By Mark Gutglueck
Defense attorneys this week set about discrediting one of the key witnesses in the Colonies Lawsuit Settlement Political Corruption Case.
Throughout Week 20 and abbreviated Week 21 in the trial, Adam Aleman, the 35th witness in the case whose testimony came on the heels of that of his former boss Bill Postmus, offered testimony that is central to the prosecution’s theory of the guilt of two of the defendants in the case, Jeff Burum and Jim Erwin. For most of May 17, the day on which Aleman began testifying, all of May 18, and again on May 22, the defendants and their legal teams sat by silently, with the exception of some spirited objections which Judge Michael Smith sporadically sustained, as California Supervising Deputy Attorney General Melissa Mandel walked Aleman through his testimony, during which he corroborated the version of events Postmus had provided when he was testifying under direct examination and before his reliability came under question during cross examination. Postmus’ testimony under direct examination was that while he and Burum were both in China in September 2005 in conjunction with a trade mission, Burum had lobbied him in an effort to obtain his support for the settlement of a lawsuit the Colonies Partners had brought against the county over flood control issues that delayed the completion of the Colonies at San Antonio residential and Colonies Crossroads commercial subdivisions in northeast Upland.. Postmus on direct examination said that in the latter half of 2006, Erwin, working on behalf of Burum and his company, the Colonies Partners, had threatened to expose elements of both his and former San Bernardino County Supervisor Paul Biane’s personal lives in an effort to persuade them to support the settlement. And Burum had promised to support him in either or both future political and business endeavors once the settlement was out of the way, Postmus said. Moreover, Postmus said, 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. Postmus was chairman of the board when the final stages of the lawsuit settlement negotiations between the county board of supervisors and the Colonies Partners decision were taking place. Postmus affirmed the previous testimony by numerous witnesses who said he essentially commandeered from Paul Biane the role of the major champion on the board of supervisors with regard to forging some order of a settlement with the Colonies Partners to bring the litigation to a close.
During their cross examination of Postmus, defense attorneys, particularly Jennifer Keller, one of the attorneys representing Burum, made substantial inroads against the testimony he had offered against the defendants under direct examination, demonstrating that nearly a decade of escalating methamphetamine use capped by the use of the drug ecstacy and inhalants when the stimulant no longer produced the level of euphoria he craved had a devastating effect on his power of recall and therefore the reliability of his testimony. For that reason, Postmus had been followed to the witness stand by Aleman, his protégé and confidant, who was nearly a dozen years his junior and whom Postmus had employed as a field representative when he was supervisor and then elevated to the post of assistant assessor shortly after he was sworn in as assessor in 2007 following his election to that position in 2006. As much or more than anyone else, Aleman was in a position to provide a window on Postmus and the atmospherics around him during the last four years of his public life. The prosecution, composed of Mandel and Supervising Deputy District Attorney Lewis Cope, employed Aleman to reinforce Postmus’ direct examination testimony, bridge the gaps in his failing memory and recapture the ground that had been lost to the defense during the cross examination of Postmus in which he had controverted or compromised some elements of his direct examination testimony and had been driven by Keller to the brink of recanting other statements elicited from him by the prosecution.
Postmus said he had met numerous times with Burum in the first half of 2006, acknowledging discussions relating to the lawsuit settlement took place at those meetings. While Postmus could recollect Aleman being present at only one or perhaps two of those meetings, Aleman, whose power of recall was uncompromised by heavy drug use, contradicted his former boss and said he had met with Burum in the presence of Postmus “six to 12 times between January and June of 2006” at various restaurants, as well as at the Red Hill County Club. Aleman also said that he and Postmus had encountered Burum in the presence of his future attorney, Stephen Larson, at a Republican Women’s event during that time frame. Aleman said that during those meetings that the Colonies settlement “was probably the only subject of conversation.” Aleman said that at that point Burum “was very frustrated with Paul [Biane],” and Burum accused Biane of “pussyfooting around” with regard to reaching a settlement. Aleman confirmed a key element of Postmus’ testimony during direct examination that dovetailed with the prosecution’s theory of guilt, namely that Burum during one of those meetings indicated that “as soon as the Colonies settlement is over everyone would be taken care of politically.”
By 2005, Aleman said Biane was concerned about his image and the impact being seen as the prime mover on the board toward a settlement would have on his future political aspirations and that therefore Postmus “was being groomed to take over Paul’s position to be the point person to get the settlement done.” Aleman testified that Postmus, during his contact with Burum in China in 2005, had been subjected to pressure by Burum with regard to reaching a settlement and that Postmus had sent him text messages to that effect while he was still in China.
Aleman testified that he, Postmus, and Biane, the latter two who were then, respectively, the chairman and vice chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, were all aligned politically and that Burum was a key donor to Postmus’ and Biane’s electoral efforts as well as Republican political causes and candidates. He characterized Erwin, who was the head of the most powerful political organization in the county, the Safety Employees Benefit Association, which represented the county’s sheriff’s deputies, as also being one of Postmus’ supporters. Nevertheless, Aleman testified, Erwin, while working on behalf of Burum and the Colonies Partners to help effectuate a settlement of the lawsuit, utilized intimidation, extortion and blackmail against Postmus and Biane. The means of doing this, Aleman testified, consisted of political “hit mailers” targeting Postmus and Biane, dwelling on the former’s drug addiction and homosexuality and the latter’s financial difficulties. Those mailers were never actually sent out, according to the prosecution, but the threat that they would be, prosecutors allege, induced Postmus and Biane to come to terms with the Colonies Partners. Aleman testified that in 2006 Erwin, who was then the executive director of the Safety Employees Benefit Association, showed him “mockups” of several anti-Biane hit pieces when he had gone to Erwin’s office.
