of the indictment is the $400,000 in donations Burum and/or his company, the Colonies Partners, made to political action committees controlled by the other three defendants and Postmus over the seven month period following the settlement.
On March 20, 2007, Burum made out a check for $100,000 to what prosecutors say was the then-nonexistent Committee for Effective Government PAC. Prosecutors say Erwin then created the Committee for Effective Government PAC on March 23, 2007, establishing himself as chairman, Clyde Boyd-vice-chairman, Elizabeth Sanchez-secretary, Betty Presley-treasurer, Gloria Affatati-Boyd-director, and Steven Hauer-director. On March 28, 2007, Erwin deposited the $100,000 check into the Committee for Effective Government PAC’s bank account.
On May 16, 2007, Burum wrote a check for $100,000 from the Colonies Partners to the then-nonexistent Alliance for Ethical Government PAC. On May 25, 2007, Kirk, according to prosecutors, directed his accountant to complete the establishment of the Alliance for Ethical Government PAC. On May 29, 2007, Kirk deposited the $100,000 check into the Alliance for Ethical Government’s bank account.
On June 15, 2007, Burum and the co-managing principal with the Colonies Partners, Dan Richards, signed a check for $100,000 from Colonies Partners to the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC, which prosecutors maintain was secretly controlled by Biane.
On June 29, 2007, Burum signed a check for $50,000 from the Colonies Partners to the Inland Empire PAC, which publicly listed Dino DeFazio as chairman, Mike Gallagher as vice-chair, Jeff Bentow as community outreach director, and Mike Richman as executive director, but which prosecutors say was secretly controlled by Postmus. On June 29, 2007, Burum signed a check for $50,000 from the Colonies Partners to the Republicans for a Conservative Majority PAC, which listed Mike Richman as the sole member of the board of directors and executive director but which was, prosecutors maintain, secretly controlled by Postmus.
Prosecutors allege the provision of these political donations to the various PACs was an elaborate ruse to launder bribes
The model upon which the other involved PACs were designed, prosecutors allege, was the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC, which prosecutors allege was controlled by Biane, but which was actually set up by Brown. Brown founded at least four political action committees used to vector money to various political candidates and campaigns.
The Sentinel has learned that after the district attorney’s office had begun looking into the Colonies lawsuit settlement in earnest, in the spring of 2009 district attorney’s investigators Hollis Randles, Schyler Beaty and Robert Schreiber confronted both Kirk and Brown, aggressively questioning them with regard to action they had taken on behalf of Ovitt and Biane, suggesting the PACs they had set up had been used to launder kickbacks.
Kirk initially responded to some of the questions but became increasingly reluctant to continue, and resisted efforts to wring from him statements implicating Ovitt. He insisted that the interrogation be brought to a close and refused to make any further statements outside the presence of an attorney.
When the investigators isolated Brown, they subjected him to accusations that he had acted illegally on Biane’s behalf as well as in tandem with him in a criminal conspiracy. Panicked, Brown acceded to cooperating with the district attorney’s office.
Of immediate interest to Schreiber, Beatty and Randles was the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC. Campaign finance records show that the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC became a political force to be reckoned with after the $100,000 check from Colonies Partners was deposited into its account in June 2007. The criminal charges filed in 2010 and the 2011 indictment allege that the series of $100,000 donations to the political action committees founded and controlled by Postmus, Brown, Kirk and Erwin were in fact quid pro quos – bribes – paid in exchange for the approval of the settlement. Prosecutors allege that Biane, through Brown, secretly controlled the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC.
Indeed, political action committees Brown and Biane were involved with raised numerous questions, and not just with district attorney’s office investigators. The Sentinel is informed that a complaint was filed in 2011 with the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) citing a PAC founded by Brown in 2008, the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association, which is separate from the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC alluded to in the indictments. Offiicals have acknowledged that both the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association and the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC were under scrutiny in that investigation.
