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Inland Empire's Upland finds itself mired in municipal scandal

The former mayor is on trial, the city manager is under investigation, and residents and officials worry there are more allegations of wrongdoing coming in Upland.

March 13, 2011|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times

A blank spot is all that's left where Upland Mayor John Pomierski's portrait once hung at City Hall, an unceremonious reminder of a 10-year reign that ended with him in shackles.

Down the hall a stack of papers sits neatly on the desk of City Manager Robb Quincey, untouched since he was suspended after a domestic disturbance investigation.

And at the police station, morning roll call comes and goes without a visit from Chief Steve Adams, who went on medical leave during the controversy surrounding Quincey's departure.

These days it is not unusual for residents of this quiet suburban outpost nestled along the commuter-laden 10 and 210 freeways to hear their city's name whispered in the same breath as Bell, Southern California's most devastating example of municipal corruption.

In June, the FBI raided Upland City Hall, and even after Pomierski's indictment on federal bribery and extortion charges last week, rumors persist that more city officials could wind up in handcuffs.

DOCUMENTS: Read the indictment

"There are individuals, including current and former council members and appointees, who were aware of what the mayor was ordering and doing," said Councilman Gino Filippi, a local winemaker elected in November. "I feel there will be more indictments down the road.''

Municipal corruption is nothing new in San Bernardino County. The FBI, the U.S. attorney's office, the attorney general and the district attorney are investigating so many politicians and government officials that they had to form a special "joint corruption task force'' last year just to avoid butting heads.

Upland corruption case: An article in the March 14 LATExtra section about a federal investigation into allegations of government corruption in Upland stated that the FBI also had subpoenaed financial records from the city of Victorville. Victorville Deputy City Manager Doug Robertson said the city did not receive a subpoena from the FBI. In August, the city received a letter of inquiry from the Securities and Exchange Commission for city financial records related to use of bond money, Robertson said. —

Former Rancho Cucamonga City Councilman Rex Gutierrez was convicted of grand theft in October. The former chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors faces conspiracy and bribery charges. And the FBI earlier this month subpoenaed financial records in Victorville.

"It seems like every day they're finding a different city with stuff going on, and now it's hit Upland," said longtime resident Mike Sarafian, a teacher and coach at the Pilgrim School near downtown Los Angeles. "It's a disappointment really to know that this stuff has been going on here. Am I surprised? I wish I was."

Sarafian credits Pomierski with helping to save Upland from financial ruin after he swept into office in 2000 as a political newcomer. He resigned as mayor in February.

Throughout his three terms in office, Pomierski was backed by some of the Inland Empire's most influential and politically active companies and executives, including members of the homebuilding company Lewis Homes, auto dealer Mark Leggio and developer Jeffrey Burum of Colonies Partners.

The millions of dollars in sales tax revenue generated from Burum's Colonies Crossroads retail center has been crucial to the city's fiscal turnaround. The development also was at the center of what then-Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown in February 2010 called "one of the most appalling corruption cases ever seen in California," leading to the indictment of the former chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, Bill Postmus, and the chief of staff of another supervisor. The two are accused of accepting $100,000 each in payoffs for a $102-million land-dispute settlement the county paid to the Colonies, and the investigation remains active.

Ray Musser, an Upland councilman who was recently appointed the city's new mayor, said Pomierski used his political clout to help favored council members at election time or to appoint supporters to influential boards. Upland's five-member planning commission, for example, includes Pomierski's personal attorney and former campaign manager.

"We had a mayor who unfortunately really tried to run the whole thing, who felt he was king of Upland,'' said Musser, who failed in two attempts to unseat Pomierski. "He was able to bring a friend in as city manager, and we sort of lost accountability."

Last week, a federal grand jury in Riverside indicted Pomierski and a business associate on extortion, bribery and conspiracy charges. Federal prosecutors allege that the mayor used go-betweens to squeeze payoffs from two businesses that the city was trying to shut down — a rowdy bar called the Chronic Cantina and the medical marijuana cooperative G3 Holistic.

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