One-Time Political Colossus Postmus Reports To Begin Prison Sentence

Bill Postmus, whose metoric rise in San Bernardino County politics less than two decades ago was so dramatic that many seasoned observers considered him to be on a trajectory that would land him at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue until he flamed out in a no less dramatic crash to earth in a miasma of political and legal reality borne of personal scandal, this morning reported to the sixth floor of the San Bernardino Justice Center courtroom of Superior Court Judge Michael A Smith to be taken into custody and begin serving his three-year sentence for convictions in two celebrated political corruption cases.
Two weeks and a day ago, on November 15, Judge Smith had sentenced Postmus in accordance with the judicial discretion set forth in a guilty plea Postmus had entered more than seven years ago, in March 2011, to 14 felony counts and a single drug possession misdemeanor. That sentencing had been delayed through the intervening time because an element of that plea bargain called for Postmus cooperating with prosecutors in bringing to justice others who had been caught up in the depredations, violations of public trust and crimes he had acknowledged in his admission of guilt. Principal among those crimes was his admission that he had received a bribe from Rancho Cucamonga-based developer Jeff Burum to vote, in November 2006 in one of his last actions during his six-year stint as a county supervisor, to approve a $102 million payout to Burum’s company, the Colonies Partners, to settle a lawsuit that company had lodged against the county over drainage issues at the Colonies at San Antonio residential and Colonies Crossroads commercial subdivisions in northwest Upland.
Postmus’s testimony in April 2011 before a grand jury, a month after he entered his guilty plea, provided much of the basis for that grand jury’s issuance of a 29-count indictment of Burum, former Postmus political associate and sheriff’s deputies union president Jim Erwin, Postmus’s one-time colleague on the board of supervisors, Paul Biane, who had joined with him in the vote to approve the lawsuit settlement with the Colonies Partners, and Mark Kirk, who had been the chief of staff to the other supervisor, Gary Ovitt, who had voted with Biane and Postmus to approve the $102 million settlement. The trial for Burum, Erwin, Biane and Kirk was delayed nearly six years until last year. Postmus was a key witness for the prosecution in that trial, testifying over the course of two weeks in May 2017. Under direct examination by Supervising Deputy District Attorney Lewis Cope, Postmus testified that Erwin, who was then working as a consultant to Burum and the Colonies Partners, had blackmailed and extorted him into voting in support of the settlement by threatening to expose his homosexuality and drug use, and that over the course of the roughly seven months after the settlement was made, he, Erwin, Biane and Kirk had been rewarded with $100,000 each in the form of donations made to them by Burum through the Colonies Partners to political action committees each of the four had set up for themselves and controlled. However, under cross examination by one of the attorneys representing Burum, Jennifer Keller, Postmus went sideways, indicating that he just might have been led into implicating himself, Burum and the others in the scheme by aggressive investigators with the district attorney’s office who had exploited his vulnerabilities, in particular his drug-addled and highly suggestible state, to plant false ideas in his mind that he had then recounted to them during further interrogations, before the grand jury and under Cope’s direct examination. Ultimately, Burum, Biane and Kirk were acquitted of the charges against them and the jury hearing the case against Erwin deadlocked and was unable to return a unanimous verdict.
Shortly after the conclusion of the 2017 trial, over which Judge Smith presided, Postmus himself came before Judge Smith, before whom he had pleaded guilty in 2011, for sentencing. When Smith gave an indication that he was contemplating sentencing Postmus to two years in state prison, Postmus, having anticipated a less stiff sentence, sought to withdraw his pleas, which pertained to his involvement in the Colonies lawsuit settlement matter as well as to malfeasance in office he admitted to while serving as county assessor, a post to which he was elected in 2006 and from which he resigned in 2009. In a motion filed on Postmus’ behalf, his attorney, Jeffrey Lawrence, had asked Judge Smith to vacate his client’s guilty pleas and grant him a trial in which a jury would hear the cases against him. After six days of testimony earlier this month that including that from Postmus and his previous lawyers, Richard Farquhar and Stephen Levine, Judge Smith denied the motion to rescind the plea on November 14. The following day, November 15, Lawrence presented an oral argument that Postmus’s crimes were de minimis in nature and that he deserved no prison time and either little jail time or immediate probation. Supervising California Deputy Attorney General Melissa Mandel countered that Postmus had conspired with others to defraud the public and divert over $100 million in taxpayer money to his co-conspirators and that he was so steeped in a culture of corruption that he did not recognize he was being bribed when he was rewarded by the recipient of the $102 million with a $100,000 political donation for doing so. Judge Smith, after making a finding that Postmus had cooperated with prosecutors in anticipation of a lenient sentence by testifying truthfully before the grand jury and under direct examination at trial but had knowingly falsified his testimony upon cross examination while feigning memory loss and had therefore failed to live up to the terms of his plea bargain, sentenced him to three years in state prison. Though the prosecution wanted Postmus incarcerated at once, Smith granted him 15 days to get his affairs in order, requiring that he report to Judge Smith’s courtroom at 8:30 this morning.
