Supervisors Yet Soliciting Bribes? Or Merely Tone Deaf To Past Graft Implications?

In a symbolism-laden statement of disdain toward reformists seeking the elimination of graft in county government, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors this week signaled it will extend its commemoration of Robert Covington, whose facilitation of crooked land deals and contractual arrangements with county vendors while acting as the city’s senior staff member in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s is legendary.
Since 2003, the main public meeting quarters for the board of supervisors located on the ground floor of the county’s current administrative building, located at 385 North Arrowhead Avenue, which lies adjacent to the county’s historic 1926 courthouse in downtown San Bernardino, has been known as the Robert Covington Meeting Chambers.
Beginning on December 19. 2018 and running until next June, renovation of the chambers is to be undertaken by contractors working on behalf of the county. During that time, the board of supervisors will hold its meetings in the cafeteria, also located on the ground floor of the county administrative building. This week, the board adopted an amended annual meeting calendar for itself in 2019 that changed the meeting location from the Covington Chambers to what it deemed “the Temporary Covington Chambers,” i.e. the cafeteria. According to Laura Welch, the clerk to the board of supervisors, the cafeteria is now “undergoing renovation in order to provide a temporary location for board meetings.”
Welch indicated the county will continue to honor Covington during the renovations as well as after the chamber is spruced up. “The name of the temporary board meeting location is ‘Temporary Covington Chambers’ and the board will hold their regular meetings in the temporary location from January 8, 2019 to June 30, 2019,” according to Welch. “Beginning July 1, 2019, the board will resume their regular meetings in the Covington Chambers.”
Robert A. Covington, established himself as a member of the San Bernardino County establishment while he was yet a young man attending the University of Redlands in the late 1930s and early 1940s. At the University of Redlands, Covington was elected student body president and was a member of the Pi Chi fraternity.
Some six years after leaving the University of Redlands, he hired on with the county as its planing director in 1948. While with the planning division, Covington became intimately familiar with the lay of the land both geographically and politically throughout the 20,105-square mile expanse of San Bernardino County and an absolute master of all manner of land use policy and development standards.
Eleven years after he had begun with the county, Covington rose to the pinnacle of San Bernardino County’s governmental structure, becoming San Bernardino County’s top executive, a post then known as the county administrative officer. He held that job from 1959 until 1976.
His tenure lasted into a portion of what is now recognized as the county’s “Golden Age of Corruption,” during which the county’s attorneys routinely warded off the exposure of the depredations county officials were engaged in by threatening legal action against anyone merely using “the c word,” i.e., corruption, telling them that if that term were to be uttered or entered into print in conjunction with the mentioning of county officials, legal action within the county’s equally corrupt court system would be taken that would result in those speaking or writing in any such fashion “losing your house.” Covington was known for playing fast and loose with the rules. Those unwilling to “play ball” would be subjected to a strict application of the county’s zoning and codes, as well as its land use polices. For others willing to grease the skids of their project applications with money, either through under-the-table payments or by structuring creative ways of rewarding elected and appointed county officials, just about anything went. After years of accepting nickles and dimes from land owners, speculators, developers and contractors in exchange for facilitating their projects, toward the end of his tenure as county administrative officer, Covington was chaffing to get in on the bonanza. Eventually he would do just that, using his mother’s name to bootleg 22 lots on 80 acres in a dry lake in Apple Valley. Covington then sold the lots, at an inflated cost, to unsuspecting buyers intent on building homes there. The property, hamstrung as it was by drainage issues, could not be developed without the addition of a prohibitively expensive flood control system, and most buyers were unable to get building permits for the property. Ultimately, however, the scheme unraveled when some of the buyers came to understand that the county’s senior executive was the hidden principal behind what was being perpetrated. When the board of supervisors as it was then composed – Dan Mikesell, Nancy Smith, James Mayfield, Dennis Hansberger and Robert Townsend – learned of the full range of what he had been involved in, the 55 year-old Covington was quietly forced to make his departure in the Spring of 1976, seven years before what was intended as his eventual rendezvous with retirement, preventing the burgeoning controversy from boiling over into a full-blown scandal.
The atmospherics within the county that existed under Covington did not depart with him. Rather, the putrescent foundation of the misapplication of governmental authority to benefit those willing to buy influence and disadvantage those who were either not prepared, nor equipped, nor sophisticated enough, nor willing to engage in the pay-to-play ethos flourished thereafter. One such follow-on who emulated the fashion in which governance in San Bernardino County was conducted under Covington was Robert Hammock, who came onto the board of supervisors at the end of 1976.
