By Mark Gutglueck
With at least $3 million and perhaps as much $15 million in future bribes and payoffs riding on their decision, three-fifths of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors are carefully weighing whom they will appoint to replace John McMahon as sheriff.
On June 18, McMahon announced his resignation from the county’s top law enforcement post, some eight-and-a-half years after he was appointed by the board of supervisors as it was then composed to lead the sheriff’s department in the aftermath of Rod Hoops, who was McMahon’s predecessor as sheriff, having himself resigned. McMahon, running as an unelected incumbent in 2014 against two challengers and unopposed in 2018, was elected sheriff twice. His resignation, effective July 16, means he will depart from office a little less than 18 months prior to the term he was elected to in 2018 coming to an end.
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, as the county government’s highest decision-making authority, has discretion in determining how McMahon is to be replaced. The board could call for a special election to allow the voters of the county to make that determination or it can use its own authority to make an appointment.
Citing what is estimated as a $1.4 million cost to hold such an election countywide, the board has indicated it will instead make an appointment, most likely on July 7, the same day interviews of those interested in serving in the post who have submitted applications by June 30 will be conducted.
Word circulating about the county is that the most likely successors are either Undersheriff Shannon Dicus, Assistant Sheriff Robert Wickum or Assistant Sheriff Horace Boatwright.
In the past, as in 2012 when McMahon replaced Hoops and in 2009 when Hoops replaced Gary Penrod who resigned that year after 15 years as the elected sheriff, the board of supervisors has honored the recommendation of the departing sheriff in making its selection of who would succeed him. In 2012, Hoops had nominated McMahon, who was then serving in the department’s third-ranking position of assistant sheriff, a move which some considered surprising, as there was anticipation that the department’s second-in-command, Undersheriff Bob Fonzi, would get the nod to head the department. In 2009, when Penrod departed prematurely, both Penrod in his recommendation and the board of supervisors in its decision, bypassed then-Undersheriff Richard Beemer in favor of Hoops, who was assistant sheriff.
The board of supervisors, nonetheless, is not bound to comply with the departing sheriff’s wish as to who will replace him. The board is at liberty to make a collective decision to put into the sheriff’s post any qualified lawman they deem fit, as long as their appointee has certification by California’s Police Officers Standards and Training Commission, which sets minimum selection, eligibility and training standards for California law enforcement officers, and is a resident of San Bernardino County.
It has not been publicly announced if McMahon is going to make a recommendation to the board or whom he will endorse.
There is a chance that in the current case the board of supervisors will not comply with McMahon’s recommendation. At the root of that possibility are dual factors: the corruption of county government that is taking place as a consequence of the societal shift with regard to the legality and availability of marijuana with its accompanying financial opportunities and the resurrection of disgraced former San Bernardino County Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Bill Postmus as a political force to be reckoned with in San Bernardino County.
McMahon, for the majority of his law enforcement career, which began when he was hired as a deputy by then-Sheriff Floyd Tidwell in 1985, lived by the ethos that marijuana was a prohibited drug, the growing of, the possession of, the distribution of, the sale of or the use of which was illegal under both California law and U.S. law. When California’s voters in 1996 passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act, which made it legal for the drug to be sold, purchased and used, subject to certain restrictions including the user first obtaining a medical prescription, that softened no soap with San Bernardino County’s governmental authorities, and none its cities nor the county government itself allowed, until first Needles in 2012 and Adelanto in 2015 became the exceptions, the sale of marijuana. The county’s law enforcement agencies, including most notably the sheriff’s department, continued arresting, jailing and through the judicial process convicting and imprisoning marijuana offenders.
