By clicking on the blue portal below, you can download a PDF of the May 26 edition of the San Bernardino County Sentinel.
By Mark Gutglueck
One of the two central witnesses in the Colonies Lawsuit Settlement Public Corruption Prosecution this week testified that he was a primary beneficiary of the corruption of public office and violations of public trust engaged in by the other central witness in the case.
Adam Aleman was 21 years old and working as a waiter at Outback Steakhouse when he met Bill Postmus, who was then the 33-year-old chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee. Postmus hired Aleman, who lived in Upland, to serve as a field representative in his supervisorial office, which represented the county’s First District extending to cover most of San Bernardino County’s desert region. At this point, it has not been publicly disclosed whether or not Postmus and Aleman were lovers; Postmus was a closeted homosexual who was masquerading in his public life as a rock-ribbed conservative. What has been acknowledged was that in this time frame he had an increasingly serious drug problem that he had acquired as a consequence of his sexual promiscuity, in particular his indulgence in an underground internet-based homosexual social network in which he had drug-fueled sexual encounters with men he had never met before on hundreds of occasions. Aleman at this point was seen as Postmus’ protégé and aide-de-camp. Whatever the bounds of their physical relationship, Aleman had an ideal window on Postmus at that time which prosecutors are seeking to exploit in their effort to prove key elements of the criminal case against four of Postmus’ former political associates.
According to a 29-count indictment handed down in May 2011, Jeff Burum, a Rancho Cucamonga-based developer, coordinated with one-time sheriff’s deputies union president Jim Erwin to first extort, through the use of blackmail, intimidation and threats, former supervisors Bill Postmus and Paul Biane to obtain a vote conferring a $102 million payout on the Colonies Partners to settle a lawsuit that company had brought against the county over flood control issues at the Colonies Partners’ residential and commercial subdivisions in northeastern Upland. Burum and Dan Richards were the two managing principals in the Colonies Partners, who over the course of the seven months after the lawsuit was settled provided separate $100,000 donations to political action committees controlled by Postmus, then-supervisor Paul Biane, Jim Erwin and Mark Kirk. Kirk was the chief-of-staff to then-supervisor Gary Ovitt, whose vote to settle the lawsuit was critical in the 3-to-2 decision to approve the settlement.
Postmus, who served as county assessor after he left the board of supervisors in January 2007, was criminally charged in February 2010 along with Erwin in a case predating but related to the allegations contained in the May 2011 indictment which is at trial now. Though Postmus initially maintained his innocence, he subsequently pleaded guilty to 14 separate felony political corruption-related charges, including conspiracy, bribery, conflicts of interests, and perjury. He turned state’s evidence and testified before the grand jury that indicted Erwin on charges superseding those leveled at him in 2010 and which also named Burum, Biane and Kirk. The indictment alleges the political action committee donations were thinly-veiled bribes made to Postmus, Biane and Kirk, the latter of whom prosecutors allege influenced Ovitt and delivered his vote in favor of the settlement.
Between May 1 and May 17, Postmus was on the witness stand 11 full or partial days during which under direct examination he offered up testimony that confirmed nearly every aspect of the prosecution’s narrative. Under questioning by San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Lewis Cope, he acknowledged traveling to China for a trade mission in September 2005 in the company of Burum during which the latter lobbied him with regard to reaching a settlement of the Colonies litigation. Postmus testified that beginning in January 2006, Burum had promised to support him in future political and business endeavors once the settlement was out of the way. Postmus testified as well that when he and Biane had failed to usher the rest of the board of supervisors into a settlement to Burum’s liking, Erwin, working on behalf of Burum and the Colonies Partners in the latter part of 2006, had threatened to expose elements of both Postmus’ and Biane’s personal lives in an effort to persuade them to support the settlement. Postmus testified he believed the $102 million paid out to the Colonies Partners was “ridiculously more” than the development company was due. The threats and promises of reward, he said, along with the desire to put the whole thing behind him, he testified, prompted the settlement. And after the settlement was in place, Postmus testified, the Colonies Partners had come through with two separate $50,000 donations to political action committees he had control over.
Under cross examination that began on May 3, however, one of Burum’s defense attorneys, Jennifer Keller, established that Postmus had engaged in a prodigious use of drugs, primarily methamphetamine, throughout the entire timeframe relevant to the events and overt acts alleged in the indictment, and that his recall of crucial events was no better than spotty. In this way, she cast doubt upon the accuracy of much of what Postmus said. Moreover, through a skillful framing of questions which exploited Postmus’ imperfect recall, she extracted from him answers that came close to recantations of his testimony on direct examination or which, at the least, offered a varying interpretation of facts that was favorable to the defense.
The prosecution thus found itself dependent upon Aleman to essentially recover the ground initially laid out by Postmus in his testimony under direct examination, and reinforce it from his perspective as one of Postmus’ closest associates who witnessed in large measure what Postmus witnessed and experienced during that time. Aleman’s value to the prosecution consists of his memory being unhampered by the drug use that so consumed Postmus. He can clarify the events that Postmus was able to only vaguely trace and fill in the gaps that mar the continuity of the account provided by his one-time boss. He is also in a position to add further detail to the circumstances in which Postmus, once the most powerful politician in San Bernardino County, was subject to blackmail because of the sordid secrets of his private life. This vulnerability, prosecutors allege, led to his capitulation in settling the lawsuit on terms that had been dictated to him by Burum and Erwin. Aleman is the witness who was closest to Postmus and able to testify as to that vulnerability.
Despite his value as a witness to the prosecution, Aleman simultaneously embodies elements that make him, just like Postmus, an extremely awkward tool in the prosecution’s array of weapons. Foremost among these is that Aleman is a convicted felon, whose crimes included destruction of county property, perjury and the alteration of public documents. That consideration alone makes his testimony problematic; worse still, is that the district attorney’s office cut a deal with him in which his sentencing for those crimes is to be meted out based upon his degree of cooperation with the prosecution in its pursuit of the case against Burum, Biane, Erwin and Kirk. Indeed, it was Aleman’s cooperation with the district attorney’s office that in large measure created the circumstances that led to Postmus’ guilty plea to the charges against him and his agreement to testify against the remaining four defendants.
On Monday morning California Supervising Deputy Attorney General Melissa Mandel, who is teaming with Cope in prosecuting the case, engaged in a set of questions aimed at illustrating for the jurors the full range of Aleman’s criminal culpability while he was associated with Postmus as a county employee. Knowing that attorneys for the defense are lying in wait to attack Aleman and his credibility when they begin their cross examination of him, Mandel sought to explore those issues in her own way, such that the two juries hearing the case are not introduced to that information by the defense, precluding leaving the jurors with the impression that the prosecution is giving them a selective sampling of the relevant facts that leaves out crucial details of the overall story bearing upon the accuracy of Aleman’s version of events. Two juries are hearing the case, one deciding the fate of Erwin and another passing judgment on Burum, Biane and Kirk. This is because some testimony that is inadmissible against Burum, Biane and Kirk is admissible against Erwin.
“You personally were involved in criminal activity while you were working for Mr. Postmus?” Mandel stated.
“Yes,” Aleman confirmed.
Aleman testified that at the end of 2006 and the last months of Bill Postmus’ tenure as county supervisor, during which he was chairman, Postmus took action to allow himself to engage in political patronage as county assessor. In November 2006, Postmus had been elected assessor, turning incumbent Don Williamson out of office.
“Do you remember discussing with Mr. Postmus while he was still a member of the board of supervisors creating more staff positions when he would go to the assessor’s office?” Mandel asked Aleman.
“He wanted to create a strong executive team, so he worked with Mr. Biane and Mr. Kirk to establish more executive staff positions in the assessor’s office,” Aleman said, including creating a second assistant assessor position. Aleman said Postmus simultaneously “created a communications shop” within the assessor’s office that entailed “multiple advocates… so he could bring over political surrogates and political allies into these paid positions.” These were, Aleman said, “political operatives. They had no assessment experience. They had no experience at land valuation or real estate assessment.” Those hired had been active in Postmus’ campaign, Aleman said, or had “worked on the campaigns of other politicians or were politicians or elected officials themselves.”
“Was he successful in creating paid positions for other politicians?” Mandel asked.
“Significantly,” responded Aleman.
Aleman said he personally reaped tremendous profit from this part of Postmus’ misuse of his elected authority.
Aleman said that Postmus originally arranged for him to be hired as the assessor’s office’s communications director. Postmus intended to hire as his two assistant assessors Erwin and Paula Nowicki, who had been the chief analyst in Postmus’ office when he was supervisor and was the wife of one of Postmus’s political associates, former Hesperia councilman/mayor and assistant Ontario municipal finance manager Dennis Nowicki. But when it turned out that Paula Nowicki had only a high school diploma, she was not provided with the position. Instead, Aleman said, he landed the position of assistant assessor at the age of 24 based on his having made an application to attend college and having been accepted as a student.