Aleman further offered attestation to another element of the prosecution’s case, testifying that Mark Kirk, who was at that time supervisor Gary Ovitt’s chief of staff, had been one of Postmus’ political allies. Ovitt provided the third crucial vote in support of the $102 million settlement with the Colonies Partners in November 2006. Kirk, Aleman testified, had political aspirations. Ovitt, Aleman testified, “was a rubber stamp of what Mr. Kirk wanted. Mr. Ovitt deferred most of the decision making to Mark Kirk.”
On Tuesday of this week, after the two juries hearing the case returned to the courtroom after a hiatus of seven full days consisting of the three-day Memorial Day Weekend and the four days preceding it, the defendants and their lawyers continued to bide their time as Mandel tied together some remaining loose ends with Aleman’s testimony. Mandel focused upon the second major element of the criminal case, the $100,000 donations made by the Colonies Partners to political action committees controlled by Postmus, Biane, Erwin and Kirk after the settlement was finalized. The prosecution alleges those donations were thinly-veiled bribes or kickbacks made in exchange for the effectuation of the $102 million settlement, in the case of Postmus and Biane for having voted to approve it, in the case of Kirk for having delivered Ovitt’s vote in favor of it, and in the case of Erwin, for his assistance in persuading Postmus and Biane to support it.
Mandel asked Aleman about his communications with Postmus regarding the political action committees, which Aleman had told district attorney investigator Hollis “Bud” Randles in 2008 were essentially money laundering mechanisms. The articles of incorporation of those committees were structured, according to Aleman, in such a way as to prevent them from being linked to those who actually had control over them, namely Postmus, Biane, Kirk and Erwin. Mandel asked Aleman how Postmus reacted when he found out that Kirk paid himself a $20,000 consulting fee from the Alliance for Ethical Government PAC Kirk had set up shortly after that PAC received a $100,000 contribution from Colonies Partners in May 2007.
Aleman said Postmus was infuriated upon finding out. “Mr. Postmus was very upset. He felt it was going to expose all the parties that had received money from the Colonies Partners,” Aleman said. “It was almost a direct link to receiving a cash contribution from Colonies Partners.”
Before ending her direct examination of Aleman, Mandel returned to the a subject she had previously covered during Aleman’s first day on the witness stand, that being his own culpability and criminal wrongdoing. Recognizing that defense attorneys would inevitably zero in on the consideration that Aleman had been caught up in a scandal pertaining to abuses in the assessor’s office, Mandel requestioned him about it. Aleman acknowledged his participation in the scheme in which the assessor’s office facilities had been used by him, Postmus and others for partisan political purposes, resulting in his being arrested and charged with six felonies and his eventual no contest pleas to four of those charges as part of a plea deal in which he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in making cases against Postmus, the four now on trial and any others about whose alleged criminal acts he had knowledge.
At 2:43 p.m. on May 30 Jennifer Keller, representing Burum, began the cross examination of Aleman. The first issue she took up was the fashion in which Aleman was under constant escort by armed district attorney’s investigators from the point he arrives at the courthouse until the time he leaves, with two and as many as three shrouding him and at least one remaining in the gallery of the courtroom during his testimony.
“Are all three needed, in your opinion?” Keller asked him. “Do you need three armed people to protect you?”
Aleman indicated that many were not necessary.
“During the last eight years, were you in any form of witness protection?” she asked.
Aleman said that he had not been. When Aleman noted that he had moved out of the area to Orange County, Keller referenced his LinkedIn profile, saying it left out his experience with the assessor’s office and the board of supervisors. When Aleman said he thought his LinkedIn profile was private, Keller told him she had been able to review it. “Has anyone come to your home?” she asked.
“No,” Aleman said.
“Has anyone tried to do anything to you?”
“No,” he said.
“Has anyone threatened you?”
“No,” Aleman said
“Has anyone contacted your employer?” she asked
“No,” he said.
“Has anyone slashed your tires?”
“No,” he said.
“So, nevertheless, you felt you were in danger in this courthouse, sufficient danger that you need armed protection?” Keller asked
“Yes,” said Aleman
“You testified earlier you asked for armed protection,” Keller said.
“Yes,” said Aleman.
Keller then, essentially, accused Aleman of conspiring with the prosecution to lodge a false impression about the defendants.
“Aren’t you really trying to make the point that these are dangerous guys?” Keller asked.
“That wasn’t the intent,” Aleman said.
“It seems odd that you have asked for armed protection if no one has come to your home or gone to your work or is following you on your commute,” she said. Keller than made a full frontal assault on Aleman’s credibility.
“You have a history of lying if you think it will help you in this case, the assessor’s [criminal case]. Isn’t that true?” she asked.
