Two decades ago, Jeff Burum and his business associate Dan Richards boldly asserted themselves and the entity they headed as the most prolific political donors in San Bernardino County.
The way in which those political donations were applied, however, as well as the action some of those politicians took after receiving that money raised questions, followed by suspicions. Thereafter, criminal charges resulted that required the better part of a decade to fully play out, ultimately sending the politician who had been the largest recipient of Burum’s and Richards’ largesse to prison.
For nearly a decade beginning in 2008, Burum on his own initiative and upon the advice of his attorney discontinued his prodigious generosity toward San Bernardino County’s politicians. In 2018, after a criminal prosecution relating to some of those political donations which he and Richards had handed around in 2007 that the California Attorney General’s Office and the San Bernardino County District Attorney interpreted as bribes was resolved in his favor, he once again began writing checks – large ones – to those vying for political office. He was active in the 2020 election, as well. This year, Burum has emerged as the linchpin in what is again the largest consortium of business interests in the county underwriting political campaigns.
No one – or very few – dispute that it is Jeff Burum’s right to engage in political advocacy in the way he sees fit – which in his case involves donating money to individual candidates for public office or electoral causes in amounts that exceed the annual take-home pay of an average worker in San Bernardino County. Still, there are those, including his friends and associates, who are concerned that the indifference he shows with regard to the impression he makes when he provides that kind of money to decision-makers in local government, who are sometimes called upon to approve the projects and undertakings he is involved in, is leading him back into the situation which led to the filing of criminal charges against him 11 years ago. Those people and others question how thoroughly he has thought through the seemingly casual way in which he is associating himself with political figures and bankrolling their electoral prospects without first knowing who they are, what they stand for and what their actual intentions are. At the root of these alliances between Burum as a businessman and these ambitious politicians is a question of whether he is backing them, as he and they maintain, to better the community, or as a means of advancing his entrepreneurial interests.
In 2002, Burum and Richards and the consortium they led, the Colonies Partners, were pressing forward with the Colonies at San Antonio and Colonies Crossroads residential and commercial subdivisions in northeast Upland on land formerly owned by the San Antonio Water Company which was crisscrossed with flood control easements. The company was pressing the county to assist it in constructing a catch basin to hold stormwater that poured over the property during winter and spring rains, and it filed suit over the matter against San Bernardino County and its flood control district. Then-San Bernardino County Supervisor Jon Mikels, whose Second District included Upland, was opposed to public money being used to defray the cost of infrastructure, such as flood control facilities, needed for the project to be built. Burum and Richards committed $70,000 of their own money as well as that collected from other investors in the Colonies Partners to back the candidacy of then-Rancho Cucamonga City Councilman Paul Biane in his challenge of Mikels in the 2002 election.
Concerned their efforts to unseat Mikels might engender the enmity of then-District Attorney Dennis Stout, who had been a firm friend and ally of Mikels, Burum and Richards also committed $65,000 to support the candidacy of then-Deputy District Attorney Mike Ramos, who was challenging Stout that same electoral season. That money was provided to Ramos both directly and through the political action committee of the union for the county’s sheriff’s deputies, to which Burm and Richards vectored donations.
Ultimately, Mikels and Stout lost in their re-electoral efforts against Biane and Ramos.
Burum and Richards would also prove themselves as heavy supporters of Bill Postmus, who had been elected to the board of supervisors originally in 2000 and ran successfully for reelection in 2004. In 2006, Postmus, who at that time was the chairman of the board of supervisors and simultaneously the chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, vied successfully for county assessor, San Bernardino County’s highest taxing authority. All told, the Colonies Partners and its various investors, including Burum and Richards, invested $440,000 in Postmus’s political career by means of donations to his campaign war chests over the years, despite both Burum and Postmus claiming that they did not know each other very well and had only met and interacted on a handful of occasions.
On November 28, 2006, three weeks to the day after Postmus had been elected assessor, in one of Postmus’s last acts as supervisor before he left that post to assume the position of assessor, the board of supervisors voted 3-to-2 to settle the lawsuit brought by the Colonies Partners against the county and its flood control district over water drainage issues at the Colonies at San Antonio and Colonies Crossroads project site. Prevailing in that vote were Postmus, Biane and then-Fourth District Supervisor Gary Ovitt.