“I was matriculating toward a college degree but I didn’t have any experience in the area of real estate, none,” he testified.
Asked if he felt he was qualified to perform the duties of assistant assessor, Aleman said, “No.” Nevertheless, Postmus installed him into the position, which paid, he said, over $120,000 per year in salary plus benefits.
It was obvious to just about everyone, Aleman said, that he was a political appointee. Most of those serving under him, he said, had been “brought over as political favors, so I really had no authority over them, even though on paper I was their immediate supervisor. They knew Mr. Postmus controlled their ultimate fate.”
“Did you have difficulty holding people accountable because you were performing political work on county time?” Mandel asked.
“Yes,” Aleman said, saying that, essentially, his entire division performed little or no work at all and virtually no work relating to the assessor’s office’s intended function. “My concern was they weren’t coming into work at all,” he said.
“Were you aware it was illegal for Mr. Postmus to be conducting political activity on county time?” Mandel inquired.
“Yes,” said Aleman.
“Were you concerned this would be discovered?” Mandel asked.
“Yes,” said Aleman.
When Mandel asked Aleman “were you involved in covering up” illegal acts Postmus had engaged in, Aleman responded, “Yes.” That extended to, he said, “retrieving tools and prying into” one of Postmus’s county-issued computers that was already broken. “Mr. Postmus informed me to get rid of the hard drive,” Aleman said. Mandel asked why Postmus wanted the computer rendered completely inoperative. “He told me it was part of his deliberative process and no one was entitled to it,” Aleman said.
Aleman said he and Postmus “were using multiple devices and just being cagey about how we communicated.” Aleman said Postmus had instructed him to delete all of the email and text message exchanges that passed between the two of them.
Aleman said he had destroyed the computer “to protect my boss.” Mandel asked Aleman, “Did you know it was criminal [to wreck county property]? Did you sense that it was wrong?”
“It was wrong,” Aleman said.
Aleman also acknowledged that when he learned the grand jury was looking into the activity at the assessor’s office, he had arranged to have a department secretary alter meeting notes and minutes to make it appear that another of Postmus’ political appointees, Mike Richman, had done work that he had not done but which he was being paid for.
To Mandel’s questions, Aleman acknowledged he had been arrested on June 30, 2008, the same day the civil grand jury which he had lied to issued its report on the misuse of public assets at the assessor’s office for political purposes.
One aspect of Aleman’s and Postmus’ shared criminality that has a direct bearing on the case against the four current defendants pertains to the two political action committees – the Inland Empire PAC and the Conservatives For a Republican Majority PAC – that Postmus had set up in the spring of 2007, through which the prosecution says the bribes to Postmus in the form of political contributions from the Colonies Partners were laundered.
Aleman said he created the two political action committees by filing their incorporation documents in such a way that they were not connected to Postmus. The Inland Empire PAC’s articles of incorporation purported that it was headed and controlled by Dino DeFazio, who was a real estate developer who had a business partnership with Postmus. DeFazio had little to do with the actual function of the committee, although at one point when the committee’s bylaws were submitted for the second time to Betty Presley, who served as a treasurer on numerous committees in which Postmus and other Republican politicians in his circle were involved, DeFazio did sign it. Aleman acknowledged forging DeFazio’s signature on the previous document containing the committee’s bylaws. Aleman testified that he created an email address for DeFazio and used it to communicate with regard to the committee from his BlackBerry. He would send emails representing himself as DeFazio from the email address in DeFazio’s name to Presley with regard to requested disbursements from the Inland Empire PAC’s bank account.
“This is you posing as Mr. DeFazio?” Mandel asked Aleman with regard to several of those emails.
“Yes,” he said.
“With the intention of making Ms. Presley believe you were Mr. DeFazio?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
At Postmus’ direction, Aleman, in the guise of DeFazio, requested a $12,000 check be made out to the Biane for Supervisor campaign on March 1, 2007, he testified. Aleman testified that while the Inland Empire PAC received donations from sources other than the Colonies Partners, the Conservatives For A Republican Majority never received money beyond the single $50,000 contribution that came from the Colonies Partners.
The misrepresentation of himself as DeFazio had some complications and more than one pitfall.
Aleman testified under questioning by Mandel that he had mistakenly sent to Presley an email in which he was posing as DeFazio from his own email address, necessitating that he send her a follow up email from DeFazio’s email address in which he offered a rather improbable explanation that “Adam was helping me with my BlackBerry” to explain the mix-up.
Another time Aleman relayed an email that came from Postmus to Presley without altering it to make it appear as if it came from DeFazio. That email requested that checks be written to various candidates. Aleman sought to backtrack on that slip-up and he sent a second email to Presley. “These are me correcting the error because Dino DeFazio as the president or chairman of the committee needed to be the one to make the decision on who received the money,” Aleman testified.
Aleman also testified that while posing as DeFazio he had sent Presley an email authorizing Mike Richman, one of Postmus’ political appointees in the assessor’s office, to make disbursements at will from the committee’s account. “Mike Richman may conduct all the business for the IEPAC and request checks on my behalf. He is the executive director. –Dino,” the email stated.
Presley testified early in the trial. It is not clear to what extent she recognized that Postmus was using Aleman, DeFazio and Richman as cutouts to prevent Postmus from being linked to the Inland Empire PAC, nor the degree to which she understood that the Conservatives For A Republican Majority was also controlled by Postmus.
Aleman testified that Erwin had consulted with him about setting up the political action committee, Committee For Effective Government, he created in March 2007, which was used to receive the $100,000 donation provided to him by the Colonies Partners. While Erwin was not a public employee at the time he was working on behalf of the Colonies Partners in attempting to facilitate a settlement in 2006, by the time the Committee For Effective Government received the $100,000, Erwin was employed as assistant assessor, and prosecutors allege the donation was a kickback. Aleman testified that in the spring of 2007, despite Erwin’s level of sophistication based on his previous role as the president and executive director of the county deputy sheriffs’ union, he did not know how to go about setting up a political action committee. Aleman said he put Erwin into touch with Presley and walked him through the process. “We just discussed the name and how he was envisioning using the money and the benefits of running a committee with a large amount of cash in it, what was the nature of setting up a PAC, its formation and all the required documents, forms from the secretary of state and engaging Ms. Presley’s services as treasurer to run the PAC,” Aleman testified. Aleman said that Erwin set himself up as the treasurer, and Clyde Boyd, who was then a deputy district attorney, was the committee’s chairman.
He said he had “one brief conversation with Mr. Kirk about setting up a PAC,” but indicated Kirk did not need his assistance. “He was well versed in how to set up a committee,” Aleman said. “He knew Ms. Presley, as well.”
Prosecutors allege the $100,000 donation the Colonies Partners made to Kirk’s PAC, the Committee For Ethical Government, was a kickback given to reward him for delivering Ovitt’s vote for the settlement.
Mandel zeroed in on how the Colonies Partners’ donations to the political action committees were a way of laundering bribes to the ultimate recipients, i.e., Postmus, Biane, Kirk and Erwin, which the prosecution alleges were made in exchange for the vote to approve the $102 million settlement. She asked Aleman, “At some point did you learn that Mr. Kirk had taken money out of his PAC as a consultant fee?”
Aleman said he had and that “Mr. Postmus was furious. He felt it was going to blow the cover, and people would be able to trace the money to the Colonies Partners, that it would expose the link back to the Colonies Partners.”
Before the end of testimony on Monday morning, which is the only time the trial was in session this week, Aleman was questioned by Mandel with regard to his decision to cooperate with the district attorney’s office, which included surreptitiously audio-recording his phone and in-person conversations with Postmus.
Aleman said there had been publicity surrounding his arrest. He said that he had been represented by attorney Grover Porter. At some point, which he at first could not precisely fix, Aleman said Porter had approached the district attorney’s office about cooperating with them in the hope of having Aleman’s eventual sentence on the charges he faced reduced. After being provided with the communication that passed between Porter and the district attorney’s office, Aleman identified that as having occurred on October 14, 2008. He said that the district attorney’s office made no promises to him with regard to his cooperation, though there was the prospect that what he might accomplish by his cooperation is that his charges and consequent sentence might be reduced. The date of his first interrogation by the district attorney’s office investigators was November 1, 2008, at which San Bernardino County Supervising Deputy District Attorney Lewis Cope, Grover Porter, and district attorney’s office investigators Hollis Randles and Maury Weiss were initially present. Cope left early on in the encounter as did Porter somewhat later. The ground covered initially in the exchange had nothing to do with the Colonies case but was more closely related to issues in the assessor’s office, according to Aleman, who said he had come to the session with a chronology of events relating to political issues of which he was aware going back several years. Over time, the issues discussed, he said, were wide ranging. Mandel got into the record during her questioning of Aleman that it was not until page 69 on the transcript of the November 1, 2008 interrogation that there was any mention of a Colonies settlement-related issue. When that subject was broached, according to the transcript, Aleman uttered something to the effect of “That’s a whole other chapter.”