“No,” he said.
Keller then cut right to the heart of the criminal case that had been lodged against Aleman, which mushroomed with his efforts to hide partisan political activity at the assessor’s office that had been ongoing there from the time Postmus assumed the assessor’s post and hired Aleman as assistant assessor. That criminal cover-up entailed his destruction of one of Postmus’ county-issued computers, his efforts to alter the meeting minutes of the assessor’s office’s executive staff and his misrepresentations and outright lies about his actions when he was initially interrogated by district attorney’s office investigators and then questioned by a civil grand jury on April 16, 2008. Aleman acknowledged telling numerous lies to protect both himself and Postmus.
“You knew you were not supposed to be running a political operation out of that [the assessor’s] office, correct?” Keller asked.
“Yes,” Aleman answered.
That political patronage included hiring Ted Lehrer, Mike Richman and Greg Eyler, who was one of Postmus’ boyfriends, as well as Aleman himself. Lehrer was given the official position of the assessor’s communication director but was engaged almost entirely in making postings to Republican Party web pages, internet chat rooms and blogs. Eyler rarely if ever showed up for work, Aleman testified. Richman was a straight-out political operative. Both Aleman and Postmus did not draw the line at misusing taxpayer supported facilities at the assessor’s office for political purposes, Aleman testified, but used those facilities and the time they were supposed to be engaged in the duties of the assessor’s office running a money-making business, known as ALP, a corporate acronym for Aleman Lehrer and Postmus, which tapped into revenue available from pop-ups and other forms of advertising on the Red County San Bernardino and Flashreport forums. Lehrer spent, Aleman estimated, “99 percent” of his time in the office making blog postings.
To prevent the illicit political activity in the assessor’s office that he was overseeing from being discovered, Aleman provided Lehrer with a laptop that was not linked to the county’s server, he said.
A major portion of his efforts was made in an effort for aggrandizement of both Postmus and himself, Aleman testified, including lengthening and solidifying their political reach.
Keller wrung from Aleman the concession that turning the assessor’s office into a political mill was set up before Postmus was sworn in, while Postmus was yet serving as chairman of the board of supervisors and had the power, with the assistance of his allies on the board, to confer an even larger budget on the assessor’s office so he and Aleman could take advantage of it once he was assessor.
“Before you went over to the assessor’s office, the two of you were looking to build up the assessor’s office,” she said. “You [meaning Aleman and Postmus] were instrumental in creating 13 new positions for the assessor’s office,” Keller said.
When Aleman did not acknowledge having done so, Keller referred him to a statement he had previously made, on September 30, 2010, when Aleman spoke about the creation of an executive board in the assessor’s office. “The plan was to have executives do political work and pay them with taxpayer money,” Aleman said. “The appropriate word is ‘subsidize’ political work through the county, to create a political army that didn’t have to be paid through any campaign funds.”
“You and Mr. Postmus filled these positions with your political operatives?” Keller asked.
“Yes,” said Aleman.
“These were sham jobs?” she asked.
“Yes,” Aleman said.
Though Mandel had explored the criminal activity Aleman had engaged in and had been convicted of in an effort to immunize him as a witness, Keller re-explored those issues, dwelling on them at length in an effort to paint Aleman as a disreputable, dishonest, self-serving, selfish, conniving personality who obfuscated what he was doing as the long arm of the law was closing in on him and did not acknowledge his criminal acts until he was caught outright. When the 2007-08 civil grand jury began looking into the exploitation of the assessor’s office for political purposes, Aleman grew concerned that the investigation would quickly circumscribe the activity of one of the political operatives Postmus had hired, Mike Richman. To frustrate that probe, Aleman asked the secretary to the executive staff, Wanda Nowicki, to alter the executive meeting minutes to reflect that Richman was indeed working on activity related to the assessor’s office’s actual function. Nowicki did so, providing Aleman with several altered documents, but she retained the original minutes to each of the executive staff meetings and provided those in response to the grand jury’s subpoena. When Aleman was called to testify before the grand jury, his efforts at keeping the political activity in the assessor’s office hidden unraveled when he produced the phony minutes and answered under oath the questions put to him based upon the information contained therein. It was at that point, after perjuring himself, that he learned the grand jury had copies of the original, unaltered minutes.
Under questioning by Keller, Aleman admitted he had instructed Nowicki to make the changes with regard to Richman. Keller noted that Aleman had thereby brought Nowicki into a conspiracy and had put her into the position of breaking the law.
“You asked Ms. Nowicki to help you alter the notes?” Keller asked.
“Yes,” Aleman said.
“You understood you were committing a crime when you ordered the secretary in the office to aid and abet you in committing that crime?” Keller asked.
“Yes,” said Aleman.
“You didn’t care what would happen to her,” said Keller. “You knew you were subjecting her to the possibility of serious repercussions, but you were willing to throw her right under the bus, so long as it helped you.”
“That wasn’t my intent,” Aleman said.
“But she knew better,” Keller said. “She gave the grand jury the original version. You did not know that. It was only when you were confronted with those that you knew you had a problem, right?”
“Yes,” said Aleman.