The Colonies Partners in March 2007 made a $100,000 donation to the Committee For Effective Government political action committee that had been set up by James Erwin. In May 2007, the Colonies Partners made a donation of $100,000 to the Alliance for Ethical Government, a political action committee set up by Mark Kirk. In June 2007, the Colonies Partners made a $100,000 contribution to the San Bernardino County Young Republicans political action committee. In June 2007, the Colonies Partners made a $50,000 contribution to the Conservatives for a Republican Majority political action committee and followed that in July 2007 with a $50,000 contribution to the Inland Empire political action committee.
The Committee For Effective Government had been established as a political action committee in the spring of 2007 by James Erwin, the one-time president of the union representing San Bernardino County’s sheriff’s deputies. Erwin was one of Postmus’s political associates who in 2007 was hired to serve as assistant assessor when Postmus moved into the office of county assessor. The Alliance for Ethical Government was a political action committee set up by Mark Kirk, who had been the chief of staff to Ovitt, whose third vote in conjunction with those of Postmus and Biane was critical in approving the $102 million lawsuit settlement with the Colonies Partners. The San Bernardino County Young Republicans was a political action committee controlled by Paul Biane and his chief of staff Matt Brown. The Conservatives for a Republican Majority political action committee and the Inland Empire political action committee were entities controlled by Bill Postmus.
The $400,000 donations to those political action committees, which benefited the three supervisors who had voted to settle the lawsuit on terms highly favorable to the Colonies Partners, came to be widely perceived in the months after they were made as kickbacks. A growing crescendo to that effect ultimately prompted Burum and Richards to adopt a policy of discontinuing their practice of making political donations.
In February 2010, the California Attorney General’s Office, then led by Jerry Brown as attorney general, in conjunction with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, then led by Mike Ramos as district attorney, filed criminal charges against Postmus and Erwin, who had served as a consultant to the Colonies Partners for roughly a year-and-a-half before the lawsuit was reached. Alleged in the case was that extortion and bribery had been used in the Colonies Partners’ effort to reach the settlement with the county. Described in the criminal filing were five alleged unnamed co-conspirators, those being Burum, Richards, Biane, Kirk and Patrick O’Reilly, a public relations consultant who had been retained by the Colonies Partners.
Both Postmus and Erwin entered not guilty pleas to the charges against them. In March 2011, however, Postmus entered 14 guilty pleas on felony political corruption charges that had been lodged against him, including six counts pertaining to his activity while he was assessor and eight charges relating to his vote to approve the $102 million settlement with the Colonies Partners and activity preceding and following the vote, including conspiracy, bribery, misappropriation of public funds, engaging in a conflict of interest as a public official, fraud and perjury. In entering his guilty pleas, he agreed to turn state’s evidence. In April 2011 he testified as the star witness among 41 witnesses before a grand jury, which in May 2011 returned a 29-count indictment of Burum, Erwin, Biane and Kirk.
The prosecution proceeded under Jerry Brown’s successor as California Attorney General, Kamala Harris, and San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos. After more than five-and-a-half years of pre-trial legal skirmishing, jury selection took place in December 2016 and the matter went to trial before two juries – one for Erwin and another for Burum, Biane and Kirk – with opening statements in January 2017. After seven months of trial, the jury hearing their case acquitted Burum, Biane and Kirk in August 2017 and the jury hearing the evidence against Erwin in September 2017 deadlocked on all charges against him.
The following year, Ramos was up for reelection for the fourth time, having been reelected without opposition in 2006 and cruising to relatively easy victory against two opponents in 2010 and one opponent in 2014. At that point, Burum and his associates, who had previously been under advisement by Burum’s legal team to desist in any sort of political activity involving donations because of the way in which prosecutors had alleged that at least some of the donations Burum and his company had provided to politicians were bribes, were no longer under any such restriction. In the 2018 contest for district attorney, Jason Anderson, who had previously been a deputy district attorney under Ramos and Stout and had served four years on the Ontario City Council, challenged Ramos.
