By Mark Gutglueck
Paul Russ, the one-time mayor of Hesperia whose career in public office involved a firm embrasure of the pay-to-play politics that brought the city he represented and the county he lived in into considerable disrepute during his brief but intense term in office, has died.
Russ’s actions while he was both a city councilman and mayor of Hesperia, taken together with his close association with those in the private sector and other politicians renowned for existing at the confluence of money, public policy and land use decisions, shaped the City of Hesperia’s future while simultaneously leading to the demise of his political viability.
Russ, who had health challenges for much of his life, was ultimately felled after he contracted COVID-19. He tested positive for the virus on January 8, and was under frequent medical care thereafter. On January 16, he posted on Facebook that he had made four trips to the emergency room in the previous week. Russ checked into the Victor Valley Global Medical Center on January 18, where the end of his life came on Thursday, January 21. He was 61.
In 1971, at the age of 12, Russ experienced a viral infection, which ravaged his kidneys. He gradually recovered, but not fully. In 1986, at the age of 26, he began kidney dialysis. The following year, as his renal failure escalated, he was in need of a kidney transplant. His brother, Raymond, donated one of his kidneys to him. His brother’s kidney did Paul yeoman’s service for thirty years, twice the 15-year span typical kidney transplants remain viable.
Along the way, Russ contracted hepatitis, but treatment had rendered it dormant.
For the 17 years after the transplant, Russ led a relatively normal life, one which was productive and successful. With a college degree in economics, he earned a comfortable living while working within the banking and finance industries.
In 2004, he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, which through treatment went into remission. Thirteen years after that, in March 2017, Russ pulled a muscle and took a muscle relaxant. A metabolic reaction to the muscle relaxant activated the hepatitis C. Dazed and disoriented, he was taken to the emergency room at Desert Valley Hospital. There it was determined that the drug he was taking was not passing beyond his kidneys, to the point that he had gone into stage 4 renal failure. He was given prednisone and he recovered, relatively, to stage 3. Follow-up tests showed his kidney was failing and that he had liver cancer.
That summer, he was set to begin chemotherapy to combat the liver cancer, which would have precluded any possibility that he could get another kidney transplant, consigning him to a lifetime of dialysis.
Before actually beginning chemotherapy, he applied for a double organ transplant. He was thereafter informed by Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans that he had been accepted. He sojourned there in October 2017, where he awaited the availability of both a liver and kidney. He participated in the city council meetings via Skype. When compatible organs became available, the transplants took place on December 26, and he returned to Hesperia in March 2018.
A physician told the Sentinel that Russ’s underlying medical challenges very likely left him with a compromised immune system and therefore particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
Russ’s physical vulnerability was belied by the aggressiveness of his politics, extending back at least to the early 1990s, when he was involved in promoting Republican candidates and causes.
Among those he was involved with in those efforts were then-Assemblyman and later State Senator Jim Brulte, who was the Republican legislative leader at that time; then-Assemblywoman Kathleen Honeycutt; her husband, one-time Hesperia Councilman and Mayor Theron Honeycutt; their son, Tad Honeycutt, who was subsequently a councilman and mayor in Hesperia; Kathleen Honeycutt’s successor in the Assembly, Keith Olberg; Brad Mitzelfelt, who would become more than a decade later First District San Bernardino County supervisor; and Bill Postmus, a future First District county supervisor and county assessor.
Russ formed a lasting political bond with the latter, one which withstood the scandal that would envelop Postmus and bring his once-promising political career to an abject close. Russ’s loyalty to Postmus found a degree of reward in that Postmus in 2014 came across with the formula, including a winning campaign strategy and a conduit to major political donors, that made Russ’s election to the city council possible.
Their shared affinity for Republicanism formed the basis of the relationship between Russ and Postmus, who was more than a decade younger than Russ. In the mid- and late-1990s, they worked together on political campaigns in conjunction with the High Desert Young Republicans, a group that had been formed by Postmus and Mitzelfelt after those two had made their acquaintance while attending the University of Redlands, where both were majoring in business administration. In 1990, in a move that would elevate him into the Boy Wonder of San Bernardino County politics, Postmus at the age of 29 vied successfully against then-incumbent First District Supervisor Kathy Davis, which made Postmus, 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 youngest supervisor in San Bernardino County history. Postmus went on to become the chairman of the board of supervisors in 2004, the same year Russ was diagnosed as suffering from lymphatic cancer. Russ would later say that while he dealt with his several health challenges, Postmus, had been caring and supportive throughout his ordeals.
