By Mark Gutglueck
San Bernardino County officials have provided a no-bid two-year extension to the legal defense contract of an attorney who more than two years ago was caught in a kickback and extortion plot involving San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos.
Attorney Earl Carter and his law firm in the last two-and-a-half years have been paid $20 million for the provision of indigent defense work at San Bernardino County’s four largest courthouses. Carter was given that exclusive contract – which aced out five other law firms bidding on the contract, including two which underbid his – after Ramos in November 2013 wrote a letter of recommendation for Carter to the panel that was evaluating the firms competing for the contract.
At the time the contract was awarded to Carter’s firm, Carter and the lawyers working for him had donated $124,600 to Ramos’s electioneering fund.
The contract awarded to Carter’s firm in 2014 and renewed this week was for so-called conflict representation for indigent criminal defendants. Under normal circumstances, the indigent, that is, those who are so impoverished that they cannot afford an attorney, are represented by the public defender’s office. Conflict representation for a defendant without the financial means to hire an attorney to represent him/her comes about when the crime he/she is charged with involves [an]other defendant[s] of likewise modest financial means who is represented by the public defender’s office, which is dedicated to providing a defense to the county’s accused who are without the wherewithal to retain an attorney on their own. In those cases where one or more of the defendants is contending or may contend that he/she is being accused of a crime actually committed by his/her codefendant[s], a separate attorney is needed to prevent one defendant from being exploited by the defense put on by the other defendant.
The awarding of the contract to Carter and his firm in 2014 was plagued by numerous irregularities and anomalies, not the least of which was that Ramos and Carter were entwined in what appears to be a classic case of extortion and kickbacks in which Ramos withheld the information he had about Carter and a long buried criminal conviction from the parties who were evaluating the competing bids for the conflict panel criminal defense contract and that Carter provided Ramos with campaign donations to continue to buy the district attorney’s silence.
Historically, the county contracted for conflict representation on a geographical basis, that is, making an arrangement with different law firms located within or in relatively close proximity to the four major judicial districts in the county where the lion’s share of criminal cases are prosecuted – East Valley at the downtown San Bernardino Courthouse, West Valley at the Rancho Cucamonga Courthouse, the North Desert Region at the Victorville Courthouse and the East Desert District at the Joshua Tree Courthouse. In 2013, Carter and his firm had a monopoly on the conflict representation in two of the county’s four regional divisions, both the East Valley and the North Desert Region. The law firm of David Goldstein at that time did conflict representation in the West Valley region of San Bernardino County and attorney John Burdick had the most modest of the conflict representation contracts, being paid $1.875 million for his work in the East Desert region.
With those contracts set to expire, San Bernardino County Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereaux in 2013 was looking toward rebidding all four. In conjunction with then-San Bernardino County Presiding Judge Marsha Slough, Devereaux created a panel consisting of Superior Court judges Annemarie Pace and John Vander Feer as well as chief assistant county counsel Michelle Blakemore and deputy county counsel Phoebe Chu to evaluate the bids and qualifications of the lawyers and law firms that applied for conflict criminal defense contracts.
Carter persuaded Goldstein to consolidate his conflict representation practice with his own and utilized the name Inland Defenders to bid on the work in all four districts. Competing against Inland Defenders, were John Burdick, under the name Contract Defenders; Greenline Partners, headed by attorneys Daniel Greenberg and Raj Maline; Victorville-based attorney Robert Ponce; the law firm of Brown, White and Newhouse; and the law firm of Skipper, Singer & Associates.
Inland Defenders was substantially underbid by two of its competitors for the contracts. With regard to the contract for representation of the North Desert Judicial District, Inland Defenders, which tendered an annual bid of $1,847,880, for the work, was underbid by both Greenline Partners, which bid $1,347,840, and Robert Ponce, who bid $1,500,300.
On the East Valley portion of the contract, Inland Defenders bid $3,085,680, which was $943,200 more than Greenline’s bid of $2,142,480.
