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Ex-Supervisor Saw Vegas Trip as a Gift

Gerald Eaves, who voted for a San Bernardino County billboard deal, testifies he saw no conflict in taking jaunts from the firm's owner.

June 17, 2004|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

A former San Bernardino County supervisor who pleaded guilty to a felony corruption charge and resigned from office testified Wednesday at a civil trial that he still believes he did nothing wrong in accepting free hotel stays from a businessman who received county approval for a lucrative billboard project.

Former Supervisor Gerald "Jerry" Eaves testified that in January 1996, he received free meals and stayed two nights at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas as a guest of William "Shep" McCook after the supervisor voted to lease county property where McCook could erect seven billboards.

Eaves said his only mistake was that he failed to disclose the hotel stay on his conflict-of-interest statement that year, as required by state law. He said he didn't think he was barred from voting on the McCook deal because the value of the hotel stay was less than the $250 limit defined by state law as a financial conflict.

"Did you consider McCook's overture to stay at the Stardust a bribe?" asked defense attorney Randall Waier.

"No," said Eaves, adding that he considered the hotel stay a gift from a longtime friend.

Still, Eaves conceded that he didn't tell his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors that he, his daughter, his chief of staff and James Hlawek, then the county's administrative officer, had also accepted free hotel stays from McCook.

Eaves' testimony marked his first statements in open trial on the corruption scheme that abruptly ended his 26-year political career. He resigned from the Board of Supervisors in January, shortly before pleading guilty to felony conspiracy for failing to report the Las Vegas vacations.

Eaves was the highest-ranking county official indicted in a series of corruption scandals that rocked the county in the 1990s. He was sentenced to three years' informal probation, received a suspended 180-day jail sentence and fined $10,000.

Eaves has always insisted he did nothing wrong but said he accepted the plea bargain to protect his family from a drawn-out criminal trial.

On Wednesday, Eaves testified as a witness in a civil lawsuit filed by San Bernardino County, which hopes to recoup damages that county lawyers say it suffered because of the scandals, which involved several contracts and leases worth more than $100 million over several years.

Attorneys have argued that the county is entitled to any profits earned by the participants in the schemes, as well as the salaries and bribes accepted by county officials while on the job. Because of the publicity surrounding the case, it was transferred to Ventura County.

Most of the bribery and kickback schemes centered around Hlawek, the former CAO who has pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges and is cooperating with the county's lawsuit. Hlawek is awaiting sentencing.

In earlier testimony, Hlawek said that he accepted thousands of dollars in bribes -- paid in cash-stuffed envelopes, free vacations or credit card payments -- in exchange for his support of several lucrative contracts and leases.

While describing the billboard contract, Hlawek testified that company owner McCook gave him $15,000 and two marijuana cigarettes. He said he spent the money on clothes and meals but was not asked in court what he did with the marijuana.

McCook later sold five of the seven billboards for $4.4 million.

Hlawek also testified that he accepted about $25,000 in bribes from his predecessor, former CAO Harry Mays, and Kenneth James Walsh, the former vice president of Norcal Solid Waste Systems, to help get approval for a contract to turn all of the county's landfill operations over to Norcal. Mays worked as a consultant for Norcal.

Mays and Walsh pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Mays served two years in prison and Walsh, 16 months. McCook's criminal trial is to begin next month in Riverside County.

San Bernardino County's lawsuit originally sought to collect damages from 22 individuals and businesses allegedly involved in schemes. The county has already won $16 million in settlements and $7 million in judgments from 12 defendants. County lawyers hope to collect at least $3 million more from the remaining 10 defendants, including Hlawek and McCook. Eaves has already settled on the civil complaint by paying the county $7,250.

Under questioning from the defense attorney, Eaves said he voted to support the billboard project because the lease agreement would generate rent for the county -- not because he expected to get free perks from McCook. "We were looking for income in any way we could find it," Eaves said.

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