Two former San Bernardino County officials and a landfill executive must pay a total of $1.75 million in punitive damages for participating in a scheme to trade bribes and kickbacks for lucrative county contracts, a Ventura County Superior Court judge tentatively ruled Wednesday.
The punitive damages levied against former County Administrative Officer James Hlawek, his county predecessor Harry Mays and former landfill executive Kenneth James Walsh are in addition to $4.5 million in total restitution ordered in December by Superior Court Judge Vincent J. O’Neill Jr.
San Bernardino County officials sought the restitution and punitive damages in a civil lawsuit against the three men and several others who took part in a series of corruption scandals in the mid-1990s. Most of those involved have pleaded guilty to criminal charges and have served time in jail.
The case was moved from San Bernardino County to Ventura because of pretrial publicity. The defendants will be allowed to file written objections to the tentative ruling before O’Neill issues a final judgment.
During the punitive damages phase of the civil trial, lawyers for the county had urged that O’Neill award the county as much as $12 million – or $3 for every dollar Hlawek, Mays and Walsh collected in the corruption scheme.
But in his ruling, O’Neill said he took into consideration the damages already awarded against the three men, among other factors.
Although the judgment is much lower than county officials requested, attorney Michael Sachs said he was pleased with the ruling. He said he thought O’Neill kept the amount low because Hlawek, Mays and Walsh had argued that they couldn’t pay a multimillion judgment.
“It’s still a big chunk of money that these people have to pay,” he said.
An attorney for Mays and Walsh could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but Sachs said he expected the men to appeal.
Hlawek has represented himself in court.
Under the tentative ruling, Mays must pay $1 million; Walsh, $500,000 and Hlawek, $250,000. O’Neill said he ruled on Hlawek’s penalty after taking into consideration his cooperation with investigators.
Hlawek was at the center of a series of corruption schemes that played out in the 1990s. He has pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and kickbacks while holding the county’s top administrative post. Mays and Walsh pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to bribe Hlawek to win county approval for a $150-million waste disposal contract that the county ultimately awarded to Walsh’s San Francisco landfill firm.
Mays has served 18 months in prison and Walsh, 15 months. Hlawek is awaiting sentencing.