In 2006, Postmus was elected county assessor, but by 2008, he had descended into into an intractable political scandal, beset by controversy over his drug addiction and abuse of his elected office. In 2009, methamphetamine and syringes used to inject it were found within Postmus’s premises when investigators served a search warrant for his residence. That warrant had been obtained by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, which was looking into reports of Postmus and his assessor’s office staff engaging in partisan political activity involving the use of county personnel, facilities, equipment and assets during working hours. A month later, Postmus resigned from office. In 2010 he was charged with a variety of political corruption charges. He initially pleaded not guilty, but in 2011, he pleaded guilty to 14 felonies pertaining to bribery, conspiracy, conflict of interest, misappropriation of public funds and perjury, acknowledging he asked for and received bribes and that he had set up in the assessor’s office while it was under his watch a political operation, and hired friends and cronies with little to no experience in assessor-related work to help bolster his political career, including using the county’s email server to blast an electronic Republican newsletter to county voters.
Postmus’s conviction on the public conflict of interest charge prohibited him from seeking elective public office ever again in California.
Nevertheless, Postmus sought to remain in the political game vicariously through other Republican politicians. A crucial element of Postmus’s approach to politics when he was in office was the fluency with which he would make arrangements with those in the private sector engaged in providing goods or services to government or who had development or land use proposals over which the county government had decision-making authority. Those arrangements brought him political donations or money, tantamount to bribes or kickbacks, for which he would trade votes in his elected capacity approving either the governmental contracts those private sector companies had with the government or their applications for clearance to proceed with their development or land use proposals. After he was out of office, Postmus acted as a choreographer for politicians who, like he had once done, were willing to exchange electioneering funding for their votes in their official capacities.
Postmus sought to install as many of his associates as he could into elected office, primarily in San Bernardino County. Postmus, who had been while he was chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors also the chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, continued to cultivate relationships with the central committee’s members.
When the California Legislature passed legislation doing away with all redevelopment agencies throughout the state in 2011, Postmus urged Russ to seek appointment to the Hesperia Redevelopment Agency Oversight Committee formed in the aftermath of the creation of a successor agency to the redevelopment agency mandated by that legislation. Shortly thereafter, Russ was elected to serve as chairman of the oversight committee. From that position, again under Postmus’s advisal, Russ ran for the Hesperia City Council in 2014. Postmus arranged for Jeremiah Brosowske, a young and up-and-coming Republican who would subsequently become executive director of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, to serve as Russ’s campaign manager. Russ’s election bid was successful.
Postmus created an entity, Mountain States Consulting Group LLC, which he registered as a limited liability company with the State of Wyoming though the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office in Cheyenne on January 29, 2016. Postmus hired Broswoske to serve as Mountain States Consulting Group’s primary political operative. Postmus used Mountain States Consulting Group as a political fund laundering mechanism, one that took money from private sector entities seeking government contracts or land use or development application approvals from local governments with land use authority pertaining to those applications, and then vectored that money to the politicians in office heading those jurisdictional governments considering those goods or service provision bids or project or land use applications. Among the candidacies that Mountain States Consulting Group involved themselves with immediately upon its formation in early 2016 were those of Russ and two other Postmus allies, Eric Swanson and his wife, Rebekah Swanson. Through Mountain States Consulting Group, Postmus encouraged and promoted Russ’s and the Swansons’ successful efforts to be elected to the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee that year. Postmus and Mountains States Consulting Group further promoted Russ’s candidacy for First District San Bernardino County supervisor and Rebekah Swanson’s run for the Hesperia City Council. Ultimately, Russ, who at that time had been selected by his colleagues to serve as Hesperia mayor, fell short in his race for supervisor. Rebekah Swanson, however, proved victorious in the November 2016 election, and she joined Russ as a member of the city council the following month.