On March 17, 2008, Brown formed the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC and named J.M. Olchawa as the PAC’s treasurer. Both Brown and Olchawa are residents of Grand Terrace. Olchawa endowed the PAC with its first operating capital in the form of a $100 contribution. Less than a month later, on April 9, 2008, the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC contributed $40,000, which had apparently originated with the $100,000 contribution from the Colonies Partners the previous year, to the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC. The following month, on May 29, 2008, one of the political action committees controlled by Postmus, the Inland Empire PAC, infused the San Bernardino County Taxpayers PAC with $3,000 and the month after that, on June 2, 2008, with another $2,000. That $5,000, too, had apparently been originally provided by the Colonies Partners.
Based upon investigators’ exchanges with Brown, prosecutors with both the California Attorney General’s Office and the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office had grounds to allege the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC had been used as a vehicle to launder bribes and kickbacks to Biane.
In the less than two month period between the $40,000 contribution from Brown’s own Young Republicans PAC on April 9, 2008 and Postmus’ Inland Empire PAC’s $2,000 donation on June 2, 2008, the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC received a substantial amount of money in the form of both contributions and loans, all from other political figures. On April 25, 2008, the Committee to Elect Paul Biane gave the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC a $15,000 contribution. On April 29, 2008 the Committee to Elect Dick Larsen provided the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC with a $10,000 loan. Larsen was then the county treasurer. On May 5, 2008 the Committee to Elect Gary C. Ovitt made a $15,000 contribution to Brown’s San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC. That money may have originated with the Colonies Partners before being provided to Kirk’s Alliance For Ethical Government PAC and then being provided to Ovitt. On May 9, 2008, the Josie Gonzales for Supervisor campaign provided a $15,000 contribution to the San Bernardino County Taxpayers PAC. On May 16, 2008, Bill Emmerson for Assembly 2008 made a $5,000 contribution to Brown’s recently formed PAC. The same day, the San Bernardino Public Employees Association PAC provided Brown’s San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC with a $10,000 contribution. On May 23, 2008, the Committee to Elect Gary C. Ovitt provided Brown’s PAC with a $10,000 loan. On May 27, 2008, the Hansberger for Supervisor Committee made a $25,000 contribution to the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC. The next day, May 28, the Paul Cook for Assembly 2008 Committee provided Brown’s PAC with a $5,000 loan. The same day, the Committee to Elect Paul Biane made a $10,000 loan to Brown’s PAC. On May 29, Bill Emmerson for Assembly 2008 made a $5,000 contribution to the PAC and on June 2, 2008, the Hansberger for Supervisor Committee made a $15,000 contribution to the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC.
The lion’s share of the money Brown’s PAC took in was used to fund Hansberger’s effort to be reelected as county Third District supervisor that year. According to campaign disclosure documents, the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC on May 18 provided the Hansberger for Supervisor Committee with $57,030.70 and on June 30, 2008, more than three weeks after Hansberger had lost the election to Neil Derry on June 3, Brown’s PAC gave the Hansberger for Supervisor Committee $100,920.29.
The Fair Political Practices Commission interested itself in the lack of any subsequent accounting for the $35,000 in loans made to the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC by the Larsen, Ovitt, Cook and Biane campaign committees. All references to those loans disappeared from subsequent campaign filing statements made on behalf of the PAC by Olchawa. The loans in question appear to be outstanding. No explicit reference to repayments to any of the lending parties can be found in any of the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC’s financial disclosure statements. While the online filing made by the Committee to Elect Gary Ovitt shows an outstanding loan of $10,000 to the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association PAC as of 12/31/2010, online filings for the other lending parties have never been made available. There is no indication in any available documentation showing any of the loans were repaid.
This is highly problematic legally, as FPPC requirements dictate that loans from one political entity to another must be repaid or designated as forgiven.
There is no explicit explanation of what occurred with regard to any of those loans. Rather, Brown simply slipped out the back door, walking away, at least temporarily, from both the San Bernardino County Young Republicans as well as the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association. For four years there was no accounting whatsoever for the money being handled by the San Bernardino County Young Republicans.