Burum spared no expense in the effort to prevent Ramos from being granted a fifth term in office as district attorney by the county’s voters.
The Anderson campaign spent $259,055.70, a significant percentage of which came from Burum and his associates.
Pierre Biane, Paul Biane’s father, donated $2,750 to Anderson’s electoral effort, and the entity known as Biane Family Properties chipped in another $250.
John Bunkers, one of the Colonies Partners, donated $4,400 to Anderson. Andrew Wright, one the Colonies Partners’ managing directors along with Burum and Richards, ponied up $5,500. The Andrew Wright Living Trust gave Anderson another $3,000. One of Burum’s many development entities provided $2,000.
Burum donated $4,400 to Anderson, and Burum’s wife, Kelly, donated another $4,400. Burum’s brother donated $1,000 to Anderson’s electioneering fund and Burum’s sister-in-law donated $500. Stephen Larson, Burum’s attorney who had instructed his client to not make any donations while criminal charges were pending against him, supported Anderson with $4,400. Larson’s father matched that with $4,400. Mark McDonald, Paul Biane’s attorney, gave Anderson $1,000. Rajan Maline, Erwin’s attorney, ventured another $1,000 toward Anderson’s electoral effort.
Chris Leggio, one of Burum’s closest friends, and Leggio’s wife put up $7,700 toward getting Anderson into office. James Sheridan, another close Burum associate, tossed in $500.
Burum did not confine himself to simply supporting the Anderson in the race. He further endowed an electioneering effort against Ramos that was carried out independently from Anderson’s campaign.
Jeff Burum provided $135,550 to an independent expenditure committee he controlled, Business Owners For Fair and Ethical Government, which was devoted in large measure to opposing Ramos. Burum’s wife, Kelly, handed another $135,550 over to Business Owners For Fair And Ethical Government. Chris Leggio and his wife provided the committee $32,500 more. Andrew Wright endowed Business Owners For Fair And Ethical Government with $30,000.
Anderson prevailed in the 2018 election, driving Ramos from office.
Burum backed both “safe candidates” running for supervisor in 2020, those being Congressman Paul Cook, who was making the somewhat unorthodox move of leaving Congress to run for First District supervisor, and the appointed incumbent in the Third Supervisorial District, Dawn Rowe. Burum provided Cook, whose victory was never in doubt, with $2,500. Burum gave Rowe $7,000 in May 2019, early in her preparation for the 2020 race. Both Cook and Rowe won their 2020 contests handily.
Burum was a bit more cautious in his approach toward the Fifth Supervisorial District race in 2020. A Republican, his sentiments in that contest were with Jesse Armendarez, who was then a member of the Fontana City Council and the lone Republican going up against Democrats Joe Baca, Jr, then a Rialto City Councilman and Dan Flores, a board member with the Colton Joint Unified School District, as well as independent candidate Nadia Renner, a radio broadcast co-producer. The overwhelming Democratic voter registration advantage in the Fifth District made it highly unlikely that Armendarez would win. Indeed, Baca ultimately prevailed in the contest. Nevertheless, there was indication that Burum was throwing his support to Armendarez, as six donors who coordinate in making donations with him – Raymond Crebs, Chris Leggio, James Previti, Nick Cacucciolo, James Erwin and Nicholas Previti – provided a total of $22,850 to Armendarez’s political war chest for the 2020 election.
Burum has already committed $4,900 toward Rowe’s 2024 reelection campaign, the most money a single donor can directly give a county candidate under the county’s current donation limitation regulations. James Previti, with whom he coordinates his donation efforts, has provided Rowe with $2,500 for her 2024 electioneering fund.
Burum has likewise provided Fourth District Supervisor Curt Hagman, who is seeking reelection this year, with the maximum $4,900. So far, Previti has given Hagman $1,000.