Then, in November 2013, something extraordinary occurred. San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos wrote a letter to the competition panel, recommending that it choose Carter and his firm. The letter read, in part:
“I have been the district attorney for the county of San Bernardino since 2003. We have the largest criminal caseloads in the state and I can say that our law and justice partners, including the defense bar, work hard at being efficient and seeking justice in our criminal courts. Mr. Carter’s defense attorneys’ work is no exception. These attorneys do not shy away from jury trials and are tough advocates for their clients, according to my attorneys who work with them and against them on a daily basis… One may wonder why the district attorney is writing a letter for indigent defense attorneys, but it’s basic. They are tough, yet fair and ethical advocates as we seek justice for victims while protecting the rights of the accused.”
Defense attorneys, including private attorneys, those employed by the public defender and conflict defenders, are the professional and procedural adversaries of prosecutors. For that reason, Mike Ramos’ advocacy for Carter during the conflict representation contract competition provoked consternation among many who were aware of it, resulting in a minor scandal within the San Bernardino County legal community.
By late December 2013/early January 2014, the contract evaluation panel was leaning in favor of Carter and his firm, at least in part as a consequence of the recommendation from Ramos. A flap ensued, however, after it was learned that on January 2, 2014 Inland Defenders was permitted, by fax, to submit to the county a revised fee schedule, merely one day before the intent to award was declared. That opportunity to revise its bid was not provided to any of the other competitors. Nor were any of the competitors other than Carter’s firm given an opportunity to see the other firms’ sealed bids.
On January 31, prior to the board of supervisors ratifying the competition panel’s recommendation, Greenline Partners submitted a letter of appeal in which the firm charged there was “faultiness [in] the evaluation process” or “biases” on the part of the evaluators and/or county officials. Ponce also dissented.
This resulted in a delay in the approval as a multitude of issues pertaining to the Carter firm and the evaluation process were supposed to be subjected to another round of scrutiny. That delay entailed pushing the board’s consideration of the contract approval from February 11, 2014 until ultimately, March 11, 2014. On that later date, the board, based upon the panel’s final recommendation and given assurance that all of the issues regarding Carter and his firm had been examined and resolved in his and its favor, signed off on the awarding of all four regional criminal conflict defense contracts to Carter’s firm.
Just as that was occurring, however, documentation surfaced demonstrating that Ramos withheld from the evaluation panel, both before Greenline’s challenge and thereafter, pertinent information relating to Earl Carter.
In December 1985, the then-38-year old Carter was arrested by Riverside Police and charged with engaging in lewd activity in a public restroom at Fairmount Park.
The Riverside County District Attorney’s Office filed charges against him, case number 165599. Rather than endure a public trial in which the sordid details of the charges against him would be given an open airing, Carter, through his attorney Virginia Blumenthal, entered a guilty plea to the charge for which he had been cited, 647 (a) of the penal code, lewd conduct in public, paying a $350 fine. He was placed on probation, which required that he stay out of Fairmount Park and undergo counseling.
A member of the California Bar since 1975, Carter was required by law to disclose to the bar his conviction. Under Section 6068 (o) of California’s Business and Professions Code “It is the duty of an attorney to report the conviction of the attorney, including any verdict of guilty, or plea of guilty or no contest, of a felony, or a misdemeanor.”
According to the California Bar Association, Carter never gave notice of his conviction. At the time that Ramos wrote his letter of recommendation for Carter, his office, through NCIC – the National Crime Information Center, the data base run by the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department – and through JDIC – the California Department of Justice’s Justice Data Interface Controller Network – as well as through agency-to-agency privilege with the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office and the Riverside Police Department, had full information about Carter’s conviction. While the evaluation panel was carrying out its function and even as the board of supervisors was conferring the lucrative conflict criminal defense contracts on Carter’s firm, Ramos remained silent about Carter’s conviction, and his failure to inform the California Bar about it, which is itself a violation of Section 5057(o) of the California Business and Professions Code.
A little more than a decade and a half after his conviction, Carter had acceded to become a relatively successful attorney, practicing in several counties throughout California, but with much of his work concentrated in the Inland Empire. In 2004, he began investing in the rising legal and political career of Mike Ramos, a Hispanic Republican who two years previously had ousted Dennis Stout, another Republican, as district attorney in San Bernardino County. If he were to advance further, Carter would need to remain on the good side of the district attorney.
