San Bernardino County Supervisor Jerry Eaves, one of the most influential and enduring politicians in the Inland Empire, pleaded no contest Monday to official misconduct, including failing to disclose three free jaunts to a Canadian fishing lodge, then voting to route public funds to a firm associated with those trips.
Under his plea bargain, negotiated over the last month, Eaves will remain on the Board of Supervisors until his term expires in 2004, but will be barred from seeking any other public office for four years. He also was ordered to pay a $20,000 fine and spend the next three years on probation.
"For the last 14 months, my personal and professional life [has] been consumed by difficult and politically driven accusations," Eaves said in a statement. "After long discussions with my attorney, my family and very close friends, I have decided that today's settlement is the best thing to do, for all."
Prosecutors dropped felony charges that could have forced Eaves from office. Instead, Eaves pleaded no contest to seven misdemeanor charges, the state attorney general's office said.
Three of the charges relate to his failure to disclose that he had received free trips to lodges in Lake of the Woods, Ontario, a popular fishing spot. Four of the charges allege that he voted to award contracts worth millions of dollars to a company associated with those trips.
"Jerry has acknowledged these oversights, and now he's paying the price," Eaves' attorney, Don Jordan, said Monday. "This has been a terrible ordeal for him."
The trips were paid for by an attorney who worked for the bond underwriting firm Miller & Schroeder. Eaves later voted to approve a series of county bond measures the firm was underwriting without disclosing the trips. The bond money--more than $160 million--was used, among other things, to buy equipment at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center and to help fund redevelopment efforts at the former Norton Air Force Base, the attorney general's office said.
Charges connected to a free trip to Hawaii were among those dropped.
Eaves technically was ordered to pay a $70,000 fine, but $50,000 of it will be canceled if he meets his terms of probation. The $20,000 balance will be paid by late September, Jordan said.
The Eaves case is one tentacle in a mass of corruption scandals that have plagued San Bernardino County over the last 10 years.
An investigation led seven former county officials and business executives to enter guilty pleas in 1999, and the county has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to recover lost taxpayer funds. That suit has resulted in millions of dollars worth of settlements, and officials have launched a campaign to improve San Bernardino County's tarnished image.
Eaves and his attorneys say the charges against him involve different types of problems from the bribery and kickbacks other county officials have admitted to. Those, Jordan said Monday, were "real crime, just out-and-out bribery"--not the paperwork problems he said led to the charges against Eaves.
The Eaves camp has argued for months that the charges against him were spurred by San Bernardino County politics. On Monday, another Eaves' attorney, Rick Beswick, pronounced it "an honorable close to a sordid, politically motivated ordeal."
That contention seemed to be bolstered recentlyh when court documents showed that San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Dennis Stout and two top lieutenants secretly aided the candidate challenging Eaves in last year's election.
Stout's assistants encouraged Ed Scott, Eaves' opponent, to find a private investigator who would research Eaves' use of credit cards. They also leaked copies of Eaves' campaign finance reports, with a caveat (which was secretly tape-recorded): "Don't even tell your wife who you got this from."
Stout and Scott are Republicans, and Eaves is the only Democrat on the five-member Board of Supervisors.
Stout later was forced to acknowledge that he had "let the public down." The case was given to the California attorney general's office, a move that ultimately led to Monday's plea agreement.
Scott Taylor, the deputy attorney general who took over the case, declined to comment on whether the charges against Eaves were politically motivated. He said Monday's agreement was fair.
"We took an independent look at the case," he said. "We thought it was in the best interest of everyone."
Eaves' attorneys said the supervisor, a former Rialto mayor and state Assemblyman, had been planning to retire from public life at the end of his current term. He will be 65 and will have completed his 26th year in public office.
During that time, Eaves has developed an image as an affable but formidable power broker, using his stature largely to push the economic development of the Inland Empire, large portions of which remain financially strapped despite intense growth.
During his eight years in the Assembly, his legislation paved the way for the creation of the agency charged with redeveloping Norton Air Force Base, whose closure in 1994 devastated the local economy and eliminated more than 10,000 jobs. Officials, including Eaves, have plans to turn the base into an airport and business park.
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Jerry Eaves is also referred to as Gerald Eaves or Gerald R. Eaves in other Los Angeles Times stories.
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