After the passage of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act in 2016, which legalized the sale and use of marijuana for its intoxicative effect throughout California, San Bernardino County government and the lion’s share of the municipal governments in San Bernardino County continued to resist such liberalization, primarily out of a belief that marijuana use and availability are contrary to the maintenance of an orderly and moral society. Only the cities of Needles, Adelanto and San Bernardino, all of which were in dire financial straits, acceded to the new order by allowing marijuana cultivation, harvesting, distribution, wholesale and retail sale, or alteration into edibles, palliatives, ointments and/or salves within their respective jurisdictions. Barstow consented to the sale of the drug within its confines, and Hesperia allowed marijuana distribution and mobile sales businesses to operate there, while yet prohibiting storefront sale of the substance. Everywhere else in the county, including the 18,899-square miles of the county’s unincorporated territory and within the incorporated towns of Apple Valley and Yucca Valley and the cities of Chino Hills, Chino, Montclair, Ontario, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Rialto, Grand Terrace, Loma Linda, Highland, Redlands, Big Bear, Yucaipa, Twentyine Palms, and Victorville, the production, distribution, conversion and sale of marijuana remained prohibited.
In Adelanto and San Bernardino, elected and city officials, functioning under the cover of California’s legalization of the production and sale of marijuana, while publicly using the rationale that having their cities get in on the ground floor of the commercialization of marijuana in the Golden State represented an economic development opportunity that would prove a financial boon to their cash-strapped communities, invited and then embraced marijuana and cannabis product entrepreneurs to apply for marijuana-related business permits.
In Adelanto, then-Mayor Rich Kerr, then-Councilman John Woodard and then-Councilman Jermaine Wright, manipulating their council colleague Charlie Glasper, who was in the throes of dementia, arranged first to open the city to marijuana cultivators who would produce a supply of the product to marijuana dispensaries located elsewhere and then transitioned to allowing any type of commercial marijuana activity – cultivation, harvesting, packaging, shipping, distribution, wholesale marketing, retail selling, and cannabis-based product manufacturing – to take place in their city. Early in the going, they employed Jessie Flores, a one-time political associate of Bill Postmus, as the city’s economic development director. Later, they transitioned Flores into Adelanto City Manager.
Along the way, Kerr, Woodard and Wright engaged in graft of a breathtaking scope, with those applying for the marijuana-related business permits the city was offering coming into City Hall with briefcases full of cash. Wright was caught by the FBI taking bribes from marijuana-related business applicants in exchange for ensuring that licensing of those businesses would take place and that those operations would be free of the city’s regulatory interference. He was arrested and prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney in 2017, and forcibly removed from office. The FBI was closing in on Kerr, Woodard and Flores in 2018, having served search warrants at City Hall, Kerr’s home and the business offices of marijuana business applicants the FBI had grounds to believe were paying off Adelanto city officials. In the November 2018 election, Glasper, who was at that point fully non copus mentis, did not seek reelection, and both Kerr and Woodard, whose corruption was evident, were soundly defeated. In their place, three political newcomers who represented themselves as reformists – Gabriel Reyes as mayor and Gerardo Hernandez and Stevevonna Evans as councilmembers – were elected. The reforms that troika had intimated would take place if they were elected did not manifest, however, and Flores remains as city manager, while the City of Adelanto remains on course to become the marijuana capital of California as Kerr once promised, with the applicants for marijuana-related business permits yet plying the city’s decision-makers with money. According to city insiders, including those currently and formerly employed with the city, money originating with the owners and operators of marijuana-related businesses that have obtained permits in the city is still making its way into the political funds and pockets/personal bank accounts of the city’s elected officials, and lax enforcement of city regulations is allowing those marijuana entrepreneurs to function without having to pay the full fees and taxes that the city is supposed to collect from them.
In San Bernardino, John Valdivia, who represented that city’s Third Ward from 2012 until 2018 and was elected mayor in 2018, used his position of authority in the county seat to militate on behalf of those seeking marijuana-related business licenses in exchange for money, either in the form of contributions to his political war chest or what were tantamount to bribes, kickbacks and payoffs in the guise of retainers provided to his business, AAdvantage Comm LLC. Valdivia, in exchange for the money applicants for those permits provided him, gave assurances that he would manipulate the city’s permitting process such that they were to be granted licenses to operate marijuana dispensaries, stores, cannabis-related product derivation and manufacturing concerns, research facilities, wholesalers, distribution companies or cultivation operations. Valdivia came through in several of those instances, and those who had paid him were granted permits. In others, the promised permits were not obtained by those who had paid Valdivia. In at least two of those cases, when those who had paid Valdivia directly or made contributions to his political fund with the understanding that they were to receive a marijuana-related business permit in return and were not successful in having their application approved by the city, Valdivia told them he could yet come through for them but that they would need to provide him with more money.