Keller explored, briefly, Aleman’s connection with Postmus. Aleman said he had gotten involved in Republican politics when he was still a teenager in 2002 through involvement in the Elia Pirozzi for California Assembly campaign. It was at that point that he met Postmus, who offered him a job with the San Bernardino County Republican Party, which he took. While still working for the Republican Party, he also moved into a part time position with Postmus’ supervisor’s office as a field representative, he said. Then, in his very early 20s, Aleman was promoted by Postmus to the position of the county party’s executive director. To Keller’s inquiries, Aleman acknowledged that by the age of 22, with no college degree and no previous experience he was on “the fast track to success in politics.” He said that when he learned that Postums was gay “it rocked me to the core.” He told Keller he could have quit, but decided to stay. “I saw the human side of Mr. Postmus,” he said.
“Did you think Mr. Postmus was going to take care of you?” Keller asked.
“Yes,” said Aleman.
Aleman said he learned about Postmus’ drug use and drug addiction relatively early on, discovering that his substance of choice was methamphetamine after initially assuming his problem was with prescription painkillers. He grew to recognize, Aleman said, that Postmus meth use was an outgrowth in some fashion of his avid homosexual lifestyle and that it got to the point that Postmus was snorting, smoking or injecting it every day and inhaling substances, including cassette cleaner. Aleman admitted he hid Postmus’ drug use from the public and much of those working within county government. He said that he; Greg Eyler; Bob Smith, who was a former sheriff’s deputy who was working as one of Postmus’ field representatives; Paula Nowicki, who was a senior analyst in Postmus’ supervisor’s office; and Erwin recognized that Postmus was using methamphetamine. A few other individuals, Paul Biane as the vice chairman of the board of supervisors and Brad Mitzelfelt as Postmus’ chief of staff, were told that Postmus was using drugs and had gone to a rehab clinic, but Aleman said they were told he was addicted to prescription drugs.
To a later question from Raj Maline, Erwin’s attorney, asking Aleman if he “kept his [Postmus’] secret from the public about being gay,” Aleman said, “Yes.”
“Even though he was still preaching Christian family values big time?” Maline asked.
“Yes,” said Aleman.
Noting that Aleman had said he was “rocked” upon learning that Postmus was homosexual, Maline inquired, “Why? What difference did it make to you?”
Aleman said such a circumstance was “uncommon, especially for a Republican leader in this county.” It was jarring he said, because “the outward conservative values he portrayed were contrary to his lifestyle.”
Maline asked if after “your introduction” to that element of Postmus’ reality, Aleman felt his obligation to “Mr. Postmus was to keep this lie under wraps?”
“Yes,” said Aleman.
“When you dealt with anyone on his behalf, you were expected to keep that a secret?”
“Yes,” said Aleman.
In her questioning of Aleman, Keller asked, with regard to both Postmus’ drug use and his sexuality, why he “hid the truth from the public.”
“It wasn’t my place to tell the public,” Aleman said.
Keller asked Aleman if he had remained loyal “to him because your job and your career were tied to Mr. Postmus’ success?”
“Yes,” said Aleman.
Keller got Aleman to say he did pretty well for himself by staying with Postmus. After serving as Postmus’s campaign manager when Postmus successfully ran for assessor in 2006, just as he was turning 24 years old and without a college degree, he was selected to serve in the capacity of communications director for the assessor’s office at a salary of between $86,000 and $90,000 plus benefits. He had not even moved into that position when he was promoted to assistant assessor, starting at a salary of over $120,000 per year plus benefits. Working for Postmus – the chairman of the county Republican Party and the chairman of the board of supervisors and then the assessor, the top ranking taxing official in the county – was like “working for the New York Yankees,” Aleman said.
“You were becoming more of a mover and a shaker because of Mr. Postmus,” Keller at one point observed.
“Yes,” said Aleman.
“But after your arrest in June 2008, everything changed,” Keller said. “You had to figure out a way of getting out of trouble. You had to look for a new way to protect yourself, right?”
“I’m not sure,” Aleman said.
“You turned to the DA’s office to help you,” Keller said.
“Yes,” said Aleman.
“You entered this nolo contender plea and in between you were cooperating with the DA. You started giving the DA’s office information,” Keller said.
“Yes,” said Aleman.
“You started secretly tape recording Mr. Postmus. You sent him thousands of text messages. You preyed on his vulnerability. You tried to make him think you were still his friend,” Keller said.
“Yes,” said Aleman
“You were trying to trap him into saying something that would put him into prison the whole time,” said Keller.
“Yes,” said Aleman.
Throughout it all, Keller noted, Aleman had lied and covered up. He had covered up Postmus’s drug use and helped him keep his homosexuality hidden from the Republicans who supported him. He had lied about and covered up the illicit activity in the assessor’s office. When the investigators had closed in on him, he lied some more. And then after he was caught, he lied and made false representations to Postmus, his patron, his boss, his friend, the man who had put him on the political fast track.
“We should believe you now, shouldn’t we?” Keller asked.
“That’s up to the jury to decide,” Aleman said.
Having established on Tuesday that Aleman was willing to lie to Postmus, Keller set about seeking to establish that in seeking to save his own skin, he is now lying with regard to the four defendants.
