San Bernardino County Finds That Curing Political Corruption Takes Time and Teeth

Only months after he became San Bernardino County’s top administrative officer in 1994, James Hlawek confided to his friend Harry Mays, the man he had just replaced, that he was going to retire with more than just a pension, according to court records.

He planned to get rich.

Over the next five years, Hlawek pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, mostly paid in fat bundles of cash by businessmen seeking his influence on county contracts and permits, court records show.

But he wasn’t alone. Nearly a dozen San Bernardino County officials and leaders in area cities have been convicted over the past decade – including Hlawek and Mays – of accepting bribes in a series of corruption scandals that shocked Inland Empire residents and embarrassed local leaders.

To rebuild the public trust, San Bernardino County officials have adopted several reform measures, launched internal audits, installed a whistle-blowing hotline, hired an ethics officer and created a special public integrity unit for the district attorney’s office.

But repairing the damage has proved daunting. While officials insist that San Bernardino County government is now free of graft and corruption, county employees, activists and others say serious reform measures with tough penalties must be adopted to send a signal that the old ways of doing business in the county are over.

So much damage was done structurally to the organization that it will take some time to fix it,” said Chris Prato, general manager of the San Bernardino Public Employees Assn.

Critics like Prato point out, for example, that the ethics officer hired last year has no authority to investigate allegations of wrongdoing or impose penalties on violators. Even the San Bernardino County Grand Jury, in its annual report released July 1, recommended that the county not allow public officials to accept gifts from anyone doing business with the county.

I don’t think they have gone far enough,” said former Rialto City Councilman Ed Scott, who is vying for a seat on the Board of Supervisors next year.

The county’s tarnished image persists, observers say, because the examples of corruption were so brazen and involved officials in the highest levels of local government.

In addition to Hlawek and Mays, the county’s tax collector and its top investment officer pleaded guilty in 1999 to charges of accepting bribes. County Supervisor Jerry Eaves, a former state assemblyman, is awaiting trial on charges that he accepted more than $6,000 in Las Vegas vacations and more than $33,000 in campaign contributions in exchange for his support of a controversial billboard project. He has pleaded not guilty.

The scandals also entangled former Dist. Atty. Dennis Stout, who was the subject of a joint Sheriff’s Department and FBI investigation. Investigators were looking into charges that Stout leaked confidential information about Eaves to Scott, who was one of Eaves’ political rivals. No charges were brought against Stout, but his campaign opponent, Mike Ramos, questioned Stout’s ethics during the 2002 campaign. Stout dropped out after a poor showing in the primary.

In the working-class city of Colton, four elected officials, including the mayor, pleaded guilty to accepting bribes in exchange for their support of development deals in the city. One of those officials, former Councilman James Grimsby, was sentenced in May to 15 months in prison for accepting $25,000 in cash and gifts from a Colton businessman for supporting several development projects, including three restaurants in a southeast area of the city.

Just before his sentencing, Grimsby pleaded for leniency and blamed his troubles on his third ex-wife, who cooperated with the FBI’s investigation by secretly taping conversations with him.

In the city of San Bernardino, state prosecutors charged two former City Council members in April with 19 counts of accepting thousands of dollars in bribes to support several development projects in the late 1990s. The trial is pending.

As for cases in which government officials have already pleaded guilty, many of the bribes came in the form of thick bundles of cash, paid out in clandestine meetings in restaurants and government buildings, according to court records.

Prosecutors and court records say Hlawek, who served as the county’s chief administrative officer from 1994 to 1998, conspired with his predecessor, Mays, to get the county to approve a lucrative waste disposal contract for a firm that paid Hlawek thousands of dollars in bribes. In 1999, Hlawek and Mays pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to accept bribes. Mays has already completed his two-year prison term. Hlawek awaits sentencing.

Prosecutors charged that in 1994 Hlawek also conspired with several Colton city officials to approve permits to allow local businessmen to erect several billboards on county-owned land in Colton.

According to court records, one of the businessmen involved in the billboard scheme met with Hlawek in 1996 in the basement of the county Hall of Administration, where he gave the then-chief administrative officer a brown paper bag stuffed with $25,000 in cash.

Some ethics experts say San Bernardino County can demonstrate a strong commitment to reform by creating an independent watchdog panel, similar to the ethics commission created in Los Angeles after conflict-of-interest scandals during the Tom Bradley administration.

The Los Angeles Ethics Commission has a full-time staff dedicated to enforcing the city’s campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws. The panel also has the power to impose fines on elected officials found guilty of violating those laws.

You need to set a definite tone,” said Bob Stern, president of the nonpartisan Center for Government Studies in Santa Monica. He said an independent ethics panel could help San Bernardino County set that tone.

The problem in San Bernardino County is that people thought they could get away with it,” he said.

But San Bernardino County officials note that state and federal corruption laws already impose harsh penalties on violators. They also insist that they have already sent a clear message by adopting a series of anti-corruption measures, including:

* A requirement that applicants for top county positions go through a criminal and financial background check;

* A code of ethics created by an international association of government administrators;

* A $25,000-a-year limit on how much county departments can pay one firm without the approval of county supervisors;

* A waste, fraud and abuse hotline, monitored by the county auditor-controller;

* A requirement that anyone doing business with the county disclose whether any former county employees are employed.

The county has also sued dozens of firms and government officials in connection with past corruption schemes and has recovered nearly $9 million lost in the various bribery and kickback deals.

I think the county has taken some very significant steps [toward] preventing the past from reoccurring,” said Jim Pesta, the county’s ethics resource officer and former personnel director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino.

Pesta’s primary duties are educating and training county employees on the code of ethics that applies to county workers. He also helps the auditor-controller evaluate complaints made to the county’s waste, fraud and abuse hotline, which has received dozens of calls and e-mails.

Despite such reforms, county officials are still struggling to regain the trust of county employees and residents.

As recently as June, some county employees questioned the integrity of the Board of Supervisors when the county considered awarding a $13-million contract to supply the county with 4,000 electronic voting machines. A county panel recommended giving the contract to Sequoia Voting Systems of Oakland.

During a public hearing, Supervisor Dennis Hansberger questioned the bidding process because the winning bid was more expensive than the lowest bid.

He directed county staff to reconsider the award. Dave Ellis, who has worked as a campaign consultant to Hansberger, is a lobbyist for the firm that offered the lowest bid and is now getting a second shot at the contract.

Prato, the county employee union leader, said Hansberger’s objection, considering his relationship to Ellis, “makes you wonder.”

Hansberger denies that his relationship with Ellis played a role in his objection to the bidding process. He said he never talked to Ellis about the contract. But he said he understands why some people remain leery.

You don’t go through what the county has gone through and expect to rebuild the public trust overnight,” he said.

County Administrative Officer Wally Hill, formerly the top county administrator in Yuma, Ariz., was hired in February partly on his reputation for integrity and honesty. But he said county employees have asked him bluntly whether he can be trusted.

I can understand the skepticism that employees have,” he said. It’s a situation where the trust and respect has to be earned rather than assumed.”

Gary Thornberry, who grew up in Colton and now manages a cement plant there, said he has watched his hometown struggle through the embarrassing corruption episode and hopes all its corrupt leaders are gone.

The perception is that everything is now being done ethically,” he said.

But keeping the public trust is not easy and Thornberry worries that the city could easily suffer a setback.

I think the new council members have to prove themselves over time,” he said. “That is the most important thing, because if there is another incident, it will set everything back.”