Meanwhile, as mayor and a member of the city council, Russ was proving himself to be unabashedly pro-development. In virtually every case where a developer requested go-ahead for a development proposal, Russ, generally in concert with the majority of his council colleagues, went along with the request, consistently holding that developer to a minimal standard with regard to providing accompanying infrastructure to offset the impact of that development. While this would have been a less-than-defensible approach to governance virtually anywhere, it was particularly irresponsible in the case of Hesperia, which was and remains under the onus of an historical infrastructure deficit which has existed since the founder of modern Hesperia, Penn Phillips, arrived on the Hesperia scene in the 1950s.
Phillips, who was then the proprietor of the Omart Investment Company and the vice-president and director of Standard Federal Savings and Loan Association of Los Angeles, in conjunction with several co-investors including former World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey; Charles Allen, vice-president of E.F. Hutton and Company of New York City; Fresno-based attorney Milo E. Rowell; Nat Mendelsohn of Riverside; Philip J. Farrar of Fresno; and Los Angeles investment brokers Dan Christy and Henry Paul Willis, on April 22, 1954 consummated what was billed as the largest private land sale in Southern California in 35 years with the purchase of a 36-square mile tract seven miles south of Victorville, representing roughly 90 percent of the entire township of Hesperia, for $1.25 million from the Appleton Land and Water Company and the Lacey Estate, which had owned the land jointly since 1888. Phillips simultaneously announced his intention to spend $8.25 million through the Hesperia Land Company, a subsidiary of Omart Investment Company, to prepare the property for development, indicating 1,000 acres of the property was to be allocated to industrial development, 8,000 acres for agriculture and that 5,000 homes would be built along with a two-and-one-half mile-long-and-one-quarter-mile-wide artificial lake, and a resort.
Phillips created the Hesperia Land Development and Hesperia Sales Corporation, which worked to promote his concept of the U-Finish Home, by which he intended to mass-produce housing units that were completely finished on the outside, leaving the buyer to complete the interior. He secured water rights to support this community through the newly created Mojave Water Agency, of which he was a founding member.
The formula Phillips applied in Hesperia was much like the one he used with his developments elsewhere: secure land, build homes on it, put in the minimal amount of infrastructure to make the homes habitable, bring in a population that creates the basis for a community that includes momentum for establishing some form of a jurisdictional governmental agency, sell all of the parcels acquired, take a profit and move on to the next development elsewhere.
Phillips built roads for Hesperia that were of a decidedly low standard, consisting of a mixture of desert sand used as aggregate and bitumen to create a road that was no more than one-and-a-half inches thick. The roads, when new, looked good, but under the withering sun and use, began to deteriorate within three to four years. The flash floods the desert is prone to further washed out these roads over the following decades, leaving many of Hesperia’s streets in poor condition, including some that eventually returned to being nothing more than dirt roads.
Phillips was equally irresponsible in the creation of the town’s water system. Though he started with the tremendous advantage of Hesperia being blessed with a world-class water supply, he squandered that asset in his head-long pursuit of a profit. Hesperia lies near the headwaters of the Mojave River, the watershed area north of the San Bernardino Mountains, a pristine and perpetually recharged water supply created by melting snow and overflowing rainwater from the heights southeast of Hesperia. The water system Phillips created for Hesperia consisted in large part of pipes cannibalized from a petroleum conveyance operation from depleted oil fields. Thus, the Hesperia Water Company, capturing water at the foot of the mountain before it rushed forward to become the Mojave River and wend out into the desert, used substandard pipes, which compromised the quality of the product provided to Hesperia for domestic use.
Thus, from its outset, modern Hesperia was beset with an infrastructure deficit it is still struggling, nearly 67 years later, to overcome. In the interim, developer after developer has come into Hesperia, both before the city’s 1988 incorporation and after, constructing homes as well as structures to host commercial and industrial operations, to one extent or another seeking to replicate the financial success Phillips achieved. A key element all along has been to prevail upon those with the city’s ultimate land use authority – which since incorporation has consisted of the city council – that they be permitted to proceed without having to provide the infrastructure needed to offset the impacts of their undertakings. Rather than require that the infrastructure deficit the city is functioning under be redressed before the next round of ongoing development occurs, past and current city officials have consistently permitted residential, commercial and industrial expansion to proceed without defraying the cost of providing public improvements and off-site augmentations to those developments consisting of roads, utilities and basic municipal facilities. Generations of political leaders in Hesperia have acceded to the argument that requiring the proponents of incoming projects to bear the burden of providing that infrastructure would impose a prohibitive expense on those developers, would be historically unfair given that past developers were not similarly constrained and that such requirements will prevent economic development. Simultaneously, the developers benefiting by the project approvals have proven themselves to be, over nearly three-and-a-half decades, extremely generous in supporting the city’s politicians, those being the members of the city council elected over 17 election cycles. Russ was as much or more of a beneficiary of the largesse provided by the development community as any of Hesperia’s politicians.