Keller, referencing Aleman’s continuous efforts over more than a year to maneuver Postmus into making incriminating statements against himself or any of the current defendants, noted he had little success in that regard. In those recordings, Postmus consistently fell short of saying that he had taken a bribe from Burum. In one of those exchanges, which was played for the jury, Postmus, unsuspecting he was being recorded, which renders it now all the more favorable to the defense, said he believed closing the settlement “was the right thing to do.”
Keller returned to the theme of Aleman, out of desperation to get out from under his own legal difficulty, either fabricating information he calculated would assist the prosecution in the case it was seeking to make against others or bending his statements into conformance with the prosecution narrative. “You knew the most valuable information that you could provide was anything showing there had been a bribe to Mr. Postmus, right?” Keller asked.
Aleman responded by saying he was bound by his commitment to provide the truth, whether it helped the prosecution or the defense and that the information he provided was not limited to the matter pertaining to the Colonies lawsuit settlement. “It was all encompassing,” he said in regard to the information he had given to the district attorney’s office, including that relating to misdeeds in the assessor’s office and extending to other areas of county operations and political interaction of which he had knowledge.
Keller drove home the point that the investigators with the district attorney’s office were fixated on the Colonies case and had suggested to Aleman it was in his interest to assist them in assembling a case against potential defendants in that matter.
Keller referenced a statement made by investigator Hollis Randles to Aleman during his November 11, 2009 interrogation. “It is very crucial to us and should be important to you and that’s why we’re here,” Randles said. “We need to discuss what occurred at the negotiations and what happened between Jeff Burum and Mr. Postmus and Mr. Biane and what part that played in this settlement of this lawsuit with the Colonies.”
Establishing that there was a quid pro quo in the case – that the public officials were bribed by Burum and his company, and that these rewards were provided as an inducement for the $102 million settlement – is crucial to the prosecution. On direct examination, Postmus offered testimony that could be interpreted that such an understanding was in place when he said that Burum had made a commitment to support him when he again ran for public office or in business ventures if he left politics, after the Colonies litigation had been settled. But Postmus indicated that no specific amount of money or support was mentioned and that he did not learn that the two $50,000 contributions were coming to his political action committees until after the settlement concluded. He grew shaky, inexact, contradictory and confused on cross examination when questioned about whether the money received had come to him as a result of a promise ahead of time. Thus, Aleman’s corroboration of the quid pro quo aspect of the Colonies Partners’ $100,000 donations to the two political action committees Postmus established in early 2007 to receive that money – the Inland Empire PAC and the Conservatives For A Republican Majority PAC – was key. Aleman did so on direct examination, testifying that he had been present at six to 12 meetings involving Postmus and Burum between January and June 2006 at restaurants and on the grounds of the Red Hill Country Club in Rancho Cucamonga. It was in the context of these meetings, that Aleman testified Burum had made commitments of monetary support to Postmus in exchange for his vote for the settlement and assistance in getting sufficient votes from the rest of his colleagues to get the settlement passed. Postmus, whose memory was admittedly ravaged by drug use, testified that he could recall just one or two meetings he had with Burum when Aleman was present and that had been because Aleman had come to assist Burum with either a broken or malfunctioning BlackBerry communication device.
On Wednesday, Keller sought to shake Aleman’s claim that he was present at the multiple meetings between Postmus and Burum. Aleman had identified the El Torito restaurant in Upland as one of meeting places. After dwelling on Aleman’s recollection of how crowded the restaurant was when the three had been there, to which Aleman gave ambiguous responses, Keller summoned up a previous statement Aleman made when he was being questioned by district attorney’s office investigators Hollis Randles and Robert Schreiber in February 2009 that such a meeting took place at the El Torito in Ontario. “You never were at the El Torito in Upland,” Keller asserted. “You told them in February 2009 you were at the Ontario El Torito, next to the Black Angus. You never said anything to investigators Randles and Schreiber about meeting at an El Torito in Upland.”
“Sorry, it may have been the one in Ontario,” Aleman acknowledged.
Another meeting location Aleman described was the Acapulco Restaurant at the Montclair Plaza. Keller replicated the circumstance with regard to the El Torito, demonstrating that in his statements to investigators eight years ago, he said that restaurant was in Ontario.
Keller then engaged with Aleman about the meetings he said he had attended with Postmus at the Red Hill Country Club, where Burum is a member. Aleman claimed those meetings took place on the patio of the clubhouse, which encircles the building and offers views of several of the fairways. She locked Aleman in on the location, and he described the patio as offering food service. She then asserted that the defense had obtained certification from the country club’s owners that in the January to June 2006 span during which Aleman said the meetings had taken place, the clubhouse had been razed for remodeling, insinuating that Aleman was deliberately lying. “At no time during your 70 interviews did you mention you met with Mr. Postmus and Mr. Burum at the Red Hill Country Club,” Keller charged.
“I can’t recall,” Aleman responded.
Keller sought to further degrade Aleman’s credibility by focusing on his assertion that he had been present for a hotel room meeting involving Postmus, Burum, Erwin and Patrick O’Reilly in Ontario just before or during settlement mediation sessions there involving former California Supreme Court Justice Edward Panelli on either October 19, 2006 or November 1, 2006. Aleman’s stated recollection of that occurrence referenced the Sheraton Hotel, which he testified to during his appearance before the grand jury that indicted Burum, Biane, Erwin and Kirk in 2011. Aleman again referred to the Sheraton during his ongoing testimony and mentioned a Denny’s restaurant, as well. Keller said the meeting actually occurred at the Doubletree Inn in Ontario, and none of the men attending recalled Aleman being there, Keller noted.