The descent to the status of a convicted felon represents, in the case of Postmus, an epic fall. In 2000 he was elected to the board of supervisors at the age of 29, making him, after Minor Cobb Tuttle in 1862, Norman Taylor in 1855, Robert McCoy in 1861, John C. Turner in 1893 and Gus Skropos in 1985, the sixth youngest county supervisor in San Bernardino County history. Four years later, in 2004, he became the second youngest chairman of the county board of supervisors after John C. Turner in 1895. That year he also became the chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, a perch from which he had control over the purse strings of the local GOP’s campaign war chest and held tremendous sway in determining who was elected to an overwhelming number of political offices in the county. In 2006 he expended more than $2 million in what yet remains the most expensive political campaign in county history when he successfully challenged the incumbent county assessor, Don Williamson, thereby acceding to the most powerful taxing position in San Bernardino County. It was thereafter that he was felled by scandal.
This morning, Postmus came into the courthouse alone, without the retinue that normally accompanied him when he held office, the contingent of district attorney’s office investigators that shepherded him like bodyguards into and out of the courtroom during his trial testimony and his group of supporters during the hearings on his motion to withdraw his plea earlier this month. Moreover, he was attired in a fashion completely out of keeping with the dapper image he had cultivated throughout his public career, having come to the courthouse clothed in a pair of worn blue jeans, a polo shirt and modest blue jacket. He sported a recent haircut, his sandy hair short on the top and shorn even closer on the sides. On the ground floor of the courthouse as he walked toward the elevators, he sounded calm, somber and resigned. “It’s gone on too long,” he told the Sentinel. “I think it’s time to get it over with.” He said that Lawrence, his attorney, was on holiday in Australia, and that there had been discussion of an appeal on the sentence and Judge Smith’s ruling denying the plea withdrawal, but that nothing had been filed with the court, and he was accordingly reporting as ordered. On the sixth floor, he filed into the courtroom amid others who had business before Judge Smith this morning. His was the first matter taken up once Judge Smith assumed his position on the bench. Smith noted his presence and Deputy C. Williams was assigned to carry out the intake process with him. Together, the two went to a position near the front of the courtroom where Postmus sat in the jury box and Williams provided him a pre-incarceration questionnaire on a clipboard, which Postmus filled out. At one point, Postmus removed all of the items from his pockets, which Williams secured in a polythene bag.
This took place as Judge Smith conducted a hearing involving a dispute over discovery in a case involving the estate of the late John Livacich and his several creditors. While a discussion between the lawyers and the judge was yet ongoing, Williams escorted Postmus, unhandcuffed, around the area behind the lawyers’ table and over to the doorway behind the bailiff’s station on the east wall of the courtroom, where they made their exit.
With good behavior credit in the California state penal system, Postmus could be released after 18 months. There has been speculation as to where Postmus will do his time. Under previous regulations, felony sentences could consist of no less than a year and had to be served in state prison. With recent “realignment” legislation, felony sentences for non-violent offenders can be served in county-run facilities. Deputy District Attorney Carlo DiCesare, who assisted Mandel in the prosecution’s presentation of its arguments as to the proper sentencing of Postmus, said that he will likely be sent first to the Chino Institution for Men, where an evaluation will be carried out to determine the best incarceration setting for him.
-Mark Gutglueck

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