The most telling example of this pay-to-play corruption was that relating to what was originally referred to as the Rancho Las Flores project, which later became the Tapestry project.
Very shortly after the City of Hesperia’s incorporation on July 1, 1988, the maiden city council, consisting of Bruce Kitchen, George Beardsley, Percy Bakker, Mike Lampignano and Val Shearer, persuaded then-Rancho Cucamonga Deputy City Manager Robert Rizzo to become Hesperia’s first city manager. Rizzo, in turn, convinced the council to hire Rancho Cucamonga’s city attorney, Jim Markman, as Hesperia city attorney.
Deluded into thinking that cityhood would instantly transform Hesperia into an economically dynamic hotbed of upscale development similar to Rancho Cucamonga, the city council empowered Rizzo to cut deals with developers to convince them to begin building aggressively and soon. Rizzo took the council’s somewhat naïve instructions too literally, pushing his planning staff to approve projects as proposed by developers, entailing projects with sketchy or inadequate infrastructure, both in the immediate vicinity of the neighborhoods which were springing up as well as throughout the city in general. In some cases, Rizzo, to meet payroll, diverted bond money intended for the provision of infrastructure into the general fund, where it was eaten up by the day-to-day expenses of running the city. In time, many of the landowners inveigled into the assessment districts created to debt service those bonds lost those properties in tax foreclosures as the promised increases in the value of their properties failed to materialize because the infrastructure those bonds were supposed to pay for was never built. Correspondingly, the sales tax producing development that was to accompany the improvements to those properties in question never came about, depriving the city of revenue that could have been converted into infrastructure improvements.
Shortly after the city of Hesperia’s 1988 incorporation, the Dana Point-based ARC Las Flores Corporation sought city approval of the 10,000-acre property at the city’s extreme south end that consisted of the 490-acre Las Flores Ranch in Summit Valley and several adjacent parcels, including Bureau of Land Management property obtained through a series of land swaps. The project was originally projected to result in the construction of 9,100 residential units.
Rizzo, who had questionable links to the ARC Las Flores Corporation, convinced members of the city’s maiden city council that the project would generate economic development and create neighborhoods to rival those in upscale Rancho Cucamonga or Orange County. Within two years, under Rizzo’s guidance as well as that of Hesperia Planning Director Rob Zuel, the scope of the project grew, and in 1990 the city approved the Rancho Las Flores Specific Plan, which called for the development of 15,540 housing units in eight phases.
The manipulative and dishonest Rizzo, a University of California at Berkeley graduate who adroitly exploited the far less sophisticated members of the council who hired him, grew overconfident to the point that he engaged in activity that would eventually trip him up. Recognizing that he needed to keep in place the members of the city council who had directed him to develop the city at any cost and ensure that attitude prevailed at City Hall, he arranged through various contacts with developmental interests to get scores of residents in Orange County to write $99 checks in blank and entrust them to him. He then distributed those checks to the candidates up for election in the 1990 city council race that he deemed to be most accommodating of a pro-development agenda, including Bakker, Shearer and Planning Commissioner Donna Roland. In this way, Rizzo was seeking to obtain leverage over those to whom he was answerable. No one on the council objected until press accounts in early 1992 revealed what had occurred. Even then, the council sought to minimize the transgression. But public outrage over the exploitation of the electoral and governmental process forced the council’s hand and in April 1992, Rizzo left the city.
Some 18 years later, Rizzo’s corrupt manipulations of the elected city officials who hired him came home to roost when a series of legal, financial, managerial and governmental transgressions he had engaged in as city manager with the City of Bell came to light and he was arrested, criminally charged, and convicted in state court on 69 political corruption charges and in federal court on income tax evasion. In April 2014 he was sentenced to 12 years in prison on the state charges and 33 months in prison on the federal charges.
