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Inland Empire Politician Now Facing More Charges

Crime: San Bernardino County supervisor is accused of bribery in a billboard scheme with an O.C. businessman.

April 04, 2002|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prosecutors filed a new round of charges Wednesday against San Bernardino County Supervisor Jerry Eaves, one of the most powerful and enduring politicians in the Inland Empire, accusing him of participating in a bribery scheme.

The charges mark another step in a corruption scandal that has rocked the halls of power in San Bernardino County for several years.

In a 37-page, 58-count indictment, the U.S. attorney's office charged that Eaves and W. Shepardson "Shep" McCook, an Orange County businessman, concocted a scheme that led to the construction of giant billboards at the intersection of the 10 and 215 freeways.

Eaves, 62, was already charged in a separate federal indictment with six counts of fraud, allegedly for depriving the public of its right to his honest services as a politician. The new indictment includes those charges and adds a series of new ones, primarily allegations that he used "interstate wires"--telephones--to commit bribery, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Andrew Cowan.

The indictment also charges McCook, 55, with eight counts of using mail or telephones to commit bribery, seven counts of wire fraud and 31 counts of money laundering.

Four people are listed in the indictment as "co-conspirators" but are not charged. They are: Allan Steward, 55, a Laguna Beach commercial real estate developer; Abe Beltran, 69, a former member of the Colton City Council; Donald Sanders, 44, another former city councilman in Colton; and James Hlawek, 55, former administrative officer in San Bernardino County.

Each of the four previously pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges. The men are scheduled to be sentenced in June.

Wednesday's indictment contends that McCook bribed public officials to gain approval for the construction of billboards, and then shared some of his $4.4 million in profit with government officials and businessmen.

The plan, prosecutors allege, began in 1992. According to the indictment, McCook gave Eaves, Eaves' relatives and Eaves' aides vacations at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas. Eaves failed to disclose the gifts when he filed financial statements with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the indictment charges.

In the mid-1990s, Eaves voted in favor of leasing San Bernardino County property to one of McCook's companies. Then, in 1997, Eaves voted for a proposal that allowed the Oakridge Corp., another McCook company, to sell five billboards for $4.4 million, prosecutors say.

McCook had been charged in a previous indictment as well, but in January a federal judge dismissed the case against him, questioning whether the federal government had jurisdiction over what began as a local law enforcement case.

On Wednesday, McCook's Santa Ana attorney, James Riddet, said that federal prosecutors filed the new charges against McCook in retaliation. "The government tried one theory for prosecuting this case in federal court and was thrown out," he said. "Despite that, the government has elected to file again in federal court. We will defend the new action vigorously."

The indictment is another blow to Eaves, a former Rialto mayor and state assemblyman who has long been the only Democrat on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.

In June, Eaves pleaded no contest to separate charges of official misconduct, including allegations that he failed to disclose free trips to a Canadian fishing lodge. Eaves was ordered to pay a $20,000 fine and spend three years on probation. He was allowed to keep his seat on the Board of Supervisors but agreed not to run for office when his term expires in December 2004--his 26th year in office.

The charges against Eaves are loosely related to a corruption scandal that has plagued San Bernardino County. An investigation led seven former county officials and business executives to enter guilty pleas in 1999, and the county has since filed a series of lawsuits in an attempt to recover funds.

Eaves could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

His supporters say the criminal cases against him can be attributed to politics and paperwork problems and are hardly of the same caliber as the criminal cases marking the corruption scandal's other tentacles.

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Times staff writer Tina Dirmann contributed to this report.

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