Ramos came to rely upon Carter, Carter’s partners and his law firm for making substantial contributions to his electioneering fund, donations that flowed in from Carter or his law firm at $2,500, $5,000, $7,000 or $10,000 a pop. On April 12, 2004 Carter made a $2,500 donation to Ramos’s campaign fund. The same day, Jim Spring, Carter’s partner, made a $2,500 donation to Ramos, as well. On August 11, 2004, Spring provided Ramos’s campaign fund with $5,000. On May 6, 2005, Carter and Spring wrote checks to Ramos’s campaign fund, each for $5,000. Seventeen days later, on May 23, 2005, Carter and Spring again provided Ramos’s campaign fund with another $10,000, consisting of matching $5,000 checks. Fourteen months later, on July 21, 2006, Ramos received another $10,000 from the duo, again in the form of $5,000 checks. A year later, on July 13, 2007, Carter and Spring upped the tribute they paid to Ramos, each providing his campaign fund with a $7,000 check. On May 27, 2008, Jim Spring donated $14,000 to Ramos’s campaign fund. On June 9, 2009, Carter and Spring each wrote separate $5,000 checks to Ramos’s campaign fund. Two months later, on August 1, 2009, the law firm of Carter Spring, Shank & O’Connor provided a $10,000 check to Ramos’s campaign fund. On January 1, 2010, Carter Spring Shank & O’Connor gave Ramos’s campaign fund another $10,000. On May 21, 2010, Sean O’Connor, one of Carter and Spring’s law partners, wrote Ramos’s campaign fund a $5,000 check. On May 18, 2011, Carter Spring Shank & O’Connor donated $2,500 to Ramos’ campaign fund. On February 29, 2012 Carter Spring Shank & O’Connor donated $2,500 to Ramos’s campaign fund. On September 20, 2012, Carter Spring Shank & O’Connor donated $2,500 to Ramos’s campaign fund.
As time went on, the stakes grew higher until earlier this decade, Carter cemented his position as the most prosperous of defense attorneys plying their trades at San Bernardino County’s courthouses. Through all of that advancement, Carter’s criminal history and his conviction remained, for the public and most but not all government officials, a buried secret.
Carter obtained a return on the political investment he made in Ramos. His firm, Carter Spring Shank & O’Connor obtained the criminal conflict defense contracts for two of the county’s four regions, with an $18.75 million contract to represent defendants in the East Valley as well as a $12 million contract to represent defendants in the county’s North Desert Region through December 31, 2013.
In early 2014, Greenline Partners’ appeal and its accusation of “faultiness [in] the evaluation process” was pending. Rumors of Carter’s criminal record was being bruited about. Just as the county missed its earlier goal of ratifying the contract with Carter’s firm at the February 11, 2014 board of supervisors meeting, two days later, as the continuation of Carter’s firm’s status as the county’s preeminent conflict representation contractor hung in the balance, Carter took an added precaution. On February 13, 2014, he made a $4,100 donation to Ramos’s campaign fund, the maximum a single donor could make under the county’s recently enacted campaign finance limitation ordinance.
That did the trick. Even though documentation of Carter’s arrest in the form of Photostats of the Riverside County conviction were spreading, the board of supervisors at its March 11, 2014 meeting approved an agreement with Inland Defenders, in the words of county chief executive officer Greg Devereaux, “to provide adult indigent defense services in an amount not to exceed $8,000,000 annually and $20,000,000 total over the 30-month term of April 1, 2014 through September 30, 2016 with two additional one-year options.”
The board’s decision stepped over five other law firms or attorneys – John Burdick; Greenline Partners; Robert Ponce; the law firm of Brown, White and Newhouse; and the law firm of Skipper, Singer & Associates – that submitted bid proposals for the work.
It did not hurt, either, that Carter, together with his recently deceased law partner Jim Spring, and his law firm, Carter, Spring, Shank & O’Connor, had made $88,500 in political donations to all five of the then-current county supervisors, including $38,000 to Gary Ovitt, $32,050 to Josie Gonzales, $12,750 to Janice Rutherford, and $1,500 each to both Robert Lovingood and James Ramos.
Two-and-a-half years later, as of today, the contract elapsed and Inland Defenders had been paid $20 million by the county in that interim. During that period, further questions about Carter and Inland Defenders and the quality of the legal representation being provided emerged. At issue was that Inland Defenders rarely put on a spirited legal defense of those it represents, appearing to merely go through the motions.