Aleman remembered the interrogation as lasting for “hours.” He said that before Cope left the interrogation he had simply told Aleman to “be completely honest and say everything you know.”
With previous witnesses, the defense has made much of the onerous and heavy-handed approach of the investigators. Mandel sought to put that issue to rest vis-à-vis Aleman. She asked him about how the investigators came across to him. He said they were “cordial” and “very nice.” The understanding was that prosecutors would be able to use any information he provided on the charges that were then outstanding against him but they would be inadmissible with regard to any other charges to be brought against him subsequently, Aleman said. Aleman said that while he was nervous about the interrogation initially, he was not fearful. With regard to Randles, Aleman noted that he had been one of the investigators who had investigated the criminal case previously brought against him. He said that Randles was “grouchy” at times and sometimes grew “flustered.”
Aleman said he did not feel intimidated by the investigators, but acknowledged they asked him to support his claims and that he had provided them with materials to do that as he was asked to do so. In this way, he testified, he had provided the investigators with a raft of emails, text messages and pin messages. He said that he had previously heeded Postmus’ instructions to delete such communications, but that at some point, “probably around my arrest,” he had discontinued making those deletions.
Aleman said that his second interrogation took place on November 11, 2008 and that it lasted “longer than nine hours.”
Mandel asked if Aleman had provided to the district attorney’s office or its investigators anything about “Postmus engineering the Colonies settlement” prior to those interrogations. Aleman said he had not and that the subject was brought out into the open at that point.
Mandel asked Aleman if he was allowed to consult with his attorney during those interrogations. He said that he was. Mandel asked why he had been so cooperative and Aleman said because Porter “trusted Mr. Cope.”
On occasion when Randles expressed skepticism over some of his claims, Aleman said he allayed that suspicion by directing him to the reporting of political contributions made to the California Secretary of State’s office or to check with Betty Presley, who had kept detailed records of the income and expenditures of various campaigns and PAC accounts.
Mandel further sought to preclude possible upcoming defense suggestions that Aleman had been browbeaten into accepting the investigators’ version of events.
“If they assumed things that you knew to be inaccurate, did you tell them they had things wrong?” she asked.
“Yes,” Aleman said. At that point Mandel drew out from Aleman another key element of the case, that relating to extortion and blackmail.
“Did you express concerns about being candid with them about what you knew about the Colonies case?” Mandel asked.
“I was very fearful of intimidation tactics,” Aleman said. “I saw the intimidation tactics Mr. Erwin had used against Mr. Biane and Mr. Postmus, and was fearful he would use those tactics against me.”
Aleman said he was aware that Burum had employed private investigators to stalk both Postmus and Biane in the context of civil litigation, that there were “private investigators parked in front of [Postmus’] home and talk about digging through trash. I was fearful about what they would do to me if they got more seriously involved into criminal activity.”
Aleman said that the intimidation and pressure Postmus was subjected to by Burum and Erwin was a cause of Postmus’ ultimate undoing. “It destroyed him,” Aleman said. “It wasn’t the only thing,” he said, alluding to the prodigious drug intake that accompanied Postmus’ toppling from the perch of near absolute power in San Bernardino County. “But I saw how it [the pressure] destroyed him. I saw how he spiraled down and out of control. It was a major contributing factor.”
The San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee last night came within a hair’s breadth of removing Chris Robles as its chairman. Robles was able to withstand the challenge largely on the basis of parliamentary maneuvering that tested the bounds of the committee’s bylaws and Robert’s Rules of Order, after Robles entrusted the officiating of the remaining proceedings to one of his closest allies on the committee’s executive board, Mark Westwood.
Twice Westwood failed to recognized motions for a vote of no confidence that had been seconded, as chaotic debate over Robles’ tenure and effectiveness ensued.
Among the several issues that were bruited about during the raucous exchange were the poor showings by party candidates in recent elections and what many charged was the diversion of Robles’ attention from support efforts for party candidates while he pursues his own commercial political consulting work which included efforts on behalf of at least one Republican candidate.
A growing number of Democrats active at both the county and state level have grown disenchanted with Robles in recent years. He was first elected chairman of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee in September 2012, sometime after he had relocated from Los Angeles County, where he was previously involved in Democratic Party politics. Part of Robles’ appeal was that he had experience with a number of campaigns, as a manager, treasurer and consultant. Also, it was believed he would energetically apply his knowledge of the intricacies of fundraising and campaigning across a broad number of races, from ones at the local municipal level, to county contests and those for the state legislature as well as for Congress. Robles’ coordination of party efforts on behalf of Democratic candidates has been, his critics say, lackluster at best. During his tenure, they say, the Democratic Party in San Bernardino County has failed to make gains commensurate with its growing demographic clout.
In 2010, the number of registered Democrats in San Bernardino County surpassed the number of registered Republicans and the Democrats have held a growing plurality among registered voters ever since. That trend appeared to be reflected in the countywide results in the 2012 presidential race when Barack Obama outdistanced Republican Mitt Romney 305,109 votes or 52.55 percent to 262,358 or 45.19 percent. And again in 2016, Hillary Clinton in San Bernardino County outperformed her Republican rival, Donald Trump, by 340,833 votes or 52.64 percent to 271,240 votes or 41.89 percent. Nevertheless, those two races, among a few notable exceptions, remain as rare showings of Democratic political might in San Bernardino County over the last half dozen years. Despite Democrats currently having a registration advantage over Republicans in San Bernardino County approaching a 4-to-3 margin – 360,898 registered voters or 40.2% to 285,015 registered voters or 31.8% among a total of 897,193 voters overall – three of the five members of the board of supervisors are Republicans; two of the county’s five congress members are Republicans, with two of the Democratic congress members having districts in which those portions outside San Bernardino County are heavily Democratic; three of the county’s four state senators are Republicans; five of the county’s eight members of the California Assembly are Republicans; and 17 of the county’s 24 cities have city councils composed of a majority of Republicans. Where the Democrats hold state or federal office in San Bernardino County they hold a commanding registration advantage. In those electoral jurisdictions where the Democrats have close to parity with the Republicans or hold a lead that is substantial but less than entirely overwhelming, they have consistently lost to Republicans. Such is the case in the 40th Assembly District where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 91,615 or 40.4 percent to 76,234 or 33.7 percent, and a Republican, Marc Steinorth, holds office. In San Bernardino County’s Fourth Supervisorial District, where the registration numbers are lopsidedly in favor of the Democrats 71,859 or 43.1 percent to 47,128 or 28.3 percent, a Republican, Curt Hagman is in office, even despite the fact that his opponent in the 2014 election was a then-incumbent Democratic U.S. Congresswoman, Gloria Negrete-McLeod.
While Democrats expected Robles to utilize his electioneering expertise and his connections as a professional political consultant to boost the party’s fortunes, that failed to come about. Indeed, many Democratic candidates report, during party briefings for candidates which dealt with rudimentary and stock campaigning techniques, Robles provided them with his business card, telling them he could offer them further assistance if they were to retain him as consultant or employ him as their campaign manager. Robles is the chief executive officer, chief financial officer and secretary of Vantage Campaigns, Inc., which is based in Chino Hills.
For many San Bernardino County Democrats, Robles crossed the line last year when during the 2016 Ontario City Council campaign, Vantage Campaigns took on as one of its clients Gus Skropos, a former Ontario councilman, former Ontario mayor, former San Bernardino County supervisor and former Superior Court Judge, for the purpose of managing his campaign. Skropos is a Republican.
Armed with documentation in the form of state campaign disclosure documents of Robles’ work, through Vantage, on behalf of Skropos, along with evidence that Robles has also worked on other campaigns in which “hit pieces,” i.e., attack mailers, were prepared against Democratic candidates, a contingent of Democratic Central Committee members confronted Robles midway through the regularly scheduled May 25 Democratic Central Committee meeting held at the rented California Teachers Association main conference room in San Bernardino. Initially, Robles was assailed with complaints about what was said was his less-than-energetic efforts with regard to promoting candidates generally. Prominent members of the anti-Robles contingent were Ron Cohen, Bobbie Chavarria, Tim Prince, Leticia Garcia, Laurie Stalnaker, Debbie McAffee, James Albert, George Alfano, Socorro Cisneros, Ana Gonzales, Fernando Hernandez, and Marvin Sawyer.
They presented a charge sheet which stated that Robles “uses the position of chair to advocate for his personal gain as a candidate consultant,” that he “did not support San Bernardino County Democratic Party endorsement candidates in the 2016 election,” and that in areas of committee concern, he as chair on behalf of the committee “prepared no press releases on endorsed candidates and no press releases on local measures” during past and current electioneering efforts.
Furthermore, according to the charge sheet, Robles “did not do candidate mailers in a timely fashion [and] 2016 endorsed candidate robocalls were not done as advertised and as were promised.”