The Las Flores Ranch proposal remained active, or marginally so, under succeeding city managers and the guidance of community development director Tom Harp and principal planner Dave Reno, but encountered significant challenges that retarded its progression, such as the economic downturn of 1991 and 1992, and the listing of three species that inhabited the property – the arroyo toad, the Least Bell’s Vireo and the willow flycatcher – as endangered.
In 1993, the Las Flores project encountered a significant roadblock when the city of Barstow filed a lawsuit against upstream water users along the Mojave River, resulting in protracted litigation over water rights. The lawsuit led to a stipulated settlement in 2000 among the municipal and other water rights holders within the Mojave River Basin and a water allotment to Hesperia that brought into question whether Hesperia would have access to enough water to allow the project to proceed. The city subsequently sought to secure the project’s viability through the purchase of $30 million in water rights, deemed sufficient for ARC Las Flores’ purposes. The developers also obtained from the federal government clearance to proceed with the project subject to certain habitat protections for the endangered species living upon the property.
The original Las Flores Ranch project never got off the drawing boards, however, as Zuel’s departure from the city in 1991 followed by Rizzo’s demise as city manager in 1992 following the revelations about his illicit efforts to filter money from Orange County development interests into the campaign coffers of council members and council candidates amenable to the aggressive development proposals proved to be setbacks the project could not overcome. In the year 2000, the ten year delay resulted in the expiration of the project’s specific plan and its environmental impact report, requiring ARC Las Flores to reformulate those documents, which were not finalized until 2008. By that point, the economic downturn of 2007 inhibited progress on the project, and in 2012 ARC Las Flores declared bankruptcy.
Texas-based Terra Verde Group in 2013 purchased the 10,000 acres for roughly $45 million, and rechristened the Rancho Las Flores project as the Tapestry project, declaring its intention to maintain the eight-phase nature of the undertaking.
Led by Terra Verde’s director of development, John Ohanian, the company reformulated the specific plan for the project, which envisioned 19,300 dwelling units, and gave indication to the Hesperia City Council his company was purposed to proceed. Without defining the terms he was using, Ohanian said the density of the residential units would fall in the “low-to-medium” range.
In January 2016, after a number of workshops and public hearings relating to the project at which scores of Hesperia residents went on record as being opposed to the undertaking, the city council, then composed of Russ, Eric Schmidt, Mike Leonard, Bill Holland and Russ Blewett, gave approval to the project, which had been downscaled from 19,300 units to 16,196. The council took the action in the face of overwhelming resident opposition, which consisted of objections to the project’s density, the intensification of traffic it would entail on the city’s already overburdened streets and the 15 Freeway, what were said to be inadequacies in the project’s environmental impact report and concerns that the planning for the project had disregarded that the project was to be built in the floodplain beneath the Cedar Dam, which has seismic vulnerabilities which could lead to the deaths of hundreds or thousands who might be drowned or swept to perdition in the aftermath of a major earthquake.
Russ had received substantial money laundered to him through Mountain States Consulting Group, which was suspected of conveying money to him that originated with the Terra Verde Group. By that point, Russ had also been inundated with money coming directly from developers and individuals or entities representing developmental or real estate interests, such as Hesperia Venture I LLC; California Park West Investment, Mike Gallagher, Brookpine Equity, Tyler Girtman, Pacific Communities Builders, Joseph Nguyen, Archimetrics, the Building Industry Association of Southern California Political Action Committee, Cal-Equity, Oak Valley Management Company, California Arroyo Fund, TMSM Investment Corporation, California Coast Fund, Sam Akbarpour; California Highland Enterprise, Carl Coleman, California Land Enterprise, California Pams Enterprise, California Richland Enterprise, Canyon Vista Apartments, Sam Merhi, Cedar Creek Apartments, the California Next Generation Political Action Committee; Concord Square Apartments, Lewis Investment Company, DHR Verma, Mark Enderle, Michael Arias Jr., Falcon Equity, BCA Engineering Incorporated, FH II LLC, David Mlynarski, Gallery Equity, Bruno Mancinelli, I-15 Limited Partnership, Inland Development Strategies, Andre Jaeckel, Western States Development and Construction Inc., Craig Martin, Medico Investments LLC, Weiya Noble, Isaak Moradi, Pacific Housing, Darrell Peterson, Redlands Tower Square Apartments, Rich Macaluso, Sunrise Equity, Rebecca Otwell, VIP #3 Commercial Properties, Vista Equity, Lynn Henning, Vulture 1 Homes, Tsung Chi Wu, Mirposa Incorporated, Screenland Development Group, I & J Moradi and Realty Options Inc./Showcase Realty II.