“You put yourself in a hotel where a meeting never happened,” Keller said.
“Those are your words,” Aleman responded.
“Those are the words of everybody but you, Mr. Aleman,” she replied. “All we have is your word. You don’t have anything to document your presence at those meetings.”
During her cross examination of Aleman, Keller further sought to exploit Aleman’s claim that he had been summoned to a Colonies lawsuit settlement negotiating session that took place at Biane’s supervisorial office located in the Rancho Cucamonga Courthouse on March 25, 2005, about which there has been substantial previous testimony. At that meeting, Postmus and Biane were present, accompanied by deputy county counsel Mitch Norton and the county’s outside counsel, Paul Watford and Steve Kristovich. Representing the Colonies Partners were Burum and the company’s co-managing principal, Dan Richards, two of the Colonies Partners lawyers, Scott Sommer and Heidi Timken; and former State Senator Jim Brulte, whom the Colonies Partners had hired as a consultant to assist in getting a favorable resolution to the litigation. At some point, Postmus and Biane insisted on having all of the attorneys leave the room, rendering themselves outnumbered and outgunned in the negotiating session with Burum and Richards that ensued with Brulte, whose sentiments, loyalty and financial interest were aligned with the Colonies Partners, refereeing the exchange. Roughly two hours later, the meeting concluded and it was announced to the waiting Norton, Watford and Kristovich that a $77.5 million settlement had been hammered out, consisting of a proposed $22 million cash payment to the Colonies Partners and the transfer of all or a portion of 1,400 acres of surplus county flood control property in Rancho Cucamonga valued at $55.5 million to the Colonies Partners. Ultimately, that deal fell apart when the public learned of those terms and outrage ensued. Aleman claimed he had been dispatched to the meeting, serving essentially as a courier to give Postmus some documents he had requested.
Keller pointed out that during the initial interrogation by district attorney’s office investigators he took part in after he entered into a plea arrangement with the district attorney’s office on November 1, 2008 and again during an exchange with investigators on February 19, 2009 were the only times among 70 interviews/interrogations with the investigators that Aleman mentioned being at the meeting.
“You know, none of the witness have mentioned seeing you at this meeting,” Keller said.
Aleman said he was there. “I don’t know if anybody would have recognized me,” he said.
After suggesting by the tone of her questions that Aleman was making a misrepresentation about being there, Keller moved on to discussing the upshot of the meeting, which was the proposed $77.5 million settlement and the implication this had and how it had fallen through upon being disclosed before it was ratified by the board of supervisors.
“You told the district attorney’s office how disappointed Mr. Postmus was that [the $77.5 million settlement failed to get official approval.] Mr. Postmus let you know how disappointed he was and he had worked so hard to achieve it,” Keller said. When Aleman acknowledged that, Keller pounced, pointing out that Aleman had previously testified that it was not until after Postmus had sojourned to China in the company of Brulte and Burum in September 2005 and was extensively lobbied that he began his intensive effort to settle the case.
Aleman responded, “I don’t know if he was trying to lead it [the settlement effort] at that time. It was important to him.”
“On direct examination you didn’t remember even discussing the Colonies before [Postmus’ return from the China Trip],” Keller said.
“I can’t recall a lot of instances, but I’m sure he did,” Aleman said. “It became his obsession after that trip.”
Keller accused Aleman of altering his testimony to fit the needs of the prosecution, saying he “came to understand it was important for you to say that [Postmus grew obsessive about settling the matter upon his return from China.]” Keller referenced Aleman’s February 19, 2009 interview with district attorney investigators in which he claimed he had “multiple” conversations with Postmus about the Colonies case and the settlement prospects in the aftermath of the March 25, 2005 meeting at Biane’s office.
By Thursday June 1, Keller and the defense attorney who followed her, Raj Maline, who represents Jim Erwin, had stepped up their attacks on Aleman and his credibility. For the most part, Keller had previously relied upon asking Aleman questions directly or querying him about displayed exhibits, previous statements and the transcripts of testimony before the grand jury, previous court hearings or the recorded and transcribed statements he made to investigators. She would then offer some evidence to contradict Aleman’s assertion or make a display of inconsistency in his own statements. On Thursday, however, Keller, and to an even greater extent Maline, engaged in outright accusations and deprecating statements about Aleman’s veracity and character, nearly all of which drew objections from Mandel, which were then sustained by Judge Smith. It was difficult to determine to what extent this approach resonated with the one jury hearing the case against Erwin and the other jury hearing the case against Burum, Biane and Kirk, or the degree to which the jurors may have considered the characterizations uncalled for or unnecessary.
Having confronted Aleman over the course of two days on the witness stand with contradictions between his testimony in this trial and his previous testimony before the indicting grand jury, a previous civil grand jury, his statements to investigators or documents, Keller accused him of out and out dishonesty. “Unless we have been able to confront you with a specific document to prove you are lying, you just keep lying, don’t you?” she asked, echoing her previous sally against Aleman, “You only give a more complete version of events after you are caught red-handed.” As Aleman began his response, Mandel objected and Judge Smith sustained it.
