The High Cost of a Scandal

The High Cost of a Scandal

As Former San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus Heads to Prison – Costs of the Colonies Scandal Skyrocket

Gail Fry

As a major chapter closes in what is known in San Bernardino County as the Colonies Scandal with former San Bernardino County Supervisor and former Assessor, Bill Postmus, heading to prison, the scandal and its costs continue to mount.

Three defendants (and a related business) are now suing San Bernardino County and others in United States District Court.  

According to court records obtained by The Voice/Black Voice News, on Friday, November 30, Postmus surrendered to San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Michael Smith to begin serving his three-year prison sentence based on his plea agreement—he pled guilty to conspiracy to commit a crime, receiving a bribe, conflict of interest and concealment of the embezzled public funds.  

After an unsuccessful attempt to withdraw his plea, on November 15, Judge Michael Smith sentenced Postmus to “middle term” for his crimes and specifically to serve his time in state prison for the crimes of conspiracy and conflict of interest.  

In an interview, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Public Information Officer Jody Miller confirmed to The Voice/Black Voice News, Postmus was at the West Valley Detention Center awaiting transfer to a state prison facility.  

The Colonies scandal ensnared numerous elected officials, current/former public employees and a developer in an alleged scheme to extort elected officials for a favorable vote in the settlement of a lawsuit filed by Colonies Partners, L.P., against San Bernardino County Flood Control and the San Antonio Water Company.  

When the dust settled, Postmus as well as his former assistant assessor Adam Aleman, former county supervisor Paul Biane, former chief of staff to supervisor Gary Ovitt, Mark Kirk, former sheriff deputy and former Sheriff Employees Benefit Association (SEBA) President James Erwin, and Rancho Cucamonga-based developer Jeff Burum (co-founder Colonies Partners, LP), were all facing criminal charges.    

The Colonies Scandal began in July 1997, when San Antonio Lakes Partners, LTD (which later became Colonies Partners, LP.), purchased from the San Antonio Water Company, about 440 acres of land—with a portion of the land saddled by flood control easements along the 210 Freeway in Upland.  

Over several decades, the water company had granted the flood control easements to the San Bernardino County Flood Control District as the land below Mount Baldy was known to historically flood including across Colonies’ land.   

In 1999, San Bernardino County approved the development project providing it would construct a flood control retention basin.  Two years later in 2001, the county and Colonies Partners disagreed about construction of the retention basin and lack of progress.    

At that time, San Bernardino County Supervisor Jon Mikels, now deceased, served as supervisor of the county’s 2nd district where the Colonies development project was located. According to news reports, Burum approached Mikels about obtaining some public funds to offset what Burum viewed as an unfair burden (costs of the flood control channel) the county placed on his development.  

According to news reports, Mikels refused and Burum threatened to replace Mikels. In the 2002 election, Paul Biane replaced Mikels as County Supervisor of the Second District. Biane’s campaign was heavily funded by the Colonies Partners, L.P. and Burum.  

Bill Postmus

Court documents showed on March 22, 2002, the Colonies Partners, L.P., filed a lawsuit against San Bernardino County Flood Control and San Antonio Water Company alleging its easements did not allow the county to direct flood water from the 20th Street storm drain at 80 million gallons of water per hour across their property that was planned for both residential and commercial development.     

The Colonies lawsuit lingered from March 22, 2002, until its settlement in November 2006. Former San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Peter Norell was first assigned to hear the dispute.  

Norell issued favorable rulings for the Colonies Partners in September 2003, diminishing the easement rights of San Bernardino County Flood Control. Norell’s decisions were later reversed by the Fourth District Court of Appeals in July 2005. In addition, questions swirled over official recorded public records documenting Norell’s former wife, Catherine Norell, owning a home in the Colonies Development.  

The Colonies lawsuit was then assigned to former superior court Judge Christopher Warner who followed suit issuing rulings favorable to the Colonies Partners.  

Grand jury testimony later revealed allegations of judicial misconduct by Norell and Warner in their handling of the case. According to reports published in The Sun Newspaper, complaints were filed with the Commission on Judicial Performance over Norell and Warner’s questionable rulings.  

In March 2005, Postmus and Biane and attorneys representing the county participated in settlement negotiations with Burum, his partner Dan Richards, their consultant, former state senator Jim Brulte, and their attorneys. At some point, Postmus and Biane requested the attorneys leave.  

