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Bribes to Secure Contracts Are Described in a County's Lawsuit

In San Bernardino County's attempt to recoup money, a former top official says his predecessor got the ball rolling.

June 11, 2004|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

San Bernardino County's former chief administrative officer testified in court Thursday that his predecessor approached him in June 1995 with an offer that could make them both rich -- but could also get them indicted.

Former CAO James Hlawek testified matter-of-factly that soon after he took over the job, his predecessor, Harry Mays, met with him in the county government center's cafeteria and in a hushed voice told him that both men could receive hefty bribes if Hlawek could help get county approval for a lucrative landfill contract for a client of Mays'.

"What I'm about to tell you could get us both indicted," Hlawek quoted Mays as saying. Hlawek testified that Mays later gave him an envelope containing $4,000 in $100 bills.

A few years later, both men were indicted on charges stemming from the landfill bribery scheme.

Hlawek's testimony came in a civil lawsuit filed by San Bernardino County, which hopes to recover damages that lawyers say the county suffered in a series of corruption schemes involving several high-ranking county officials, including Hlawek and Mays. The county has argued that it is entitled to the profits made in those deals, as well as the bribes paid to the county officials. Because of heavy publicity, the case is being heard in Ventura County Superior Court.

County lawyers say they believe the corruption schemes began with that cafeteria conversation and quickly expanded to involve other county officials and business owners.

Hlawek's testimony was his first in open court involving the corruption scandals. He pleaded guilty in 1999 to one criminal count of conspiracy to commit bribery. Hlawek, who served as the county's chief administrative officer from 1994 to 1998, still awaits sentencing.

He told the court earlier that he would cooperate in the county's lawsuit and be available as a witness. He is appearing as his own attorney, though he is not a lawyer.

The county lawsuit originally sought to collect damages from 22 individuals and businesses that were allegedly involved in corrupt deals. The county has since won $16 million in settlements and $7 million in judgments from 12 defendants. County lawyers hope to collect at least $3 million from the remaining 10 defendants. Most of the remaining defendants have already pleaded guilty to criminal charges, and a few have served their time.

Mays, who was the county's top appointed official before he retired in 1994 and was replaced by Hlawek, allegedly gave Hlawek several bribes to get county approval for a deal that turned over the operation of all the county's landfills to Norcal Solid Waste Systems. Mays was a consultant hired by Norcal to help get the company a new landfill contract. Kenneth James Walsh, a former Norcal vice president, is also named as a defendant in the suit.

Mays and Walsh previously pleaded guilty to corruption. Mays then served two years in prison and Walsh 16 months.

Hlawek also testified that Mays helped him win the chief administrative officer's job in 1994 and urged Hlawek to conceal the fact that Hlawek had been convicted years earlier of a misdemeanor criminal violation for helping a friend cheat on a Civil Service exam.

The county lawsuit also alleges that Hlawek accepted bribes and free hotel rooms in Las Vegas to win county approval for a multimillion-dollar billboard deal. The suit alleges that William "Shep" McCook, an Orange County businessman who received the billboard contract, paid bribes to Hlawek and others to get the contract.

McCook's criminal trial is scheduled to begin in Riverside County next month.

Randall Waier, attorney for Mays, Walsh and McCook, argued Thursday that the county had no right to collect damages from the businesses because it benefited from the deals.

He also promised to prove later in the case that there was no conspiracy to cheat the county. Waier said he would show that it was Hlawek who extorted payments from his clients.

Waier said Hlawek "had his hand out to everybody."

Leonard Gumport, an attorney representing the county, argued that state law gave the court the authority to order the payment of any profits and bribes that the defendants received in corruption schemes.

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