Meanwhile, Bill Postmus, who had been San Bernardino County First District supervisor from 2000 until 2007, chairman of the board of supervisors from 2004 until 2006, the chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee from 2004 until 2006 and San Bernardino County Assessor from 2007 until 2009, has inserted himself into the San Bernardino County marijuana fortune sweepstakes.
In 2009, Postmus was caught up in a scandal and forced to resign from office. Ultimately between 2009 and 2010, he was charged with 14 felonies relating to political corruption and public office office crimes, including conspiracy, bribery, soliciting a bribe, accepting a bribe, fraud, public office conflict of interest, misappropriation of public funds and perjury stemming from his activity while he was both a member of the board of supervisors and county assessor. In 2011, he pleaded guilty to all 14 of the felony charges against him, and was eventually sentenced to three years in state prison. His conviction on the public office conflict of interest charge carried with it a lifelong ban on him holding elected office in California.
Postmus was determined to remain politically involved in San Bernardino County, nevertheless, and created a Wyoming-based company, Mountain States Consulting Group, LLC, which he uses to engage in political money laundering for California elected officials, particularly ones in San Bernardino County. Relying on his experience in having been caught, prosecuted and convicted of bribery as well as taking advantage of the lax reporting requirements Wyoming has for limited liability companies based there, Postmus has devised a formula by which Mountain States Consulting Group takes in money from those with an interest in decisions to be made by elected officials in local government and conveys that money to those elected officials with the proviso that the suppliers of the money will get their projects, licenses, permits, contracts or franchises approved by those elected officials.
Postmus and his associates, including John Dino De Fazio, who has an interest in a licensed marijuana cultivation operation in Needles, are working through Mountain States Consulting Group on behalf of those who have obtained marijuana-related business permits in San Bernardino, Adelanto and Needles to ensure they are not interfered with by any competitors. A comprehensive business plan Postmus is pursuing includes those entities that have already established a toehold in the San Bernardino County marijuana industry in San Bernardino, Adelanto and Needles to move to the next phase, which involves opening the rest of San Bernardino County up for a set number of commercial marijuana operations, which Mountain States Consulting Group’s clients are to be given exclusive licenses and permits to run.
Postmus, through Mountain States Consulting Group, has begun to filter money to Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Curt Hagman, First District Supervisor Paul Cook and Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe to get them to accept the next step in the process, which is intended to confer a monopoly, or a near monopoly, on those who have established cannabis-related operations in San Bernardino and Adelanto through bribery, as well as on De Fazio and his associates, in the areas of the county where commercial marijuana activity is now prohibited but will later be permitted. Toward an even more lucrative goal, Postmus has formulated a timetable that would have the county move to allowing commercial cannabis within the unincorporated areas of the county, roughly 94 percent of its overall 20,105-square mile jurisdiction by 2022. The estimated half of a billion dollar initial revenue stream this would create would be spread around to the decision-makers to be brought in on the deal, such that Hagman, Cook and Rowe would be guaranteed no less than $1 million each, along with the governmental and political support network that exists around them, including several of their supervisorial staff members to include their chiefs of staff, who in any event serve in key positions on the supervisors’ campaign teams. In this way, Postmus and the marijuana cartel he is now representing are prepared to apply “political grease,” consisting of more than $10 million, to the governmental and political players in the county as necessary to establish a monopoly, or near monopoly, for the cartel.