The charge sheet stated that “2016 endorsed emails were not done as advertised and as were promised. He does not take action in a timely manner when California Democratic Party policies are violated. He seems to have little or no regard for central committee bylaws.” Further, the sheet accused Robles of having gone to the state Democratic Convention while writing off his expenses there as a candidate consultant. It said he was generally unavailable for consultation with party members regarding central committee and state party business.
While there had been sporadic criticisms leveled at Robles earlier in the meeting, it was Cohen, a member of the county executive committee, who made the first full frontal assault on Robles, essentially initiating the challenge of his authority in earnest. Cohen’s point was that the party efforts to support candidates had been woefully inadequate and overall ineffective.
“There was a total of 40 endorsements of Democratic candidates in 2016,” Cohen intoned. “Fourteen were elected. Of the other 26, we lost, some by closer margins than others.” Cohen said he had come to conclusions about where the Democratic strength existed and where the party had to make up ground. He said he disagreed with Robles’ strategy of sending out mailers to high propensity Democratic voters, since the support of those voters for Democratic candidates was a given. Robles had squandered the central committee’s limited resources in that move, Cohen suggested, indicating his belief the money would have been better utilized on efforts to reach the voters who had voted less frequently in the past but had been driven to the polls by the party’s get-out-the-vote efforts. Cohen further chided Robles for the tardiness of the mailings that had been made, saying he had “polled the different areas throughout the county” and that “62 percent voted by mail.” Mailings should have gone out earlier than the arrival of the mail ballots, Cohen said.
While those in attendance had remained relatively sedate through the bulk of Cohen’s statements, the room fairly exploded when Chavarria broached the subject of a no confidence vote against Robles. Robles immediately declared Chavarria’s motion as out of order.
When Robles set about steering the meeting away from the subject of his stewardship of the committee, Tim Prince delivered what was intended to be the coup de grâce, leveling the charge that Robles had worked on behalf of Republican candidates and causes. For a split second the room fell quiet and then burst into an even more deafening cacophony than previously. When Robles offered an initial denial, there were shouts of demand for proof. First vice chair Mark Westwood, one of Robles’ allies, expressed outrage at the irresponsibility of the accusation. This was followed by further demands for proof. References to Skropos were made, followed by the marshalling of a California Form 460 campaign reporting document filed by the Skropos campaign which delineated a $1,850 payment to Vantage for “research,” along with an email from Skropos in which he referred to Robles as his campaign representative.
Robles sought to defend himself, explaining that he had worked in 2016 on behalf of Sam Crowe, a Democrat running for the Ontario City Council. It was Crowe’s decision, Robles said, to run in tandem with Skropos, a Republican. He had merely worked on a joint mailer between the two of them, Robles said.
“I have a corporation that does campaign work,” he said. “My contract was with Sam Crowe. Sam Crowe decided he was running with another candidate and he did some joint mailers.”
“Did you get paid for those?” someone in the crowd shouted.
“Yes, I got paid for the mailers that were jointly done,” Robles conceded. “That was done between him [Skropos] and Sam. I never endorsed him [Skropos]. I never supported him. They did a joint mailer. I received reimbursement.”
“But Skropos named you as his consultant on the reporting form,” someone in the crowd challenged Robles.
“I never endorsed him,” Robles repeated. “I worked for Sam Crowe. My contract was with Sam Crowe. He decided he wanted to run with someone else.”
It was pointed out that one of the mailers in question referred to Skropos as “the Democratic choice.”
To that, Robles offered no denial, but asserted, “We actually put out a hit piece on the Republican incumbents.”
At that point, Westwood leapt into the breach, seeking to defend Robles by interpolating that working as a political consultant was Robles’ occupation.
“Someone can have an occupation and be paid for that occupation,” Westwood said. “That doesn’t mean that is an endorsement. I manage and work for a radio station. If I have a Republican on the radio, that doesn’t mean I am endorsing Republicans. I am paid for my work by the corporation. That is my job. Chris works in an industry that does mailers and campaign mailers. The money didn’t go to him. It went to Vantage Campaigns. There isn’t a connection.”
That provoked Chavarria, who said she was “not going to sit quiet while you sabotage the Democratic Party.”
Leticia Garcia stated that when Robles learned that Crowe was endorsing a Republican, Robles should have withdrawn from Crowe’s campaign.
Appearing weary, Robles muttered “I should have quit, perhaps.” He said that now that he had become the subject of discussion, he should not officiate over the proceedings and called upon Westwood to take on that role.
With Westwood in charge, a motion was heard from the floor for a no confidence vote in Robles. It was immediately seconded. Westwood refused to recognize that the motion had been made.
Leticia Garcia assailed Robles for having misrepresented and minimized the nature of his work on behalf of Skropos. She called upon him to step down as county party chairman.
Judy Briggs and the committee’s parliamentarian, Carol Robb, attempted to mount a defense of Robles. Briggs maintained that her knowledge of Ontario, Ontario politics and Sam Crowe, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat and longtime fixture in that city as a former councilman, former city attorney and current school board member, left her inclined to believe that he would have formed a coalition with Skropos, who is now, like Crowe, a former city insider who is currently an outsider. She stated her belief that deposing Robles for his involvement in that circumstance was forgivable.
Prince asserted that the central issue was the conflict of interest between Robles’ role as county party chairman and as a political consultant at large in which he is a hired gun to the highest bidder.
When another motion for a vote of no confidence was made followed by a succession of seconds, Westwood again ignored it. When he was pressed about the grounds for his suspension of protocol, Westwood said, “I am not prepared to take a motion on this because this is something that has to take place with due process.” Noting that it was already 9:38 p.m. and that the party was authorized to use the meeting hall only until 9 p.m., Westwood sought to use that as a pretext for concluding the meeting. “I probably am going to have to revisit this issue,” he said. “We are jeopardizing this meeting space and we have to have a meeting space.” Sensing, however that there was tremendous sentiment in the room with regard to the issue that had been raised, he called for an immediate debate on the spot, saying he would allow three individuals on either side of the issue to hold forth for three minutes apiece.
During that exchange, in which Joe Britt served as the timekeeper, Linda Baker cautioned those assembled against precipitously jettisoning the central committee’s elected leader, saying divisiveness was highly destructive. “If you don’t get together, this party is going to fall apart,” she said. “He did not sabotage this party. We need to get it together. If we don’t, we are going to lose the elections in 2018 and 2020.”
Chavarria said, “As Democrats, we can’t stand for incompetence and conflicts of interest. We cannot let this continue unchallenged. Why is he out working for candidates when he has not made any of the appointments to our committees? When he is dealing with our party candidates, he has approached them, saying, ‘By the way, I am a consultant. I can help you.’ What he did was present and promote his business that way. That is unacceptable. As Democrats we have to stand on pride and ethics. This business as usual is unacceptable. This is so wrong on so many levels. I think Chris should resign.”
Westwood then brought the meeting to a close by conceding that “What we have seen tonight is that some pretty serious accusations have been leveled. My recommendation is that you [Robles] take all this into consideration and write a letter and explain yourself to any and all of your accusers. He should have that chance to do that. That is the fair thing to do.”
As the meeting closed out and the crowd exited the California Teachers Association offices, one of the central committee members sized the circumstance up in this way, “It looks like they have the votes to remove him as chairman. The question is whether they will be able to get a forum to make the vote.”
Reached today, Robles told the Sentinel he has no intention of stepping down as county party chairman.
“There are no grounds for removal,” he said. “The faction of those who came after me supported Kimberly Ellis in the race for state party chair. I was very vocal in my support of Eric Bauman in that race and this was a continuation of the party infighting that took place in Sacramento this past weekend. They have no substantive grounds for any of their charges, so from here on it is going to be business as usual.”
Robles said the relatively poor performance of Democratic candidates in San Bernardino County in 2016 “has nothing to do with the party. It had to do with the candidates themselves. We do not run the candidates’ campaigns. We endorse on behalf of the party. We run an informational campaign with the voters and let them know which candidates fall within the party’s platform. Whatever support we offer in addition to that is up to each candidate and each race. We don’t have a lot of assets to apply countywide but we have done a good job of supporting candidates with what means we do have.”
Robles said, “In terms of my company’s work on campaigns, I never had a contract with any Republicans. I have worked for Democrats. That is the simple truth. These are more of the negative tactics that were used at the state party level and it is ridiculous. I have had 15 calls before noon today from people who were in attendance at last night’s meeting and they were appalled at the negative tenor of those attacking me. They were shocked at the behavior of many of the people there and many of them told me that they don’t want to take part in anything like that.”