After one hour, the attorneys returned to hear a tentative settlement had been reached between the parties where San Bernardino County would pay the Colonies $77.5 million for the flood control basin as well as deeding surplus land in Rancho Cucamonga to the Colonies.  

The law firm representing the county disagreed with the settlement terms and expressed this in a confidential memo to the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.  Then the law firm quit and the settlement fell apart.      

In 2006, Burum recommended retired state Supreme Court Justice Edward Panelli oversee mediation talks. Panelli held four mediation sessions prior to the landmark settlement between the Colonies Partners and San Bernardino County Flood Control for $102 million.  

Panelli had little concern about the complaints filed against Norell and Warner as reflected in Grand Jury testimony. It was reported Attorney Dennis Wagner, who represented San Bernardino County, informed Panelli he could not approve of the settlement due to pending complaints against the judges.   

In November 2006, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors approved the $102 million settlement with the Colonies. The vote was Postmus, Biane and Ovitt in favor with supervisors Josie Gonzales and Dennis Hansberger dissenting.    

Postmus later testified how he and Biane were pressured to settle the Colonies Case or face exposure of embarrassing information that Postmus was a drug addict and Biane had financial troubles.  

According to court testimony, as the Colonies was ramping up pressure on Postmus and Biane to settle, on March 28, 2007, Colonies contributed $100,000 to the Committee for Effective Government, a PAC established by Erwin.  Additionally, Erwin received a trip to New York City, a $13,000 Rolex watch and prostitution services plus $150,000 was contributed to SEBA.    

Kirk’s PAC, Alliance for Ethical Government received a $100,000 campaign contribution from the Colonies on May 25, 2007. Judge Michael Smith later dismissed the bribery charges against Kirk.  

Former County Supervisor Biane’s Chief of Staff Matt Brown’s PAC received a $100,000 campaign contribution from the Colonies on June 15, 2007. Dino Defazio’s PAC, Inland Empire, received a $50,000 campaign contribution from the Colonies on July 5, 2007, (Defazio was a business partner of Postmus).  Mike Richman’s PAC, Conservatives for a Republican Majority, received a $50,000 campaign contribution on July 12, 2007, (Richman was a former political consultant to Postmus).    

Burum, principal of Colonies Partners, L.P. claimed the campaign contributions were just their way of “mending fences” after a contentious legal battle.  

According to court records, on June 30, 2009, Aleman reached a plea agreement with prosecutors. He pled no contest to vandalism for destroying a county-owned computer, destroying a public record by falsifying meeting minutes, and presenting false claims. Aleman was sentenced to 6 months in jail on December 1, 2017.  

By August of 2009, the California State Attorney General’s Office decided to join the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office in investigating and prosecuting those involved in the Colonies scandal describing it as the “Biggest Corruption Scandal in San Bernardino County History.” In February 2010, Biane, Kirk, Erwin and Burum faced numerous felony criminal charges.  

On April 26, 2010, Postmus reached a plea agreement with prosecutors. He pled guilty to conspiracy to commit a crime, receiving a bribe, conflict of interest and concealment of the embezzled public funds.  

After numerous legal challenges and appeals, finally on January 9, 2017, the trial for Biane, Kirk, Burum and Erwin began with a separate jury for Erwin. Over eight months later, on Monday, August 28, 2017, Biane, Kirk, and Burum were found not guilty by a jury of their peers. On Friday, September 22, 2017, Erwin’s charges were dismissed by the judge after a hung jury.  

The Voice/Black Voice News posed questions and requested comments from the California State Attorney General’s Office and the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office but neither organization had replied by deadline.   

In response to a public records request by The Voice/Black Voice News, as of December 19, 2017, San Bernardino County spent a total of $7,684,471, in legal fees to numerous law firms defending the civil lawsuit brought by the Colonies Partners.  Additionally, the county spent $26,598,967 pursuing litigation against SANBAG, CalTrans and the City of Upland for its damages, litigation that was unsuccessful.    

In an October 20, 2017 letter, San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office responding to a request by The Voice/Black Voice News to provide a total of the amount spent in prosecuting the Colonies case explained, “Unfortunately, we cannot answer your question because the District Attorney’s Office does not track expenses for individual investigations and prosecutions, and did not do so in the Colonies case.”      

On March 1, 2018, The Colonies Partners, Jeffrey Burum, Mark Kirk and James Erwin filed a federal lawsuit against San Bernardino County, the State Attorney General and numerous others seeking more than $400 million in damages.

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