After it was formed in late 2005, the San Bernardino County Young Republicans filed finance reports with either the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters or the California Secretary of State’s Office or both on 1/31/2006, 3/22/2006, 7/31/2006, 10/05/2006, 1/31/2007, 5/31/2007, 6/01/2007, 7/12/2007, two on 7/31/2007, 11/02/2007, 1/25/2008, 1/31/2008, 5/21/2008 and on 1/13/2009. For five years, from the beginning of 2009 until 2014, the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC went dormant in terms of fundraising activity, and took in no contributions in the 2009/10, 2011/12, and 2013/14 reporting periods as defined on the California Secretary of State’s website. Similarly, the PAC made no contributions to any entities in 2009/10, 2011/12 or in the first half of 2013/14. The only financial activity the PAC engaged in during those years related to $388.83 in federal taxes paid on interest income generated from money held in an interest bearing account; payments made to the PAC’s accountant, Betty Presley, for her services in the amounts of $2,240 for 2009, $2,400 for 2011, $1,800 for 2012 and $1,100 in 2013; and $1,700 paid to another company, Campaign Compliance Group, Inc. for professional services and software fees. During this period, it is not clear who was at the helm of the organization, though Brown was the last principal of record. At last, on 02/03/2014, a California Form 410 Recipient Committee Statement of Organization was filed on behalf of the PAC, which gave Jen Slater as its treasurer and named Tim Johnson, Brown’s former political associate who had worked as field representative for Biane when Brown was chief of staff, as its principal officer with the title of “president.” With regard to purpose, the document stated, the “committee will support Republican state & local candidates & issues.”
Its next and last filing with the county is a notice of termination, dated September 18, 2014 and filed on September 23, 2014. It shows that Johnson at that point was no longer the principal officer, with Russ Sevy having taken his place under the title of “chair.” Heather Rouhana is also listed as a treasurer in addition to Slater.
The September 23, 2014 filing makes no mention of any disbursements of funds. However, the Secretary of State’s website shows that 08/20/2014 the San Bernardino County Young Republicans cut two separate checks to The San Bernardino County Young Republican Professionals, for $23,500 and $6,800.
On April 4, 2014, a recipient committee organization report was filed with both the California Secretary of State’s Office and the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters for the San Bernardino County Young Republican Professionals, stating it had qualified as a committee as of December 1, 2013 and that Yekaterina Kolcheia was its treasurer and Ross Sevy was its chairman. Its stated purpose is “to recruit inform and empower young Republican professionals throughout the cities of Chino, Chino Hills, Ontario, Montclair, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana Rialto, San Bernardino, Grand Terrace, Loma Linda, Highland Redlands, Yuciapa, Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, etc.”
It was immediately infused with $1,339 consisting of a $1,000 contribution from Chris Mann and Chris Mann For State Assembly 2014 and $339 in contributions of less than $100 each from unidentified donors. It drew in $163 more from unidentified donors as of the end of June 2014. On 8/22/2014, $23,500 and the $6,800 from the San Bernardino County Young Republicans, which was still referenced as being based in Grand Terrace, was reported as being received. The specification of Grand Terrace as the location of the PAC headquarters is an indication that the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC was until its termination yet controlled by Brown, though he is not explicitly mentioned.
Sevy, who is now a staff member with Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, this week told the Sentinel that in 2013 when he and other Republican activists were looking to create a PAC, they settled upon the name Young Republicans, but learned that the name was already in use. They substituted the name Young Republican Professionals and were later contacted by a former treasurer with the San Bernardino County Young Republicans, who offered to make the $30,300 in that group’s account available to the start up.
Despite prosecutors’ allegation that the lion’s share of the San Bernardino Young Republicans PAC’s operating funds originated as a bribe, clear indication that the San Bernardino County Taxpayers PAC was used to launder political funds, further indication that state laws and regulations with regard to the dispositions of the loans made to the San Bernardino County Taxpayers PAC have never been resolved and are in defiance of state law and that Brown for five years neglected to make any accounting for a political action committee he had created as is required under state law has not elicited the district attorney’s office’s interest.