Among the issues Keller explored were Aleman’s previous complaints about threats, harassment and surveillance by private investigators. Keller asked about a claim Aleman had made about a car parked outside Postmus’ house. In his testimony at trial, he said it was a dark Crown Victoria occupied by individuals whom he had confronted. He said the car was parked in front of Postmus’ house at all hours of the day. Keller pointed out that he seven years ago he had described the car doing surveillance as a white Mercury.
“At no time did you write down a license plate number?” Keller asked.
“No,” Aleman said.
She stated that he claimed to have verbally confronted those in the car, but that his previous statement indicated it was people he caught digging through Postmus’ trash whom he confronted.
Keller also brought up Aleman’s provision of instructions by means of text messages or emails to Betty Presley about making disbursements out of the Inland Empire PAC, while posing as head of that political action committee, Dino DeFazio. Presley is an accountant whom many politicians and elected officials, most of them Republican, employed to serve as the treasurer of their campaigns. A consequence of Aleman’s instructions was that the district attorney’s office obtained and served a search warrant upon Presley’s home and her office.
“Ms. Presley had a good reputation,” Keller said. “But you sent her emails saying you were Dino DeFazio and put her at risk. Her office was shut down. Her business ended up in the newspaper.”
“Yes,” said Aleman.
When Keller angled for further information about his masquerading as DeFazio, Aleman suggested that Presley perhaps understood what was going on.
“She might have… I think she knew I had a hand in the political action committee,” Aleman said.
“You were going to great lengths to fool her,” Keller said. “You don’t do that to somebody who’s in on it.”
“Right, yes,” said Aleman.
A critical portion of Aleman’s testimony under direct examination by Mandel in favor of the prosecution related to mailers Aleman said he had been shown by Erwin at some point in the late summer or fall of 2006. Electioneering material attacking a particular candidate is referred to as a “hit piece.” Aleman in his testimony indicated Erwin had shown him mock-ups of such hit pieces targeting Biane, which dwelt upon his financial difficulties and use of alcohol, on one occasion during the run-up to the November 2006 election when he had been invited to the Safety Employee Benefit Association headquarters on E Street in San Bernardino. Erwin had formerly been the president of the Safety Employees Benefit Association, which is the union representing San Bernardino County’s sheriff’s deputies. In 2006, Erwin was the association’s executive director. Aleman said one of the mailers featured a photo of a young child forming with his right hand an “L” against his forehead and bearing the headline “loser.” Another referenced money and had, he said, bundles of cash. During his testimony in the ongoing trial Aleman did not say he had seen hit pieces targeting Postmus. The existence of the hit pieces is central to the prosecution’s case because the indictment alleges that Burum, in conjunction with Erwin, created mailers attacking Biane and Postmus and then withheld them as a form of blackmail or extortion to gain approval of the settlement. Biane was at that point sponsoring and campaigning on behalf of Measure P, an initiative to raise supervisors’ pay from $99,000 per year to $151,000 per year. The mailers were purported to attack Biane for being on brink of bankruptcy himself and unable to handle his own personal finances and to attack Postmus on the basis of his homosexuality and drug use. According to the prosecution, those mailers were never sent out. Aleman also testified that the Safety Employee Benefit Association had opposed Measure P.
Keller demonstrated with state campaign financing documents that the Safety Employees Benefit Association had actually supported Measure P with a $5,000 contribution from its political action committee. Keller produced for viewing upon the courtroom’s visual projectors a copy of a hit piece utilizing a child forming an “L” sign on his forehead featuring the headline “Why Should Rancho Support Ontario’s Loser?” which had originated with the Safety Employees Benefit Association. The target of that mailer was not Biane but rather Dieter Dammeier, a transplanted Ontario resident who was running for city council in Rancho Cucamonga in the 2006 election and was supporting the concept of ending that city’s contract with the sheriff’s department and creating its own municipal police force. And she displayed another mailer that indeed featured a photo of bundles of cash and propounded against Measure P, which came from the Committee Opposing Measure P and disclosed that it was paid for by the Colonies Partners. The implication was that such a mailer that took the high road in opposing Measure P and not attacking Biane on a personal basis existed and had not been withheld, contradicting the prosecution’s assertions and Aleman’s testimony.
Keller also displayed a copy of the $50,000 check that had been cut from the Colonies Partners to the Inland Empire PAC controlled by Postmus. The prosecution maintains that check constituted half of the $100,000 bribe given to Postmus for his vote in favor of the $102 million settlement. Keller asked Aleman and the juries to make close inspection of the two signatures on the check. Previously, under direct examination by Mandel, Aleman had identified the signatories as Burum and the other Colonies Partners managing principal, Dan Richards. Keller got Aleman to repeat the identification of Richards’ signature and then informed him – and the jury – that it was in fact the signature of Phil Burum, Jeff Burum’s brother. “You identified a signature you didn’t even know,” Keller said. “You did that because that’s what you thought the district attorney wanted.”
