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Board Members Each Deny Leaking Settlement Memo

San Bernardino County supervisors offer to take lie detector tests after the exposure of a proposal to pay a developer $77 million.

June 22, 2005|Ashley Powers and Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writers

All five San Bernardino County supervisors on Tuesday vowed to take lie-detector tests to prove that none of them leaked a confidential memo about a proposed $77-million legal settlement with a Rancho Cucamonga developer.

The pledge is the latest twist in a three-year legal battle between the county and Colonies Partners over which should pay for flood control improvements near a massive residential and commercial development in Upland.

The lawsuit has created a political rift on the Board of Supervisors, where at least three of the five members -- Paul Biane, Gary Ovitt and Chairman Bill Postmus -- have accepted campaign donations from Colonies or its partners.

Last week, Biane accused fellow Supervisor Dennis Hansberger of leaking the memo about continuing settlement negotiations, which the board had discussed in closed sessions.

Postmus also has asked Dist. Atty. Michael Ramos to investigate the leak.

The April 4 memo, from county attorneys to the supervisors, expressed "serious concerns" about a tentative settlement with Colonies Partners, which Biane and Postmus negotiated for the county.

Under the proposal, which could be accepted only with the board's approval, the county would pay the developer $55 million as compensation for 37 acres that might be lost to flood control uses, and $22 million for a flood basin system Colonies Partners already has constructed.

The county attorneys' memo stated that the 37 acres may be worth only about $1 million and, in fact, may not be needed for flood control.

At Tuesday's board meeting, Biane surprised his colleagues by volunteering to take a "lie detector, polygraph, whatever it takes to get to the bottom" of who leaked the memo. The four other board members quickly offered to take polygraphs as well.

"I have never violated the privilege of closed session and would never violate it," said Hansberger, who has been critical of the settlement negotiations. He added that prosecutors should expand the probe to all aspects of the negotiations with Colonies Partners.

"I obviously got close to a nerve with somebody," Hansberger said after the meeting, referring to his criticisms of the negotiations. "Board members don't normally make suggestions and allegations about other board members.... I think that someone feels threatened."

The county has only recently closed key chapters from a scandal in the mid-1990s that sent a former county administrator to prison for accepting bribes and kickbacks. Supervisor Gerald "Jerry" Eaves resigned after pleading guilty last year to corruption, and last month the county won $10.6 million in a civil lawsuit against figures in the case, including two former county administrative officers and a landfill executive.

The D.A.'s public integrity unit, which investigates allegations against public officials, is expected to end its investigation of the leaked memo in the next few weeks.

"It could be a supervisor; it could be a secretary," said prosecutor Frank Vanella, chief of the unit. "We really don't know. But we think it's very serious. This matter was going to be very costly to taxpayers."

Vanella said he had heard of the supervisors' offers to take lie detector tests: "I don't know if we'll take them up on that."

The developer's lawyers and partner Jeff Burum declined to comment, citing the settlement talks.

In 1997, Colonies Partners bought several hundred acres near the Foothill Freeway in Upland to build about 1,100 homes and a retail center.

Colonies' dispute with the county is over who should pay for about $22 million in flood-control improvements, to divert runoff from the freeway and flood water from Cucamonga Creek around the Colonies project.

The developer sued in March 2002, contending the county should pay for the flood control basin system and reimburse Colonies for the land required for the system. The developer is asking for as much as $200 million.

A San Bernardino County judge ruled in favor of Colonies in August 2003. But the state 4th District Court of Appeal in Riverside tentatively reversed part of that ruling, finding that the county may have the right to use some of the land required for the flood control project.

Controversy about the negotiations was rekindled after reports that the county had contracted Jim Brulte, former Republican leader of the state Senate, to help the county secure a $10-million grant from the state Department of Water Resources for flood control. Brulte also had done consulting work for Colonies in December and January.

"This was a landowner being hosed illegally by county government," Brulte said Tuesday.

In May, the county hired his firm for up to $24,999 -- $1 less than what's required for a board vote.

"The county of San Bernardino came to my firm and asked me to help them," Brulte said, adding that he saw no conflict in his role in the matter. Brulte was present when the proposed $77-million settlement was discussed between Colonies Partners and the two supervisors.

Colonies Partners and its owners have donated thousands of dollars each to Postmus and Biane's campaigns in years past and gave Supervisor Ovitt $25,000 in 2004. Biane, who was a real estate agent before he was elected, had worked with Colonies partner Dan Richards on at least one deal.

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Times staff writers Stephanie Ramos and Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.

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