It is now unclear whether the questions relating to the monetary transfers Brown’s PACs have been involved in along with other outstanding issues have soured prosecutors on the idea of using him as a witness in the prosecutions of Burum, Biane, Kirk and Erwin.
After Brown was approached by investigators in the Spring of 2009 and he agreed to become an informant for the district attorney’s office, he surreptitiously provided information and material to prosecutors intended to put his boss, close political associate and friend – Biane – in prison. That cooperation with prosecutors included Brown wearing a wire – a hidden audio recording device – while he was at work in Biane’s supervisorial office in an attempt to capture utterances by Biane that would implicate him in bribe taking. That he would engage in such drastic action indicates the district attorney’s office actually had, as D.A. investigator Hollis Randles suggested during its interrogation of him in the spring of 2009, sufficient evidence against him to obtain a conviction.
About a year before the superseding indictment was handed down in 2011, the district attorney’s office, assisted by the county’s senior administrators, went to extraordinary lengths to protect Brown and separate him from Biane. With much fanfare, Brown, who at that point in 2010 was still Biane’s chief of staff, filed a claim against the county, alleging Biane was retaliating against him. In the claim, Brown disclosed that he had been cooperating in the district attorney’s office’s investigation of Biane.
Biane, who had been the best man at Brown’s wedding and still considered Brown a trusted and close friend, was completely and utterly taken aback by the claim. He had no inkling, he said, that his chief of staff was working as an informant against him. More to the point, Biane was that year standing for reelection. The publicity about the matter redounded to his political disadvantage and after placing second in the June primary, he ultimately lost to his most successful challenger, Fontana councilwoman Janice Rutherford.
Before the 2010 election, at the apparent direction of county executive officer Greg Devereaux, county auditor-controller-recorder Larry Walker brought Brown into his office as his second-in-command, making him assistant county auditor-controller, despite his lack of experience or expertise with regard to the duties of the office. In doing so, Walker forced into early retirement Betsy Starbuck, who had long been one of his most loyal and trusted assistants, going back to his 12 years in office as a member of the board of supervisors before he successfully ran for auditor controller in 1998. Both Walker and Starbuck are highly active Democrats, which makes Walker’s acceptance of Brown into the assistant auditor controller’s post even more puzzling. Moreover, the manner in which Brown simply walked away from his duties overseeing the PAC he founded and controlled, neglecting its financial auditing for five years and leaving the situation with regard to the loans it had received unresolved would seem to shed discredit on his suitability to function in capacity of the second highest ranking member of the auditor controller’s office.
Brown remains as Walker’s top assistant following a reorganization in which Walker handed responsibility for the recorder’s function over to the assessor’s office and took on the added assignment of treasurer and tax collector. Brown retains the status, stature and credibility of being an assistant county department head.
It remains to be seen whether Mike Ramos and the other members of the prosecution team will bring him in as a prosecution witness when the Colonies Lawsuit Settlement Public Corruption Prosecution goes to trial and will count upon him to blast a hole below Biane’s waterline, responding to selectively tailored questions to testify that at the former supervisor’s direction he had used the San Bernardino County Young Republicans PAC to launder the bribe Biane had received from Burum in exchange for his vote to approve the $102 million lawsuit settlement and that he somehow became innocently caught up in the corrupt political machinations of his one-time boss and best friend and closest political associate.
Even if he is not called as a witness for the prosecution, there is an increasing likelihood that Brown will be brought in for questioning by defense attorneys, who will not likely allow it to escape jurors’ attention that had the same standard of conduct that was applied to Kirk been applied to him, he would have been indicted as well. And defense attorneys will probably also ask withering questions about the transferences of money into and out of the other PACs he founded or controlled, making it difficult for him to sell the idea that he had been a naïf manipulated by Biane in his operation of the San Bernardino County Young Republicans.
The degree to which Judge Smith will deem such questions to be relevant and how well Brown holds up under such a cross-examination should it be allowed to be pursued could impact the outcome of the trial and whether the defendants will be convicted or exonerated.
By Mark Gutglueck