Also this morning, Friday May 26, the Sentinel received a packet of documents from central committee members who are yet intent on seeking Robles’ ouster as party chairman. Contained within that packet were the two documents referenced Thursday night, a California Form 460 document filed by the Skropos 2016 campaign dated July 15, 2016 and date/time stamped by the Ontario city clerk’s office at 9:08 a.m. on July 20, 2016 and an email sent from Skropos to Laurie Stalnaker of the AFL-CIO at 8:46 a.m. on September 13, 2006. In the Form 460 document, the Skropos campaign reports paying $1,850 to Vantage Campaigns. In the email, Skropos seeks the AFL-CIO endorsement in his run for city council, stating, “I am running for one of two council seats in Ontario. I would love to be endorsed by the AFL-CIO in my effort to win one of those seats,” and then adding below that “My consultant is Chris Robles, should you wish to work with him.”
A second California Form 460 document filed on behalf of the Skropos campaign bearing the date January 30, 2017 to cover campaign financing activity between October 23, 2016 and December 31, 2016 and date/time stamped by the Ontario City Clerk’s office at 3:39 p.m. on January 31, 2017 shows that $6,147 was paid to Vantage Campaigns for “consulting.” –Mark Gutglueck
The unspoiled expanse of canyons and pastures on 2,450-acre Tres Hermanos Ranch will in most likelihood not be converted to residential use under a yet-to-be-fully-disclosed initiative by the City of Industry.
Sprawling Tres Hermanos Ranch, within and abutting Tonner Canyon, straddles or touches the borders separating Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties. 1,750 of the ranch’s acres fall within the confines of Chino Hills. The other 700 acres are within Diamond Bar’s city limits or its sphere of influence. In addition to the ranch itself, another substantial piece of property, the 2,500-acre Firestone Boy Scout Reservation, adjoins it and will likely accommodate the same type of development that takes place on Tres Hermanos. The Firestone property was acquired by the City of Industry, through its redevelopment agency, for $16.5 million in 2001. The City of Industry has also picked up another 1,300 acres of nearby land.
In 1972 the Pomona Valley Municipal Water District floated the concept of using a portion of the ranch property for a water storage and treatment system. That never came off but in 1978, the City of Industry’s Redevelopment Agency acquired the ranch for $12.1 million, purchasing it from the heirs of the three magnates – capitalist brothers – who acquired the ranch and gave it its name – Oil baron Tom Scott; Harry Chandler, former publisher of the Los Angeles Times; and William Rowland, son of John Rowland, who led pioneers over the Santa Fe Trail to California and the San Gabriel Valley in the 1840s. In 2000, Industry officials began to publicly discuss creating a network of reservoirs on the property.
With the state’s move to close out redevelopment agencies all over California in 2011, all redevelopment agencies have been required to divest themselves of the assets held by those agencies. The protocol for selling off those assets entails the creation of a successor agency to each redevelopment agency which handles those arrangements, subject to the approval of the California Department of Finance. In the case of the City of Industry, the successor to its redevelopment agency consists of Industry’s mayor Mark D. Radecki, and the city’s four councilmen – Cory C. Moss, Roy Haber III, Newell W. Ruggles and Abraham N. Cruz. A counterweight to the successor agency, a slight one, consists of the state oversight board to the successor agency, which counts among its members its chairman Santos Kreimann, the chief deputy assessor for Los Angeles County, and Michael Gregoryk, vice president of Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut. The oversight board can moderate the successor agency’s action but does not have the power of directing the ultimate sale of those assets.
Last year, a signal that something was up came when the City of Industry bought 800 acres of land in Tonner Canyon near Tres Hermanos Ranch and the Firestone Boy Scout Camp for $7.2 million.
That purchase came roughly a year after GH America Inc. and its partner, South Coast Communities of Irvine, tendered a $101 million offer to take Tres Hermanos Ranch off of Industry’s successor agency’s hands. The successor agency has given GH America the stiff arm. The City of Industry tendered its own offer of $100 million for the land, which is not contiguous to the City of Industry, but more than nine miles distant from it, a distance which includes the entire breadth of the City of Diamond Bar. This prompted rumors, intense ones, that the City of Industry was on the brink of engaging in a bit of profiteering by using agency-to-agency privilege to get commitments from Diamond Bar, Brea and Chino Hills to radically upzone the property in terms of the intensity and density of permitted development, and then spin it off to a developer who would construct a massive subdivision there. Diamond Bar would currently allow 624 residential units to be constructed on the 700 acres on Tres Hermanos Ranch in Diamond Bar. But thirty of those acres are zoned for what the city terms “very high density” development of 16.33 units per acres. By means of a zone change, a general plan amendment or the granting of variances, Diamond Bar could convert a considerable portion of the acreage there to very high density zoning as well. Some 50 to 70 of the acres are hampered in their developability by steep slopes that would need radical grading to render them developable. Nevertheless, Diamond Bar could conceivably allow the property it has control over to be intensely developed, perhaps clearing the way for as many as 4,900 new dwelling units on the 700 acres within its purview.
It was speculated that for an investment of as little as $200,000 to $250,000 in political donations to sitting or future Chino Hills council members, development interest could easily persuade them to come off of their city’s current land use restriction policy that envisions no more than 657 residential units on the 1,700 acres of Tres Hermano Ranch in Chino Hills. At present, Chino Hills has indicated it will not tolerate anything other than very low density on the 1,666-acres there now being utilized for agricultural use, i.e., cattle grazing, meaning just 208 units could conceivably be established there. But Chino Hills says it would be more tolerant of denser development on 18.5 other acres on the ranch, where up to 24 units might be constructed per acre. It thus would not be inconceivable that the Chino Hills City Council might accept amendments, zone changes and variances to allow a developer to proceed with a plan to put in as many as 15 units per acre across the entirety of the property, or somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 units at build out. That would have meant perhaps as many as 29,900 homes on the Tres Hermano Ranch property alone, with an untold number of houses on the adjoining properties, including those in Orange County within Brea’s sphere of influence.
The prospect of the existing oak woodlands, riparian habitat, rolling hillsides, canyon creeks, cattle pastures and grazing land for longhorn steers, chaparral that offers cover for bobcats, mountain lions, skunks and opossum, scattered black walnut trees and glades being transformed into wall-to-wall housing alarmed the residents of San Bernardino County’s southwesternmost corner. Suspicion deepened with the assertions of City of Industry officials to the effect that they were intent on preserving the property as “open space,” which was perceived among many as doublespeak intended to mask the collusion between a set of public officials functioning across five governmental jurisdictions and a multitude of well-heeled developmental interests.
It now appears, however, that alarm and suspicion is unwarranted. The Sentinel has learned from reliable sources that the City of Industry, at least at present, has no intention of seeing that property developed residentially. Rather, officials there envision a very aggressive use of the property for utility purposes. Specifically, the Sentinel has learned, the City of Industry is in serious discussion with an entity, San Gabriel Valley Water and Power LLC, a San Diego-based limited liability company fronted by Robert F. Anselmo which was created in March 2016, relating to the ultimate disposition of the land. Whereas the utility designs considered more than four decades ago by the Pomona Valley Municipal Water District did not extend beyond those ultimately related to water delivery, the San Gabriel Valley Water and Power Company has far grander intent, both in scope and nature, including in addition to water-related operations those relating to power generation. Water treated on the site will be blended with available water sources at the site, including well water, for sale to industrial users or local municipalities for irrigation or landscaping purposes. In addition, Industry officials are considering the creation of a network of reservoirs with a capacity totaling 275,000 acre-feet or 89-billion gallons on the property, which would equal in size the seventh largest water storage facility in all of Southern California. In addition, there is an intent to devote 2,300 acres of the property for the construction of a 450-megawatt capacity solar powered electric generating facility. An issue is whether the solar plant will consist of photovoltaic cells or a design involving mirrors trained on a series of glass tubes containing therminol, a synthetic petroleum product capable of sustaining a temperature of over 700 degrees Fahrenheit, which would then be pumped into a condenser and put into contact with water, and thus converted to steam to run a turbine. –Mark Gutglueck
Moving on toward a year since state college faculty members took issue with the leadership of Cal State San Bernardino President Tomás Morales, that criticism has intensified. For at least some outsiders, the contretemps has boiled down to a question of whether Morales has actually fallen short in his stewardship of the university or whether, as his defenders maintain, he is being unfairly maligned for other reasons, including, some say, because of his ethnicity.
Morales, the former president of the College of Staten Island within the City University of New York, was brought in to succeed Al Karnig as as president of California State University, San Bernardino in 2012.
In the spring of 2016, faculty members at CSUSB conducted a “campus climate survey” among themselves. While CSUSB has an academic staff of 470, the survey went to campus employees generally. Some 756 responded to the first phase of the 2015 survey. That survey found, the faculty members said, “there are significant problems with morale on the CSUSB campus.” The executive summary of the survey, released on March 7, 2016, said, “Employees have lost confidence in the campus leadership … that top leadership has not communicated a clear direction… that input is neither sought nor considered by leadership in the decision making process [and] that senior management does not act with integrity.” The summary said “the downturn in morale on campus has largely been attributed to top leadership” [and] “senior management plays favorites, does not value or respect employees, is seen as ineffective, engages in abusive or uncivil behavior, and lacks authenticity.”