In 2016, when Russ was vying for San Bernardino County First District Supervisor, developer Wyn Holmes arranged for $19,000 in donations to be made to Russ’s campaign fund. Holmes accomplished that by providing $4,000 in donations in his own name directly traceable to him and another $15,000 from entities controlled or directed jointly by Holmes and his business partner, Randall Friend. This was a violation of the County of San Bernardino Campaign Finance Ordinance, which prohibits an individual from contributing to a candidate more than $4,200 per election.
During the same time frame, Holmes, using similar tactics involving Friend, contributed $16,000 to Russ’s council colleague, Bill Holland, who also ran for supervisor in 2016.
For a time, it appeared as if Russ and Holland might be prosecuted for their shady involvement with Holmes. Ultimately, the California Fair Political Practices Commission took action not against Russ or Holland, but Holmes over the combined $35,000 contributions made to the Russ and Holland supervisorial campaigns, fining him $10,500.
Of note is that in 2016, Russ and Holland voted to approve The Villas 55+ Senior Community gated apartment project that was being proposed by Wyn Holmes’ Eagle Real Estate Group. In addition to approving the project, the city council provided Eagle Real Estate Group with a $3.8 million loan to be used toward completing the $13 million project.
It was no secret that for monetary contributions from developers, Russ would return those favors and vote to approve those developers’ projects when those proposals came before him as a city councilman or mayor.
Russ did not deny that he was friendly toward the development industry.
“Yeah, I do stuff for developers,” Russ said. “So, what? Those projects are good for the community. They bring in economic development and jobs. What’s wrong with that?”
It was not only on development projects that Russ showed himself capable of being influenced by money.
As a Republican, Russ insisted he was pro-law enforcement. He defined being opposed to drugs and drug use as supporting law enforcement. In April 2016, Russ posted on his supervisorial campaign Facebook page, “I was honored to attend the NO Drugs America event in Hesperia with my grandson this week. It is imperative that we continue to warn our youth about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. As a parent and grandparent, I believe awareness about the perils of drug use must be taught to discourage use and trafficking in our communities. I thank all those who joined in participating in this very worthwhile endeavor.”
The following year, after Russ was diagnosed with cancer and needed to undergo a liver and kidney transplant, then-Adelanto Mayor Rich Kerr, a proponent of the marijuana industry who was intent on permitting substantial numbers of marijuana-related businesses to operate in his city, induced Optimal Growers Incorporated, a company involved in the cultivation of marijuana, to provide a $30,000 contribution to a fund set up to assist Russ in defraying the cost of finding the organs he needed and getting the transplants.
Other marijuana purveyors provided money to Russ’s political campaigns, including Mountain High Greenhouse Construction, which donated $4,000 to his electioneering fund; and Heal Concept Incorporated, which donated $4,000 to his electioneering fund.
Thereafter, Russ changed his attitude about marijuana, concluding that marijuana-related businesses represented something good, and he supported Hesperia permitting marijuana distribution businesses operating in the city.
The degree to which Russ’s actions as a public official were influenced by money provided to him was demonstrated by his votes to raise water and sewer utility rates on the city’s residents, accompanied by votes to reduce by 50 percent the fees imposed on developers. Russ also pressured Hesperia’s public works and planning staff to complete engineering work and make project approval recommendations for developers who had provided him with money.
