A billboard company owner accused of showering public officials in San Bernardino County with thousands of dollars in cash and free vacations at a Las Vegas casino went on trial in federal court Tuesday with opposing sides at odds over whether that constitutes bribery.
William "Shep" McCook is charged with conspiracy to bribe the former chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, the county's former chief administrative officer and two former members of the Colton City Council.
The case, which is being heard by U.S. District Judge Manuel Real in Los Angeles, is an outgrowth of a string of corruption scandals that has rocked San Bernardino County's political establishment in the last several years.
In an opening statement to the court, Assistant U.S. Atty. Edward B. Moreton Jr. accused McCook of perpetrating a "straightforward bribery scheme" to win approval for the construction of seven huge billboards on county flood control land near the junction of Interstates 10 and 215 in the city of Colton.
The proposed billboards were "too tall, too big and in the wrong place," Moreton said, and required special permits from the county, the city and Caltrans.
According to a trial memorandum outlining the government's case, McCook made nearly $70,000 in alleged payoffs between 1996 and 1998 to San Bernardino County Supervisor Gerald Eaves; the county's chief administrative officer, James Hlawek; and Colton City Council members Abe Beltran and Donald Sanders.
The prosecution contends that McCook made the payments in return for permission to build the billboards on county land and to sell them to a national billboard company, a deal that netted him $4.4 million.
McCook also treated Eaves, Hlawek, Beltran and their friends and relatives to free vacations at the Stardust hotel and casino in Las Vegas, prosecutors charged.
Hlawek, who served as the county's chief executive from 1994 to 1998, pleaded guilty to bribery in 1999 and agreed to cooperate with the government in hopes of receiving a reduced sentence.
He faces 24 to 30 months in prison under federal guidelines.
Called as the prosecution's first witness Tuesday, Hlawek told of receiving cash payments of $15,000 and $20,000 from McCook three months apart in 1997. He quoted McCook as describing the $20,000 payment as "a big load of fish."
But in response to a question by the judge, Hlawek testified that he never asked for the money nor did McCook offer the cash in exchange for his help on the billboard project.
In his opening statement, defense lawyer James Riddet acknowledged that McCook had given some money to Hlawek.
He did not say why, but insisted it was not a bribe and indicated that it was done at Hlawek's request.
The defense lawyer sought to portray Hlawek as a corrupt public official bent on using his position of power to line his pockets. Under cross-examination, Hlawek admitted receiving as much as $200,000 in payoffs while serving as chief administrative officer.
This is the government's second attempt to prosecute McCook. Two years ago, Real dismissed all bribery charges against him and Eaves, saying that the case should have been brought in state court because the charges had no connection to federal programs or money. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently overruled Real.
In the meantime, the U.S. attorney's office referred the case against Eaves to state authorities.
In January, Eaves pleaded guilty in Superior Court to a felony conspiracy charge for failing to report the free vacations he received from McCook. He was given a suspended six-month jail sentence, was placed on probation and fined $10,000. In exchange for his plea, state authorities dropped bribery and conflict-of-interest charges.