Nevertheless, the first phase of the survey reflected that “A small proportion of employees indicated that they liked the new leadership, its direction, and thought that senior management had the best interests of the institution at heart.”
In phase two of the report, released on May 10, 2016, the executive summary said, “Bullying appears to be widely practiced on campus – a quarter of the respondents had personally experienced bullying and more than 40 percent had witnessed bullying. Comments show that key perpetrators of the practice tend to be those in powerful positions [and] many employees on campus characterize their work environment as threatening, or do not feel safe expressing an honest opinion for fear of inviting retaliation from management.”
For a majority of the university’s faculty senate, Morales’ efforts over the last half of 2016 and the first four months of 2017 to redress the concerns expressed in those surveys were insufficient, and on May 9 the faculty senate passed a no-confidence resolution on Morales’ leadership, by a 21-15 vote margin.
Even before the vote, there were suggestions that there was a racist element to the criticism of Morales. The university’s student body is predominantly Hispanic. More than two-thirds of the faculty is Caucasian. The issue of Morales’ performance has therefore produced charges and countercharges of ethnic bias, with some of Morales’s defenders claiming he is being singled out for undeserving criticism because of the underlying racism of many of the faculty members, who resent the trend in California higher education toward a more diverse, and in particular a more heavily participating and represented, student body and faculty. At the same time, at least some of Morale’s detractors do not hesitate to point out that the objection to Morales is intended to alleviate a situation that is harmful to that majority Latino student body and that the claim of racism is an illegitimate attempt to neutralize the criticism of Morales that borders on racism itself by suggesting that Morales should be held above approach based entirely on his ethnicity. They have said any defense of Morales should be constructed with reference to his performance, which should include documenting how he has made positive inroads on the issues outlined in last year’s survey. The May 9 resolution called for a campus-wide no-confidence referendum to be voted on by full-time faculty members this week.
Today, the results of that vote were tallied, with 294 participating faculty members voting 181-113 to express no-confidence in Morales.
Karen Kolehmainen, president of the faculty senate, took exception to the suggestion that Morales’ ethnicity was driving the criticism of his performance by the broad spectrum of educators at the college. A number of faculty members, including ones who were openly and highly critical of Morales and others who were less pointed in their expressions of disappointment in his leadership and some who were supportive of him, expressed doubt that Morales’ ethnicity had any bearing on the criticism he is facing. Some said that the “race card” was being played in his defense.
Kolehmainen has gone on record to the effect that Morales has purposefully driven a wedge between elements of the faculty, creating factions among the university’s professors.
Notably, Morales has made no public utterances to suggest there is a racist component to the negative reviews of his presidency. The charges of racism have come, nonetheless, from an entrenched number of his supporters and allies, nearly all of whom are Hispanic themselves.
As to the claim that he is being held to a higher standard as an educator because he is Latino, Morales’ critics have denied that. In its inquiries, the Sentinel has encountered reactions from CSUSB faculty to indicate that support and criticism of Morales cuts both ways in terms of ethnicity, such that there is no clear ethnic divide on attitudes with regard to the president based on race or ethnicity. That is, Morales is supported by both Caucasian and Hispanic faculty members and he is also held in lower regard by both Caucasian and Hispanic faculty members.
Morales’ support network includes several professors in the education department, among them Lynne Diaz-Rico and Enrique Murillo, and English professor Juan Delgado. While substantial numbers of the faculty supporting Morales are Latino, all supporting him are not. And the converse is also true. Some of the university’s professors who voted in support of the vote of no confidence are Hispanic. They echoed the complaint that Morales is not tolerant of dissent and can be vituperative toward staff. “I do not support President Morales,” one Latino professor told the Sentinel. “Please do not quote me.”
The most recurrent complaints about Morales are that a poisoned atmosphere now prevails at the university in which faculty members are excluded from the decision-making process and they are reluctant to speak out while the decisions are being made and afterward for fear that their careers or tenure will be harmed.
Morales’ supporters say that much of the faculty is resistant to change and are unjustifiably threatened by the policy and procedural shifts that have occurred since 2012.
“With the faculty-wide vote now behind us, I look forward to collaborating with all my colleagues across campus, as well as the students we serve, to bridge our differences and work together in support of our common mission,” Morales said. “My pledge today is to work harder than ever, building toward an effective and productive future., making sure we honor our past, reinforce our strengths, respect each other, and continue to position CSUSB as an inspired and relevant leader in higher education.”
Just prior to his hiring as CSUSB president in 2012, Morales was subjected to a vote of no confidence at the College of Staten Island on many of the same grounds he is now being criticized for. Both Morales and then-College of Staten Island Provost William Fritz had “proven themselves incapable of effectively leading the College of Staten Island,” according to a resolution of no confidence voted upon by the College of Staten Island Faculty Senate on March 22, 2011 which passed 31-23. According to that resolution, Morales and Fritz had exercised poor judgment in the choice and evaluation of administrators, the rejection of elected chairs of academic departments, and had not effectively or responsibly administered the City University of New York’s mandate to ensure students obtained degrees. As has now occurred in San Bernardino, some members of the College of Staten Island faculty subsequently surfaced publicly to support Morales.
Kolehmainen told the Sentinel that the level of support for and opposition to Morales reflected within the faculty senate matches the support and opposition of the faculty generally.
“There may be a slight variance but the attitude of the faculty senate is pretty closely representative of the faculty as a whole,” Kolehainen said. The implication of the faculty senate’s vote of no confidence and the full faculty’s confirmation carries no inherent authority in forcing the state university system to terminate Morales. “This is only a symbolic statement,” Kolehmainen said. “Neither one is binding in any way. But it clearly shows we think there are a series of problems on campus and that they need to be addressed.” -Mark Gutglueck
Fifty days after former sheriff’s deputy Charles Foster was found guilty of assaulting Frances Pusok at the conclusion of a drawn out pursuit in April 2015, he and his Fresno-based attorney on May 19 accepted a plea to a misdemeanor charge of disturbing the peace, opting out of pursuing total vindication in a retrial.
Foster, like his two co-defendants in the trial, Michael Phelps and Nick Downey, now stands convicted of a far less serious charge than assault under the color of authority, which the prosecutor in the case, Senior Deputy San Bernardino County District Attorney Robert Bulloch, previously succeeded in convicting him on. The disturbing the peace charge was recorded as a misdemeanor.
The charges against Foster, Phelps and Downey stemmed from the events of April 9, 2015 which ensued after deputies arrived with a search warrant at the home of one of Pusok’s acquaintances. Pusok, who was himself just arriving at the Apple Valley residence when the deputies showed up en masse, had previous felony and misdemeanor convictions on resisting arrest, animal cruelty and attempted robbery charges. Thinking the officers were there because of him, Pusok escalated the chance circumstance into a mad and unnecessary dash for escape. Traveling by vehicle first through both the incorporated and unincorporated areas of Apple Valley and the unincorporated area of Hesperia, he moved onto dirt roads that led him to the Bowen’s Ranch area. He disembarked from his vehicle at the end of the roadway, and after running down the steep trail toward Deep Creek Hot Springs, stole a horse and set out on a wild ride across some extremely rugged terrain with nearly a dozen deputies, who likewise had exited their vehicles, in foot pursuit behind him. In short order, two sheriff’s helicopters were brought in and they began picking up and transporting some of the deputies giving chase to spots ahead of where Pusok on horseback appeared to be headed. Before the misadventure concluded, another helicopter, this one from the NBC television affiliate in Los Angeles, was hovering overhead as well, catching the chase on video. That video showed Pusok being thrown from the horse on a chaparral-strewn hilltop, then being swarmed upon by one arriving deputy after another and being pummeled while he lay on the ground.
The video depicted Pusok at first seeking to hide behind some chaparral immediately upon being thrown from the horse, but then surrendering as the deputies are advancing toward him, lying face down on the desert floor and putting his arms flat on the ground even before the first of the arriving deputies made contact with him. As he complies with commands to put his hands behind his back and is placing them, while he is still prone, on the small of his back, his captors descend on him, and began kicking and striking him repeatedly. Within the first 45 seconds of the first physical contact between the deputies and Pusok, eight deputies are seen in the video hovering over him, with several of them administering blows and kicks and occasional stomps. At slightly over one minute after the first physical contact, two of the original eight deputies have backed away. With six deputies clustered over him, an effort to handcuff or tie him in some fashion seems to be progressing. But at one minute and 17 seconds after the first contact and again at one minute 21 seconds after the first contact, one of the deputies appears to stomp on him. The last unequivocal overt display of physical force against Pusok on the video comes at one minute and 32 seconds when for four seconds two other deputies appear to be punching and kicking him. At one minute and 51 seconds after the first contact, for five seconds, with several of the deputies yet hunched over Pusok, one of them is visibly swinging his arm back and forth rapidly, though it is not clear whether he is punching Pusok or perhaps cinching up some form of ligature.