Like Covington, Hammock recognized where the money to be made in government was – in the control over development. Hammock’s primary constituency as supervisor was the development industry, and he jockeyed as a supervisor to put himself into a position by which he could clear the way for development companies and individual developers to carry out their agendas and designs. He took a leaf out of Covington’s book and virtually commandeered control over one of the primary elements of governmental function: land use authority. He served as the head of the county’s redevelopment agency and as the vice-chairman of the San Bernardino County Industrial Development Authority. He wangled an appointment as California’s designee on the National Housing and Community Development Committee. His most effective gambit in taking control of the government’s regulatory function with regard to development was achieving a position on the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), which possesses the authority to hash out jurisdictional and border disputes between the county’s cities and other governmental entities. During the era in which the LAFCO board was under Hammock’s influence, he used his power and votes on that panel to arrange deals with cities that were competing with their neighbors to annex properties in the frontier between their then-existing borders. Of significance to the development companies that coveted building within those disputed areas were the development standards that the cities intended to apply to that land once it was annexed. More exacting standards on infrastructure and restrictions on density could make developing that property less profitable than it would be otherwise. Accordingly, Hammock would ascertain which city would be willing to apply the least cumbersome land use standards and then make arrangements to have his Local Agency Formation Commission colleagues support giving that city the nod in making the annexation. This redounded to the benefit of his development industry patrons, who rewarded him with hefty political contributions. The losers were the general public, who then had to live, commute and function within the communities that were hampered by substandard infrastructure to accommodate the growing population.
Hammock remained in office for four terms, growing bolder and more nonchalant about the marginal, highly questionable and even illegal activity he was involving himself in as an elected official as the years went by. He would brazenly trade campaign contributions for votes in support of those donors’ projects. When citizens of the Fifth Supervisorial District that he represented, other county residents or his political opponents expressed outrage over his unabashed support of his financial supporters or came forth with evidence or documentation of his wrongdoing, Hammock typically would not stand up for himself but rather allow his defense to be handled by his political and board colleagues, many of whom were striving to utilize the same formula he was applying, albeit with a lesser degree of audacity. Meanwhile, a cross section of his accusers found themselves on the outs with the county administration or the targets of crooked high ranking county law enforcement officials and prosecutors, and at the mercy of dishonest judges aligned with the political establishment of which Hammock was a part, a circumstance that served to dissuade others from becoming too vocal in their opposition to him and providing him with further insulation.
Like Covington, Hammock was never held to account or prosecuted.
One of Hammock’s contemporaries on the board of supervisors was Cal McElwain. McElwain’s staff had a reputation for asking virtually every one of his constituents who sought McElwain’s assistance for a campaign donation.
The San Bernardino County ambiance in which self-dealing by politicians and government officials was not only tolerated but expected and accepted that had taken root during Covington’s tour of duty perpetuated itself beyond Hammock’s tenure in office, which lasted until 1992. Thereafter, two of Covington’s successors as county administrative officer, Harry Mays and James Hlawek, would drive the Covington’s pay-to-play ethos to its logical conclusion, functioning in a wide-open fashion where their depredations were absolutely obvious to anyone paying attention, as the provision of bribes and kickbacks were de rigueur for anyone who wanted to do business with the county or have a project approved. And while local law enforcement – the sheriff’s department, the district attorney’s office and the various municipal police departments – were willing to carry on as if nothing was wrong, that was not the case with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which in 1999 indicted Mays and Hlawek, along with then-County Treasurer Thomas O’Donnell and County Investment Officer Sol Levin. All four were convicted and sent to prison. Shortly thereafter, a chastened district attorney’s office, then headed by Dennis Stout, undertook a deeper examination of the county’s political milieu. The result was that the district attorney’s office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office embarked on almost simultaneous, and what turned out to be competing, political corruption prosecutions of Jerry Eaves, who was Hammock’s successor as Fifth District County Supervisor. Indeed, neither set of prosecutors – federal or county – were willing to back away from pursuing Eaves. Ultimately, however, Federal Judge Manuel Real would rule that subjecting Eaves to answer to a differing but very similar set of charges pertaining to the same alleged crimes in two courts was tantamount to double jeopardy, and the federal charges were withdrawn. Ultimately, Eaves was convicted, and a condition of his conviction was that he resign from office.