Relatively early in his questioning of Aleman, Maline angled at an issue that has been a subject of speculation for some time. While focusing on the issue of Postmus’ sexuality, Aleman’s discovery of it and his decision to remain in place as one of Postmus’ associates and to assist him in keeping those elements of his life which were incompatible with his political ambition hidden, Maline coyly inquired as to the exact nature of Aleman’s relationship with Postmus.
“He took a liking to you and you to him,” Maline said. “He confided to you about personal things in his life. Did you know that Mr. Postmus was attracted to you in a nonprofessional way?”
“We never had that discussion.” Aleman said.
“You knew he was gay,” Maline said. “He was attracted to young migrant Hispanic men.”
“They were of a certain type that were in his company,” Aleman said, suggesting that he was perhaps not Postmus’ type.
“You were a young Hispanic man and you used that to make yourself closer to Mr. Postmus,” Maline persisted.
“No, sir,” said Aleman.
Maline pointed out that Postmus had elevated Aleman to the position of executive director of the San Bernardino County Republican Party. Aleman downplayed the significance of that, saying that it was “common” for the young staff members in the county Republican Party to be moved into the post. He said that others who had held the executive director’s post had “moved past” it, citing Anthony Adams as an example. Adams had been subsequently elected to two terms in the California Assembly.
“It was a huge stepping stone,” Maline said.
“Yes,” Aleman said.
In addition, Maline noted, Postmus had conferred upon Aleman an office on the “Fifth Floor,” i.e., the top floor of the county’s administrative headquarters, which contains the suite of offices for the board of supervisors and the county’s top administrators. Aleman had achieved a vaunted position in a world where, Maline said, “everyone wanted to be top dog.”
Aleman did not dispute that.
Maline embarked on a series of questions and statements to Aleman aimed at establishing that it was his client, Erwin, who had touched off the investigation of the assessor’s office, which in turn led to Aleman being arrested and charged, thereby triggering the plea arrangement Aleman entered into with prosecutors. It was in this state of desperation and armed with the knowledge that it was Erwin who had brought him down, Maline suggested, that Aleman began fabricating evidence against his client and the other defendants.
After Aleman’s arrest, Maline said, Aleman had been provided with the investigative reports pertaining to the arrest and the charges against him, learning thereby that Erwin, who had been appointed, like Aleman, to one of the two assistant assessor’s positions in January 2007, had instigated the investigation of the assessor’s office. In October 2007, Erwin resigned as assistant assessor and went to the district attorney’s office the following month, lodging a report with the public integrity unit there about what Maline termed the “shenanigans” ongoing at the assessor’s office under Postmus, i.e., the partisan political activity of the employees there and their use of the office’s facilities, equipment and assets to so engage themselves.
“After looking at the reports,” Maline said, Aleman saw that Erwin had exposed the political activity that was ongoing within the assessor’s office. “You knew there was no way out for you. They had the goods on you. You were as guilty as sin, and had no choice but to go to the D.A.” Aleman acknowledged that was the case. Maline suggested that it was at this point that Aleman first considered providing the district attorney’s office with information on the other others that would divert attention from his own wrongdoing. “But you had to give them something [and] it had to be good stuff, serious criminal activity,” Maline said.
Maline suggested it was when investigator Hollis Randles explicitly stated that it was the Colonies case that was important to the district attorney’s office and that it should be important to Aleman that Aleman began feeding the investigators information he “made up as you went along,” first hinting at blackmail and kickbacks and then solidifying a tale of extortion and bribery. An indication of the fabricated nature of his story, Maline said, consisted of Aleman’s failure, in the 70 recorded conversations with Postmus and the more than one thousand text message exchanges with him during that time to simply mention the bribe or bribes specifically or point blank ask Postmus about the subject. Aleman responded by saying that Postmus was cagey, and doing something so direct would potentially alert him to the fact that Aleman was making the recordings and saving the text messages, which Postmus had instructed him to erase. “I believe he could tell the signs that someone was recording him,” Aleman said. “His father was in law enforcement, and I believed he could tell the tell-tale signs someone was recording him.”
As Keller had previously, Maline suggested that Aleman had exploited Postmus. Maline said that Aleman had enabled Postmus in his drug addiction because he stood to benefit from it. “What you discovered was the more meth he used, the more power you had,” Maline said. “So it was kind of in your best interest for him to be out of it.”
“That’s not correct,” Aleman said.
Throughout his testimony under cross examination, Aleman proved to be a somewhat awkward witness for defense attorneys as he occasionally would insert into his answers sentences or phrases which were only partially relevant or totally irrelevant to the question but which were potentially damaging to the defendants. Keller’s approach to dealing with this involved interrupting his answer, which was only partially successful, as Mandel would object to state that the witness had not been permitted to complete his answer, and Judge Smith consistently sustained those objections, giving Aleman a forum to present his recriminations. Maline more than once instructed Aleman to confine his answer to the question he asked.
In a testy display that may or may not have registered positively with the jury, Maline, at one point, frustrated with what he considered to be evasive answers, said Aleman was “pathological.” Mandel vociferously objected and even though Smith sustained the objection, Aleman persisted in his response, noting Maline’s description to be “your word,” moving on to say he was not equipped to determine the soundness of the characterization. “I’m not a psychologist,” he said.
By Mark Gutglueck