Over the last several years, literally hundreds of bootleg marijuana producers – that is, individuals who have not obtained permits or licenses to operate nor otherwise registered their operations with the state or county government – have set up marijuana farms in the more remote areas of the county, such as in the mountains but particularly in the vast reaches of the Mojave Desert. Beginning in January 2021, the sheriff’s department began a concerted effort to, in the words of Sheriff McMahon, “take down” those illicit operations. Since January, the sheriff’s marijuana eradication team has busted dozens of such operations and uprooted and destroyed nearly 100,000 marijuana plants. Inadvertently, those operations have benefited those permitted and licensed operations in San Bernardino, Adelanto and Needles, as the destruction of the crops at the unpermitted farms decreases the supply of marijuana generally available in the region, allowing the licensed or permitted operations to sell their product at a premium price, making those operations much more profitable. This has left the owners of those operations in a position to continue to kick a substantial amount of money back to the San Bernardino city, Adelanto and Needles politicians who approved their existing operations, and make donations to San Bernardino County elected officials whose support will be needed to expand their operations into new territory within the county.
In setting the county’s budget for 2021-2022, the board of supervisors earmarked $10.4 million to deal with nettlesome land use and code enforcement issues in the county’s unincorporated areas, the most significant of which consist of unlicensed marijuana farms.
The supervisors’ commitment to fund more sheriff’s department efforts against unlicensed marijuana cultivators served as a signal to Postmus that county officials are agreeable to the timetable he has worked out with Hagman and County Chief Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez to provide the marijuana-related business operations that are Mountain States’ clients with the limited number of permits the county will issue when it undertakes to legalize marijuana-related commercial activity less than two years hence. The arrangements Postmus is pursuing in getting his clients permits to operate at the county level will ultimately give those entities an inside track in establishing cannabis-related businesses in the 18,899-square mile expanse of the county’s unincorporated territory. Moreover, that groundwork will give the cartel Postmus represents an advantage in obtaining marijuana cultivation and cannabis-related product commercial entitlements in the eleven other county municipalities besides Adelanto, Hesperia and Needles where the sheriff’s department fills the role of police department, Postmus believes, those being Chino Hills, Rancho Cucamonga, Grand Terrace, Loma Linda, Highland, Big Bear Lake, Yucaipa, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms, Apple Valley and Victorville.
The timing of the sheriff’s department’s stepped-up operations against illicit marijuana cultivation operations in the desert, corresponding as it did with Postmus’s efforts on behalf of the cartel that has established itself in San Bernardino, Adelanto and Needles, was interpreted as a sign that McMahon was on board, along with Hagman, Cook, Rowe, Supervisor Janice Rutherford, Supervisor Joe Baca, Jr., County Executive Officer Hernandez, County Chief Financial Officer Matthew Erickson, County Counsel Michelle Blakemore and Chief Assistant County Counsel Penny Alexander-Kelley, in allowing the cartel that has retained Postmus to achieve its marijuana cultivation and cannabis-product related monopoly.
Sources close to McMahon, however, have told the Sentinel that he had been completely unaware of the money laundering activity Postmus was engaged in involving members of the board of supervisors until earlier this month. Upon being sallied with questions about his own motivation and why he was assisting Postmus in his strategy, which included suggestions that the motive behind the department’s action might have included better positioning the cartel represented by Postmus to increase its current profitability and equip itself to widen the range of those being politically greased to include himself and members of his department, McMahon grew angry. After McMahon detailed detectives attached to the sheriff’s department’s executive command to look into the matter and determine the grounds for the accusations he was confronted with, the investigators’ findings confirmed that in fact Postmus has begun so-called “fundraising” efforts on behalf of Hagman, Cook and Rowe, money which is tantamount to payoffs for their going along with the move to legalize commercial marijuana activity in the county’s unincorporated areas. A key element of that strategy was to use the sheriff’s department’s eradication efforts and the seemingly endless proliferation of illicit activity the department is encountering even in the face of that aggressive program to make a case that cracking down on marijuana production in the desert and elsewhere is futile, and that the most sensible approach is to create a system under which massive marijuana production is permitted and taxed, thereby creating a regulated market and a revenue stream for the government. Part and parcel of that strategy is that the permits that will ultimately be issued by the county government will go primarily to those businesses which have retained Postmus/Mountain States Consulting Group to ensure that the county government decision-makers are kicked back to.