With the redistricting that occurred in the aftermath of the 2020 Census, both Armendarez and Renner, who are residents of the east side of Fontana, found themselves in the reconstituted Second District. They are now running in this year’s Second Supervisorial District Race to replace Janice Rutherford, who will be termed out of office in December under the county’s three four-year term limitation for supervisors. Joining Armendarez and Renner in the race are Luis Cetina, currently a member of the Cucamonga Valley Water District Board of Directors; Eric Coker, a data systems processor; and DeJonaé Shaw, a nurse with Kaiser Health Systems.
Burum, is inclined to support Armendarez, whom his associates Previti, Leggio and Erwin are already foursquare behind, but he has been dissuaded from going all-out to support Armendarez at this stage by the intercession of his lawyer, Stephen Larson, who is supporting Cetina. Burum has made the lukewarm gesture of providing Cetina with $500.
As a vehicle for making donations to politicians he favors, Burum has formed with James Previti the political action committee, Business Leaders For Ethical Government. Both he and Previti serve as the committee’s board. James Erwin is the committee’s principal officer, serving as its managing director. As a political action committee, under state law, Business Leaders For Ethical Government can act as an independent expenditure committee, meaning it is not bound by per donor or per candidate campaign amount limits.
Both within and without Burum’s circle there is concern that the same casual lack of discernment that Burum put on display two decades ago when he endorsed and supported political candidates who ultimately militated to his considerable detriment is again manifesting.
In 2002 Burum proved to be the most generous of all of Mike Ramos’s political backers and has been credited by some with having been responsible for launching the latter’s 16-year-long career as San Bernardino district attorney. Indeed, once Ramos successfully challenged Dennis Stout for that position, he became so entrenched in that office that it was not until sixteen years later, after Burum went to the extreme length of prompting Anderson’s 2018 electoral challenge of Ramos accompanied by a combined half-of-a-million-dollar funding effort of the campaign promoting Anderson and assailing Ramos, that Ramos was removed as district attorney.
Similarly, Burum, in concert with Richards and the other investors in the Colonies Partners, sunk $440,000 into an effort to promote Bill Postmus electorally and advance his political career, only to see him turn on him and provide testimony to the effect that Burum had blackmailed him into settling the lawsuit the Colonies Partners had lodged against the county with a $102 million payout and then rewarded him with two $50,000 donations to his political action committees for doing so. That accusation subjected Burum to the vicissitudes of the criminal justice system and tarred his reputation, despite an acquittal that came more than six years after his indictment.
In the midst of the ongoing 2022 campaign, both Burum and Previti have endowed two entities with a considerable degree of funding in an effort to influence the outcome of this year’s supervisorial races in the Second and Fourth districts.
One of those, the Neighborhood Preservation Coalition to Oppose Leyva and Wu for Supervisor 2022, was provided with $49,900 by a company owned by Previti, Industrial Integrity Solutions. Similarly, the Neighborhood Preservation Coalition to Oppose Leyva and Wu for Supervisor 2022, was provided with $49,900 by Burum.
Leyva and Wu are State Senator Connie Leyva and Larry Wu, an insurance salesman, who are opposing incumbent Fourth District Supervisor Curt Hagman in this year’s race. The coalition so far has sent out mailers to voters in the Fourth District, denigrating Wu as inexperienced and Leyva as unequal to the task of being supervisor.
One of those mailers in all capital letters states, “Inexperienced and unqualified Larry Wu wants to oversee San Bernardino County’s $7.9 million budget!”
Business Leaders for Ethical Government sent out a similar mailer to voters in the Second District, which, again in all capital letters, states, “Inexperienced and unqualified Nadia Renner and Eric Coker want to oversee San Bernardino County’s $7.9 million budget!”
On the flip side of both mailers is a broadside against Eric Steinmann, a political reform activist who supported Renner in her 2020 run for Fifth District supervisor, and his brother Dr. John Steinmann, the head of the Arrowhead Orthopedics Medical Group, which has done work at the Arrowhead Medical Center, the main campus of the county medical hospital. The upshot of the backside of the Wu/Renner/Coker attack mailers is that Eric Steinmann’s support of Renner, Coker and Wu is “a self-serving move for county contracts and control.”
It is relatively well known around the county that Eric Steinmann is a prime mover and key financial backer of the political reformist Red Brennan Group. The attack pieces targeting Wu, Renner and Coker characterize Steinmann as a “Wrightwood real estate developer.”