In numerous cases handled by Inland Defenders, there has been no actual contact between an attorney and the defendant. Instead, defendants, particularly ones yet in custody, are met in a jail setting by an “investigator” bearing a plea agreement proffered for the defendant to sign, even before an attorney has reviewed the case in depth.
Additionally, in many cases, the attorneys representing the conflict defendants are not members of Carter’s law firm but rather contract attorneys working under contracts that provide a set rate for that work, which incentivizes the settling of these cases with as few court appearances as possible, with as little time spent on the cases as possible and the avoidance of actually going to trial.
There have been suggestions that the county is acquiescing in the Earl Carter law firm’s provision of inadequate legal representation because this relieves, to a considerable degree, the logjam of cases at the courts. Moreover, the county and a host of other governmental entities stand to see their expenses increase if the attorneys at the Carter law firm engage in a truly aggressive defense of the conflict defendants, including taking the cases to trial.
This week, at its Tuesday September 27 meeting, the board of supervisors unanimously approved authorizing the county’s purchasing agent to extend the contract with Inland Defenders for two additional one-year periods, from September 30, 2016 through September 30, 2018, and for up to an additional 60 days following expiration or termination of the contract. The board approved the item as part of its consent calendar. The consent calendar is reserved for what are considered routine and noncontroversial matters. The staff report for the item was written by Mary Jane Olhasso, the county’s assistant executive office for finance and administration. The item was presented to the board by Gary McBride, the county chief financial officer. When the Sentinel placed calls to their offices before and after the meeting, both Olhasso and McBride declined to comment on the item.
Deputy county counsel Julie Surber reviewed the contract together with Inland Defenders’ performance over the last two years, and gave the item legal clearance to proceed. County counsel is the county’s top civil lawyer and the office of county counsel is the county’s stable of in-house attorneys.
Surber did not deny that Carter and Inland Defenders had farmed out the vast majority of conflict defense cases to contract attorneys and that Inland Defenders had taken fewer than one percent of its San Bernardino County conflict defense cases to trial. Nor did she controvert reports that Inland Defenders routinely dispatches investigators to the jails with plea agreements that are foisted upon the defendants Inland Defenders represents or that a significant number of the defendants represented by Inland Defenders do not see an attorney until their appearance in court where their guilty plea pursuant to a plea bargain is entered. “I have no comment,” Surber said.
San Bernardino County’s official spokesman, David Wert, told the Sentinel, “There are no anomalies or irregularities with regard to this contract and its extension.”
Wert said, “Going back to the original awarding [of the contract], the county considered multiple contracts with regional firms, and some did offer lower rates. However, collectively, the proposals from regional firms would have cost more. Also, there were factors besides cost that led the panel to recommend the current contractor. This was documented in staff’s recommendation to the board.”
Moreover, Wert said “The district attorney had no influence over the process or the selection.” Wert made no comment with regard to Ramos’s letter of recommendation for Carter.
Wert also sought to downplay the issue at the center of the blackmail material that Ramos possessed and which he withheld to extort Carter.
“A 30-year-old adjudicated misdemeanor that resulted in a $350 fine would not have been a disqualifying factor,” he said.
As to Surber’s unwillingness to provide a substantive report as to her findings with regard to Inland Defenders’ performance over the past 30 months, Wert said, “Julie’s reticence was that she didn’t want to have a discussion with you, not that she was uncomfortable with the subject matter.”
Wert said, “As for your other concerns, the county has not heard about any problems with the representation provided by the contractor. The public defender, the Superior Court, the DA, advocates, or individual clients have not expressed concerns to the county and there has been no noticeable increase in Marsden motions.”
A Marsden motion is the means by which a criminal defendant can fire a court-appointed attorney or communicate directly with a judge in a court proceeding. A Marsden motion is based on a defendant’s claim that the attorney is providing ineffective assistance or has a conflict with the defendant.
Repeated efforts by the Sentinel over the years to get Ramos to discuss the full nature of his relationship with Carter have been unsuccessful.
Carter has been similarly reluctant to discuss his generosity to Ramos
By Mark Gutglueck