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County Aims to Recover Millions

In a civil suit stemming from alleged corruption in the late 1990s, San Bernardino County continues pursuing former officials and businesspeople.

June 10, 2004|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

San Bernardino County unwittingly paid millions of dollars in unlawful contracts and lease agreements while several former county officials and businessmen who negotiated the deals got rich on bribes and kickbacks, an attorney for the county argued in a civil lawsuit Wednesday.

The county filed the lawsuit in hopes of recouping millions of dollars that lawyers said it lost in corruption schemes that were uncovered during the late 1990s and involved some of the highest-ranking officials in the county.

The suit asks the court to order the former officials and business owners to pay the county for damages, arguing that the county might have gotten better deals if the defendants hadn't been accepting bribes.

Leonard Gumport, an attorney representing the county, said several of the players in the schemes made millions of dollars on the deals, including a former high-ranking county official who used his profits to buy a yacht and a home in Nevada. The suit seeks some of those illegal profits as well.

"It will be a miscarriage of justice, Your Honor, if you don't hold them liable for what they've done," Gumport told Ventura County Superior Court Judge Vincent O'Neill.

The suit, which was originally filed in San Bernardino County in 2001, was transferred to Ventura County because of the publicity the case generated in San Bernardino. Originally, the county sought damages and restitution from 22 people and businesses that were allegedly involved in bribery and kickback deals. Since then, the county has received more than $16 million in financial settlements and won $7 million in judgments from 12 defendants. The county hopes to collect at least $3 million from the remaining 10 defendants.

At the center of the scandal was former Chief Administrative Officer James Hlawek, who allegedly accepted thousands of dollars in bribes and vacations from several business owners who sought his help in getting county contracts and leases approved.

In a plea bargain, Hlawek pleaded guilty in 1999 to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery and is awaiting sentencing.

The lawsuit also charges that Hlawek's predecessor, Harry Mays, was involved in a scheme to pay Hlawek bribes and gifts to get approval for a landfill contract for Norcal Solid Waste Systems. Mays allegedly earned $4 million for getting Norcal a contract to operate all of the county's landfills, a profit he shared with Hlawek and with Norcal executive Kenneth Walsh, the lawsuit alleges.

Mays pleaded guilty in 1999 to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery and served two years in prison. Walsh pleaded guilty to a corruption charge and served 16 months in prison.

In another deal, Hlawek allegedly accepted at least $35,000 and a free stay at a Las Vegas hotel in exchange for helping Orange County businessman William "Shep" McCook get county approvals to erect seven billboards on county-owned land at the intersection of Interstates 215 and 10.

The lawsuit charges that Hlawek also helped to get county approval for the sale of five billboards for more than $4 million. McCook kept the remaining two billboards, which the county says generate up to $1 million in annual revenue.

McCook is facing trial next month on criminal corruption charges in Riverside County.

Hlawek was not at the trial Wednesday, but an attorney for Mays and McCook said he would argue that the contracts signed by the county were fair and that Hlawek did nothing to influence the Board of Supervisors to approve the deals. Hlawek is representing himself in the case.

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