Phelps, Foster, and Downey were identified and charged on September 1, 2015. It had been widely noted by many, including other members of the sheriff’s department, that Foster, Phelps and Downey were among the youngest and lowest ranking of the contingent of officers that converged on Pusok, and that at least five of their sheriff’s department colleagues can be seen in the video raining blows, kicking or stepping upon Pusok after he was in a prone position. One of those officers on the scene was the scion of a former top ranking member of the department who is himself on a career trajectory that will likely take him into the command echelon. This gave rise to the insinuation that Downey, Foster and Phelps were in some measure scapegoated.
The attorneys representing the three, Michael Schwartz in the case of Downey, Kasey A. Castillo on behalf of Phelps, and Phillips representing Foster, at trial before Judge Dwight Moore conceded nothing, arguing that Pusok was fleeing, representing a danger to others, and that those pursuing him had been informed shortly after the pursuit started based upon an identification of his vehicle’s license plate number of who he was and his accompanying criminal record. The deputies thus had grounds to believe Pusok was a dangerous and unpredictable criminal against whom they were justified in using whatever level of force was necessary to bring him into custody, the defense lawyers contended.
The jury clearly rejected those assertions in the case of Foster and he was convicted on March 30 in a unanimous verdict; two thirds of the jury on the same day rejected those assertions with regard to Phelps and Downey, deadlocking in an 8 to 4 verdict in favor of conviction against both former officers.
Four days later, with the district attorney’s office and the two defendants’ attorneys set for an April 21 pre-trial hearing on a second trial, Phelps and Downey entered guilty pleas to misdemeanor disturbing the peace charges, and the case, minus a yet-to-be-filed appeal by Phillips of Foster’s conviction, was brought to a close.
On May 19, Judge Moore had considered Phillips’ motion for providing Foster with a new trial, based upon instructional error during the final arguments in the case as well as Phillips’ contention that the evidence of her client’s guilt was insufficient to justify a conviction.
During his closing argument and in his rebuttal to the closing statements of the defense attorneys, Bulloch engaged in an animated and free-ranging condemnation of the accused, referencing Scripture and the parable of the Good Samaritan, and at one point asserting, “We have to have the will to take on the machine of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department” which he said was home to a “culture of violence” maintained through a “code of silence.”
Moore, who credited himself with being a “thirteenth juror,” said he watched the video with the jury numerous times during the trial. He said he had viewed it during pretrial and since the end of the trial. He said he did not feel he could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Foster committed the crime of which he was accused and convicted. With regard to a portion of the videotape in which Foster is seen kicking the prone Pusak, Moore said, “I can see the leg move but I cannot say if in fact the kick was delivered.” With regard to Phillips’ claim of instructional error, Moore conceded it might have resulted in confusing the jurors. That confusion, Moore said, combined with “scant evidence of the assault,” along with language on belt tape recordings “led to the jury reaching a conclusion that I do not think was supported by the evidence.”
Moore receded, however, from ruling upon allegations of impropriety by Bulloch, saying the co-existing evidence supporting a new trial did not make ruling on the prosecutorial misconduct allegation necessary in so far as Foster was concerned.
“I chose not to address those issues,” Moore said. If Moore had made a determination of prosecutorial misconduct on Bulloch’s part it would have triggered a full blown State Bar investigation of Bulloch and the district attorney’s office.
Less than four hours after Moore made his ruling, Phillips returned to the courtroom where on behalf of Foster she accepted a plea arrangement identical to those offered and accepted by Downey and Phelps – disturbing the peace. That brought the prosecution to a close.
Downey, Phelps and Foster were previously terminated from their positions with the department. There has yet to be confirmation that they will seek reinstatement with the department.
In illustration of how close Los Angeles-based Cadiz, Inc. is to getting final clearance to extract millions of gallons of water per year from the east Mojave Desert for domestic use in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, on Wednesday May 24, made called on the Trump administration to continue a policy of preventing the use of a Mojave Desert railroad right-of-way for the controversial Cadiz Water Project.
Los Angeles-based Cadiz, Inc wants to pump large volumes of water from wells it owns in the remote Cadiz Valley and send it by pipeline a distance of roughly 40 miles along the railroad right of way owned by the Arizona & California Railroad to the Colorado River Aqueduct. The water then could be sold to Southern California water providers. In a ploy that environmentalists and other opponents of the project considered an unprincipled display of sleight of hand, the proponents of the project in 2012 arranged to have the Santa Margarita Water District in Orange County, which is one of the entities that is lined up to purchase the water from Cadiz, Inc., serve as the agency that approved the project and oversaw its environmental certification, despite the consideration that the district is some 235 miles away from the project site.
A series of environmental challenges and lawsuits delayed the implementation of the project. Cadiz, Inc. has succeeded in overcoming all of those lawsuits or having them dismissed. The last obstruction to the project is a 2015 U.S. Bureau of Land Management decision that Cadiz, Inc. could not use the existing federal railroad right-of-way for the water pipeline it intends to construct to convey water drawn from the aquifer to the Colorado River Aqueduct without going through a federal environmental review, under the the National Environmental Policy Act. The company has not undertaken that study, let alone completed it. The Donald Trump Administration has shown support for the project, and in the form of a memo from a Bureau of Land Management acting assistant director in April, revoked two of the legal bases for the agency’s 2015 decision.
Cadiz, Inc. has now asked the federal government to expedite giving it the all clear to proceed. Such an okay is anticipated within the next several weeks.
On May 23, Feinstein wrote a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, requesting that his agency uphold the Bureau of Land Management’s 2015 determination that Cadiz cannot use the railroad right-of-way on federal property to convey water drawn from beneath the fragile Mojave Desert without further federal environmental reviews.
“If Cadiz is successful in building its project, a major aquifer that sustains life in California’s Mojave Desert will be destroyed,” Feinstein said publicly. “This would be a terrible legacy for this administration to allow the destruction of all that we’ve done to preserve this amazing desert for posterity.”
Cadiz officials say taking water out of the desert will not hurt it. –Mark Gutglueck
By David Buckley
When Upland residents worry about the risks associated with annexation into the San Bernardino County Fire District, they need look no further than the tiny resort town of Havasu Lake, which is located on the California side of the Colorado River about 38 miles south of Needles.
The recent history of the town of Havasu Lake’s dealings with San Bernardino County is best characterized as a deceit-filled rip off, replete with intrigue, obfuscation and mismanagement resulting in an unmanned fire station after the local voters enacted a special fire tax. San Bernardino County officials, both from San Bernardino County Fire Department and the First District supervisor’s office floated empty promises of “Increased fire and emergency medical services” which have never been delivered upon. This false promise was repeated ad nauseam during the promulgation of the new special fire tax, while quite the opposite has actually transpired.
In March of 2009, the South Desert Regional Service Zone was receiving $116,000 per year in property tax revenues from local residents, of which there were not too many. It utilized $127,040 per year for salaries, benefits and services/supplies to operate Fire Station No. 118. Of that amount $91,345 funded two paid call firefighters per 10-hour day, which included one paid call fire captain working ten hours a week. It also consumed $35,695 yearly to pay for services/supplies, use of vehicles and indirect overhead consisting of command and support charges.
A special ballot dated March 17, 2009 went out calling for the authorization of a $113.49 per year special tax for, and I quote, “increased fire and emergency medical services, with an annual cost of living increase not to exceed 3 percent as needed, beginning fiscal year 2009-2010 and continuing each year thereafter.” This would, officials said, “finance an increased level of fire operations beginning in fiscal year 2009-10” under the auspices of the newly created Service Zone FP-6 (Havasu Lake) within the South Desert Service Zone. Major elements of the enhanced budget would include, officials said, an $80,000 increase in salaries and benefit, 1 $10,600 increase in non-inventoriable equity, a 3,300 increase in special services, $4,200 for a geographic information system, $2,550 for the distribution of equipment and $24,632 for equipment and service acquisition.
The history of San Bernardino County Fire’s indiscretions at Havasu Lake are rooted in Havasu Lake’s extremely remote location, far from prying eyes and traditionally free from media scrutiny. These factors, combined with unscrupulous San Bernardino County officials, coveting new fountains of money in the middle of nowhere, produced a perfect storm for Havasu Lake. The fire station that was manned and utilized without the special tax is now unmanned most of the time; and the San Bernardino County Fire Department now shamelessly relies on two Chemehuevi paid call Firefighters to provide any service at all.
Havasu Lake in the past enjoyed a top notch dedicated fire shop, staffed with paid call firefighters and a paid call fire captain, but now most often the fire station is unmanned due to efforts by San Bernardino County Fire to eliminate the paid call program.
More insulting yet is that aside from the increase property tax local residents are paying in the form of the assessment dedicated to fire protection, the local fire protection effort, which has now been taken over by the San Bernardino County Fire Department routinely receives substantial donations of supplemental funding from a local 501 (3) c organization, the Havasu Lake Firebelles.