Given that the attack ads originated with entities sponsored by Burum, they are curious on at least two grounds.
First, the government reform efforts Steinmann has involved himself in are not unlike some of those promoted by Burum.
In 2020, through the Red Brennan Group, Steinmann backed, at considerable expense to himself and to this point unsuccessfully, Measure K, which called for reducing what is at present the roughly $260,000 total annual compensation package of each of the members of the county board of supervisors. Though Measure K was passed by the county’s voters, a legal challenge invalidated it. Burum in 2006 opposed, at no little expense to himself and ultimately unsuccessfully, Measure P, which provided for increasing the pay level of the members of the board of supervisors, ultimately to what at this point has evolved pursuant to yearly cost-of-living adjustments, to the present roughly $260,000 total compensation package of each member of the county board of supervisors.
In this way, both Steinmann and Burum seemed, at least at one time, to have acted in precisely the same fashion with regard to a basic public and political issue. Steinmann’s opposition to what a good cross section of the county’s residents considers to be overly generous salaries and benefits to the members of the board of supervisors seemed to put him in Burum’s camp rather than pitting the two men against one another.
Moreover, the attack mailers targeting Renner, Coker and Wu which were in large measure paid for by Burum demonized Steinmann as a “developer” who, in the words of the mailer, “wants county supervisors that will do his bidding.”
Again, the parallel between Steinmann and Burum was remarkable. For virtually everyone who is familiar with who Jeff Burum is, it was difficult to imagine that he would find himself deprecating a developer, particularly one who is active in supporting candidates at the supervisorial level, as he is.
Accordingly, questions have emerged as to whether Burum had delegated the authorship of the hit pieces against Wu, Renner and Coker to someone who was not on the same page as he was.
Some see a parallel to what went on with Burum in the early years of the Third Millennium, when he, apparently, trusted the analysis of others in making his assessments of Ramos and Postmus and the substance of their intent and character, only to see that redound to his detriment. At present, it seems, Burum has entrusted to others an analysis of Steinmann and the substance of his intent and character, and is proceeding on what has been represented to him.
This week, the Sentinel sought to engage with Burum, asking him by email if he actually personally considers Mr. Steinmann’s status as a developer to be something that should disqualify him from seeking to influence county government. The Sentinel further inquired if Burum thought engendering in the public hostility toward a developer who is active in donating money to political causes and politicians was truly consistent with his ideology.
Burum had not responded to the Sentinel’s inquiry by press time.
Steinmann told the Sentinel that the characterization of him as developer was inaccurate.
He acknowledged backing political causes in the county he believed in, such as Measure K in 2020, which he said was aimed at “simply limiting politicians to one term, which is enough time for them to get things done, and to see that while they are in office they earn a salary that will attract citizen politicians. It was intended to prevent career politicians who are engaged in the pay-to-play environment of our government from getting onto the board of supervisors and staying in office term after term. Measure K was passed by two-thirds of the voters and was challenged by the board of supervisors. A judge has second-guessed the voters and now that is on appeal. When it goes through the appeal process, I believe Measure K will be upheld. That issue is not done.”
With regard to his support of Wu, Renner and Coker, Steinmann said his decision to back them was based upon their willingness to sign a pledge in which they committed to not taking campaign donations from individuals with business pending before the county. Their adherence to that principle, Steinmann said, meant that they would not be likely to get sufficient funds into their campaign coffers to pay the $20,000 the county registrar of voters requires of each candidate to include that candidate’s statement with the election materials that includes a sample ballot sent to each of the county’s voters.
“Because they are not willing to go along with the pay-to-play game all the other career politicians are caught up in, they don’t have enough money to get their message out,” Steinmann said of Coker, Renner and Wu. “They signed a pledge that they would not take money from the people who want to buy their vote, so I stepped up to pay for them to get their candidate statements on the ballot.”
Steinmann noted that Burum, after his criminal trial, sued the county. He said that differentiated him from Burum.
“I would not compare him to me,” Steinmann said. “I never asked the county for anything.”