In May 2018, then-Hesperia Mayor Russ Blewett died. Shortly thereafter, Jeremiah Brosowske, the one-time executive director of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee who had served as Russ’s campaign chairman and was instrumental in getting Russ elected to the city council in 2014 and was the primary political operative assisting Postmus in the political fund laundering activity of Mountain States Consulting Group which had assisted Russ in his 2016 supervisorial election attempt, moved to Hesperia and sought appointment to the city council as Blewett’s replacement. Russ’s vote was a critical one in the 3-to-1 decision of the city council in which he joined with Holland and Postmus protégé Rebekah Swanson to appoint Brosowske to fill out the remainder of Blewett’s term, which was set to elapse in December of that year. Thereafter, in what was the first by-district election in the history of Hesperia, which from 1988 until that point selected its council members in at-large contests, Holland sought to remain on the council by seeking election in the city’s District 2, Russ endeavored to remain in office by running in District 3 and Brosowske sought election to remain on the council representing Hesperia’s District 4. All three went into the campaign endorsing one another as part of a pro-development ticket. As the campaign season progressed, however, a falling out between Holland and Brosowske occurred. Russ remained loyal to Brosowske, at which point Holland withdrew his endorsement of both of his colleagues.
Holland and Brosowske managed to lodge victories in the 2018 race. For Russ it was a different story. His demonstrated willingness to support anyone or any entity offering him money had become readily apparent even to the unsophisticated voters of Hesperia who had traditionally been remarkably tolerant of the giveaways the city’s council members had made to the development industry over the years. Russ’s embrace of the pay-to-play ethos of those who had promoted his political career proved too much for the voters of Hesperia’s Third District to stand, and he was turned out of office by his lone challenger, Cameron Gregg, who garnered 2,288 votes or 51.92 percent to Russ’s 2,119 votes or 48.08 percent.
That same month, despite his loss, Russ gave a demonstration of one of his positive attributes, that being his loyalty. Postmus’s sentencing on his 2011 guilty pleas had been held in abeyance for more than seven years as the prosecution of others accused by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office and the California Attorney General’s Office of participating in many of the same depredations he had admitted to while in office were delayed by defense motions, pretrial appeals to the appellate court and to the California Supreme Court. At last, in 2017, the trial of those defendants took place. Postmus was brought in to testify as a witness in that prosecution. After that trial ended, following a further delay as Postmus explored vacating his guilty pleas, the court at last took up the issue of Postmus’s sentencing in November 2018. Some two weeks after his defeat at the polls, Russ came in to the courtroom of Judge Michael A. Smith to testify about Postmus’s character and humanity.
Russ testified about how he had waged several tough medical battles throughout his life, including getting a kidney transplant as a young man; learning in 2004 that he had lymphatic cancer, which through treatment went into remission; and discovering the previous year that he had liver cancer and that his kidney was failing before he ventured to New Orleans to undergo a dual liver and kidney transplant. Postmus, whom Russ said he had first gotten to know in the 1990s when both were involved in supporting Republican candidates, had been caring and supportive throughout both of his bouts with cancer, Russ said. During his latest health challenge, Russ testified that Postmus offered him encouragement and called him daily while he was in New Orleans.
Russ told Judge Smith that Postmus had intimated to him in 2017, just before Postmus had testified in the criminal case against others involved in the crimes Postmus had pleaded guilty to in 2011, that he was genuinely torn up about having to testify against his former associates and political donors.
“He talked to me about how he was in a dilemma, between a rock and a hard spot,” Russ said. “He said if he told the truth, he would be in trouble with the prosecution but if he kept with his testimony, he’d be able to go home free.”
Ultimately, Judge Smith Sentenced Postmus to three years in state prison.
Last year, Russ attempted to make a political comeback, running unsuccessfully for a position on the Hesperia Unified School District Board of Trustees. Hesperia’s voters, it seemed, had gotten their fill of Russ. Six years before that, however, before his remarkable four-year run on the Hesperia City Council during which he had engaged in mutually satisfying backscratching with the development community, Russ had made his way to the top of Hesperia’s political heap.
Russ possessed a keen intelligence and situational awareness developed over the years through his involvement in politics by which he recognized that a vast majority of San Bernardino County’s voters, and most certainly those in Hesperia, either were not sufficiently focused, did not have the collective intelligence or simply lacked the sophistication to understand the quality of life issues at stake in the selection of their political leadership, and they would elect virtually anyone who could skillfully use in his electioneering efforts the money provided to him by the interests who had the most to gain or lose from the governmental decision-making process. Russ thus acceded, for a brief four years, to political office, in that short time achieving the mayoralty in the city in which he lived, and constructed a record of action and votes that was a nearly perfect model of how elected authority can be wielded contrary to the interests of the vast majority of those a politician represents.
By Mark Gutglueck