Donna Massey, the recently departed wife of retired fire captain Bill Massey and president of the Havasu Lake Firebelles, raised well over a million dollars for the San Bernardino County Fire Department operation in Havasu Lake over several decades. The donations continue, but the town of Havasu Lake’s once-strong fire department has been allowed to wither on the vine due to mismanagement by San Bernardino County fire command and zero leadership from First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood, the current chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors. In addition to being unable to staff the station and answer questions from the community, the San Bernardino County Fire Department covertly attempted to eliminate the paid call firefighter program, which had been the mainstay of rural fire stations.
Beginning two years before the vote on the special fire tax in Havasu Lake, the county fire division staged a set of false crises, which included then San Bernardino County Fire District Chief Paul Summers announcing his intention to retire. In August 2008, then-fire chief Pat Dennin accepted, several months after having already accepted $43,937.12 from the Firebelles, another $8,500 from the Havasu Lake Firebelles organization to offset the cost of additional paid call firefighters for increased staffing hours at Station 118 in Lake Havasu for an approximate six month period, upping coverage from 10 hours to 12 hours, 7 days a week; and increasing captain staffing two hours a day, from 10 hours to 12 hours, two days a week.
Earlier, in September 2007, a county resident living in Havasu Lake had questioned, during a meeting of the now-defunct Havasu Lake Municipal Advisory Council, how much had been budgeted for Station 118 salaries for Fiscal Year 07/08, how that funding had become depleted in less than three months, where the money had been spent, what entity or division within the county structure was auditing the operations of Station 118 and its budget, whether chief Summers was contemplating the ending of the paid call firefighter system, who was maintaining the station’s equipment and what provisions were being made for training. There were also questions about the relative depth of personnel between the Havasu Lake and Big River and Wonder Valley fire protection operations. There were questions as well about representations that local taxes were being used to pay for a lease on Fire Station 118 when its construction had been defrayed by the Firebelles.
Among Havasu Lake’s claims to fame is that it is also the location of the Chemehuevi Reservation and serves as the seat of the tribal government. It was established that the Chemehuevi Tribe paid $11,700 annually for fire service.
County officials used what they said was a financial crisis besetting the fire operations to push for the special fire tax.
In 2012, three years after the implementation of Havasu Lake’s new Special Fire Tax, several Havasu Lake firefighters contacted a local citizen linked to the media, requested anonymity, and then quickly spilled the beans to the effect that “Our special fire tax dollars were spent outside the special district in violation of Proposition 218… Our special fire tax dollars were misappropriated out of the district and utilized to fund a command salary at the county fire department’s brand new fire station in Hesperia.”
It turned out that in 2010 the county had reduced staffing and services in Havasu Lake, despite the fact that the Havasu Lake residents were paying a special tax for them to be in place, at the ready to fight a fire if one broke out. The $43,937.12 provided to the local firefighting effort almost three years before had gone to purchase a new utility vehicle. By 2015, the local fire department had a brand new utility vehicle with no firefighters to drive it, as well as an ambulance and fireboat, which were also purchased by the Havasu Lake Firebelles.
Havasu Lake’s Station 118 is not the only rural fire station to suffer under the failed leadership of San Bernardino County Fire Department, whose efforts to dismantle the long established paid call firefighter program in San Bernardino County have, according to current San Bernardino County Fire Department sources, caused the reduction of service at, or closure of at least five other rural fire stations, including the fire station in San Antonio Heights.
In a half-hearted effort to save appearances, San Bernardino County Fire has, when opportunity presents itself, caused paid call firefighters from other rural fire stations, including San Antonio Heights, to commute to Havasu Lake, the distances involved in this commute are extraordinary. This situation is reminiscent of the punishment of “Highway Therapy,” as administered by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.
In an interview last year at yet another rural San Bernardino County Fire outpost, the paid call firefighter on duty described the situation as: “The union running amuck, demanding that only professional firefighters, i.e., union members, be employed by San Bernardino County Fire.”
To be fair to the San Bernardino County Fire Department, this same paid call firefighter asserted that Current County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig’s goal of professionalizing the entire county fire department was well intentioned but somewhat misguided and that San Bernardino County fire command lacked the backbone to stand up for the public safety interests of rural San Bernardino County in the face of pressure from the union.
The situation at Havasu Lake remains unresolved, and as of this writing San Bernardino County Fire is still reliant on two dedicated Chemehuevi firefighters, John Perez and Danny Pintor, to stand up and volunteer. Without these two all would be lost at Station 118.
The sad situation of the Havasu Lake special fire tax has also produced a strange result in nearby Needles. When the Needles City Council caved in to demands from First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood and voluntarily surrendered that city’s long-standing local fire authority and allowed Needles to be annexed into the county fire district, the troubled history at Havasu Lake and precluded Needles from joining the nearby fire district. The end result was that instead of joining forces with a fire district 38 miles away, Needles was forced to “annex” to the Helendale Fire Protection Zone 200 miles away!
The citizens of Upland should run from the San Bernardino County Fire Department as one runs from a burning building.
Earp and nearby Vidal have the distinction of being the southeasternmost communities in San Bernardino County as well as lying within the Sonoran Desert, close to the California/Arizona state line at the Colorado River in Parker Valley. The majority of 20,105-square mile San Bernardino County falls within the Mojave Desert. Earp’s location within the Sonoran Desert is therefore noteworthy.
The town was originally named Drennan. In 1906, the famed Old West lawman Wyatt Earp and his common-law wife, Josephine Sarah Marcus, began living there part-time, particularly during the winter. The couple would return to Los Angeles for nine or ten months out of the year, but while in Earp, or Drennan as it was then known, Wyatt Earp staked more than 100 copper and gold mining claims he collectively referred to as the “Happy Days” mines near the base of the Whipple Mountains.
The town was never incorporated. The post office near Earp’s mining claims at the eastern terminus of Highway 62 near Parker, Arizona was redesignated “Wyatt Earp, California” after Earp’s death in 1930. It now bears the ZIP code of 92242. Today the town is simply known as Earp. There are some 1,500 residents living within the town and its vicinity. At 233 miles from San Bernardino, Earp lays claim to having a post office further away from the county seat than any other town in the U.S.
The limber pine is present in the San Bernardino mountains. Known by is scientific name, Pinus flexilis, the limber pine is a species in the Pinaceae family that occurs in the mountains of the Western United States, Mexico, and Canada, most commonly in the Rocky Mountains. Individual limber pine trees, such as one approaching 3,000 years old in the upper North Saskatchewan River at Whirlpool Point in Albe, one more than 2,000 years old in the Eagle Cap Wilderness in Oregon and another 1,700 years old in the Alta Ski Area in Utah, are among the oldest known continuously living things on earth.
Pinus flexilis is typically a high-elevation pine, often marking the tree line either on its own, or with whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), either of the bristlecone pines, or lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta). A very durable tree if not attacked by white pine blister rust, the limber pine grows at elevations from 5,000 to 12,000 feet. As an exceptionally slow growing species, it does not compete well with the other conifers in its habitat. It will be found thriving in places where white fir, western hemlock, lodgepole pine, Douglas-fir and Engelmann spruce can’t survive. This often means southwestern slopes, on the very edge of cliffs or in pockets on talus slopes. Ironically, it’s the limber pines that will eventually stabilize enough soil to make it possible for the other trees to grow on the same location.
This pine has a short, thick trunk with an irregular crown and can develop a stunted, twisted form, very low to the ground. Compared to many of the other conifers, it is a relatively small tree. In favorable conditions, it grows to heights of between 65 feet and 80 feet tall. On exposed treeline sites, mature trees are much smaller, reaching heights of only 15 to 35 feet. They are about 12 to 30 inches in diameter. The needles are found in bundles of five, in tufts, at the ends of the branches. The tree sheds its needles about every five years.
Pinus flexilis, is an important source of food for several species, including red squirrels and Clark’s nutcrackers. American black bears may raid squirrel caches for limber pine nuts. Squirrels, Northern flickers, and mountain bluebirds often nest in the trees.
Distinguishing limber pine from the related whitebark pine (pinus albicaulis) and the western pine (pinus monticola) is difficult, the major distinguishing characteristic being the trees’ cones. In limber pine, the cones are (2 1⁄4–4 3⁄4 inches long where the species overlap, are green when immature, and open to release the seeds; the scales are not fragile.
The Limber Pine’s branches are so limber that they can be bent double without breaking, a distinct advantage in withstanding severe winds and snow loads. The heartwood of the Limber Pine is dense, seasons well, and works easily, but does not last well so it is of little commercial significance. Limber Pine nuts are also edible although not quite as tasty or nutritious as the pinyon nuts.
Limber pine is susceptible to white pine blister rust, caused by Cronartium ribicola, a fungus that was introduced accidentally from Europe. Limber pine mortality is high in many areas throughout its range, except Arizona, where white pine blister rust has not yet been found.