Before that occurred, however, the board of supervisors of which Eaves was a member voted to confer the honor of naming the board of supervisors’ meeting chambers in the county administrative building after Covington.
Several year’s later, two of the members of the board of supervisors when Eaves was forced to resign – Bill Postmus and Paul Biane – would be charged with bribe taking, receiving money in exchange for action they took as members of the board. Ultimately, Postmus was convicted on 14 felony counts of political corruption, eight of them relating to activity as a member of the board of supervisors and six related to his comportment while he was serving as county assessor. At his sentencing hearing last month, Supervising California Deputy Attorney General Melissa Mandel said that Postmus was so steeped in a “culture of corruption” that he did not understand that there was anything wrong with taking bribes, which he merely perceived as political contributions.
Biane, after a lengthy trial last year, was acquitted of all charges against him.
In 2012, Postmus’s successor as First District supervisor, Brad Mitzelfelt, accepted $48,100 in political contributions from Cadiz, Inc. and then convinced his board colleagues to surrender to the Orange County-based Santa Margarita Water District the board of supervisors’ authority to oversee the environmental certification and approval of Cadiz, Inc.’s East Mojave Desert water extraction proposal. Cadiz Inc.’s project called for siphoning 50,000 acre-feet (16.292 billion gallons) of water per year out of the Cadiz Valley and Fenner Valley water tables and piping that water westward to Los Angeles and Orange counties for use there. A primary recipient of that water was to be the Santa Margarita Water District, which is located some 217 miles from the water extraction site. The Santa Margarita Water District’s board of directors in 2012 signed off on the approval of Cadiz, Inc.’s water extraction plan. Though outrage over Mitzelfelt’s support of the Cadiz water project in exchange for the campaign contributions was a major factor in his being driven from office that year, no charges against him were filed by local, state or federal prosecutors. Two of the current members of the board of supervisors, Janice Rutherford and Josie Gonzales, supported him in allowing the Santa Margarita Water District take on lead agency status in the approval of the project and its environmental certification.
The county’s current crop of supervisors consists of Gonzales, Rutherford, Robert Lovingood and Curt Hagman. Gonzales has been on the board of supervisors since 2004, Rutherford since 2010, Lovingood since 2012 and Hagman since 2014. All have claimed ignorance about Covington’s action and performance in his role as county administrative officer. Others with a longer view of history find such assertions by members of the board, whose authority extends to having access to the record of the closed door discussions of current and past boards, to be somewhat disingenuous. Among the so-called initiated – those individuals who often have business before the county whose projects come before the board of supervisors or county planning commission or those who are vendors selling goods or services to the county – there is a far more acute and sophisticated understanding of the county’s history and customs than among the general public. For those with such sensitivity, the symbolism of Covington’s name being used for the meeting place in which the board of supervisors takes official action on behalf of the county has meaning as a sign that the current board members are like their predecessors ready to engage in the pay-for-play ethos for which San Bernardino County is well known, and that they will accept payments either under the table or as political donations to influence how they will vote on official county action. Whether out of claimed ignorance or knowing purpose, they have refused to entertain changing the name of the county’s primary meeting chambers.
Supervisor Curt Hagman this week told the Sentinel that it would “probably” be a mistake to assume that the current supervisors “know why certain names have been given to county facilities” and that as far as “some of the history goes, you could pretty much guarantee most people don’t know the story behind it.”
There is a likelihood that Hagman will become the next chairman of the board of supervisors, as that rotation falls in a pattern and he is next due to move into that spot upon serving in his current role as vice-chairman.
The county is not wedded to keeping the board of supervisors associated with the Covington name, Hagman said.
Upon acceding to the chairmanship, he said, “We may be in a position to go out and make some changes. There has to be a process, and we have a lot of issues I am focused on.” One concept, Hagman said, would be the creation of a citizens commission to examine how the county presents itself, and “the exhibits and displays the county has. We receive a lot of donations, historical items, trinkets, and we have no place to display them. The board would have to ratify it, but I am thinking of a commission that would involve volunteers, like the arts commission, that could be responsible for suggesting how we deal with these things appropriately. I am willing to say on the record that we would be willing to look at anything reasonable when it comes to updating, including looking at the names of buildings.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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