McMahon was “appalled” to learn that Hagman, Cook and Rowe, whom he had previously considered to be on the up-and-up, were on the take. Concerned that his reputation as a law enforcement officer would be ruined through his and his department’s association with what is ongoing, McMahon abruptly elected to tender his resignation as sheriff.
Now taking place is an examination of the senior members of the sheriff’s department or other individuals with sufficient law enforcement credentials outside of the department who meet the San Bernardino County residency requirements to be eligible to be appointed to the sheriff’s post who are willing to play ball with Postmus and the majority of the board of supervisors looking toward accepting marijuana use as the “wave of the future,” which, if properly orchestrated, means a fortune can be had by not only those now occupying San Bernardino County’s seats of power, but the retinue of political and governmental operatives surrounding them.
While on most handicap sheets, Undersheriff Dicus appears to be the favorite in the field of potential candidates to succeed McMahon, his straightforward approach to police work and traditionalist values may leave him disinclined to go along with Postmus’s plan. The longer list of contenders includes more than Dicus and assistant sheriffs Wickum and Boatwright, as Deputy Chief Sam Fisk, Deputy Chief Robert O’Brine, Deputy Chief Sarkis Ohannessian, Deputy Chief Rick Bessinger and Deputy Chief Trevis Newport are in the running, as is Captain John Ades, who currently oversees the sheriff’s department’s bureau of administration.
Newport, who began with the department in 1999, has made a meteoric rise since 2013, when he was serving as a sergeant in Needles. He subsequently promoted to lieutenant and in that capacity led the homicide detail that investigated and solved the 2014 Erin Corwin murder case. After a stint within the department’s bureau of administration in 2017, Newport made captain in January 2018, and then served as the commander of the Morongo Basin Sheriff’s Station. His time in Needles, while that city became the first jurisdiction in San Bernardino County to allow medical marijuana sales to take place, is considered a positive attribute by Postmus and his crowd.
Others mentioned include Sheriff’s Captain Jeremy Martinez, who oversees the sheriff’s department’s operations in Adelanto, and those members of the department who preceded Martinez as station commander in Adelanto over the last six years. The sheriff’s department serves as the contract law enforcement service provider for Adelanto, which in essence makes the Adelanto Sheriff’s Station the Adelanto Police Department, the deputies serving there Adelanto police officers, and Martinez the Adelanto police chief. Since 2015, the Adelanto Police Department has peacefully coexisted with the political leadership in Adelanto, even as several of the owners of the companies that have successfully established marijuana and cannabis-related operations in that city did so through graft and bribery of the city’s elected officials. It was not the sheriff’s department that felled Councilman Wright nor which undertook the hard-hitting investigations of Mayor Kerr, Councilman Woodard or Economic Development Director/City Manager Flores, but rather the FBI.
Personages outside the department considered potential candidates to replace McMahon include Upland Police Chief Darren Goodman and former San Bernardino County Marshal Keith Bushey.
Goodman left the sheriff’s department in 2018, while he was serving in the capacity of captain overseeing the Chino Hills Sheriff’s Station, to become Upland police chief. Goodman possesses a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Southern California at Los Angeles and a doctorate from USC’s Rossier School of Education. As recently as last year, however, Goodman was not a resident of San Bernardino County, living at that time in Riverside County.
Bushey was commander with the Los Angeles Police Department before he accepted the marshal’s position in San Bernardino County, which in 1999 was absorbed into the sheriff’s department when the board of supervisor’s merged the marshal’s office with the sheriff’s department. Bushey served as a deputy chief in the sheriff’s department for six years before retiring in 2005. In 2009, when Penrod resigned, and in 2012, when Hoops resigned, there were multiple advocates for Bushey’s appointment as sheriff. He contemplated but ultimately did not seek election as sheriff in 2010 and 2014.
Goodman’s and Bushey’s position with regard to licensing/permitting/facilitating the availability of marijuana in the unincorporated areas of San Bernardino County are unknown.
By Mark Gutglueck