James Hlawek, San Bernardino County’s former chief administrative officer, was sentenced this week to three years’ probation and community service for accepting thousands of dollars in bribes in a corruption scandal that roiled the county in the mid-1990s.
Hlawek, who pleaded guilty in 1999 to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery, could have received up to five years in prison. However, prosecutors sought leniency because of Hlawek’s assistance with other cases stemming from the scandal.
“He opened the door that let us in. Because of him, we were able to get inside of the corrupt dealings,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Edward Moreton Jr.
County officials expressed disappointment with the sentence by U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder, which also included 300 hours of community service.
County spokesman David Wert said Hlawek was a central figure in the corruption scandal and that supervisors hoped he would be punished with jail time.
“Every time this is brought up, it casts suspicion on the county,” Wert said.
San Bernardino County has only recently begun to recover from a bribes and kickbacks-for-contracts scheme in the mid-1990s that sullied its reputation.
Hlawek’s predecessor, Harry Mays, was sentenced to two years in prison, and landfill executive Kenneth James Walsh was sentenced to 18 months, as the result of a wide-ranging probe.
In May, the county won $10.6 million in a civil lawsuit against figures in the case, including Mays, Walsh and Hlawek, the county’s chief administrative officer from 1994 to 1998.
Hlawek testified last year that he became involved in the scheme after Mays approached him in the county government center’s cafeteria and said they could receive large bribes by getting a landfill contract for Walsh’s company, Norcal Solid Waste Systems.
Hlawek learned he was under investigation when he was told that the FBI was searching his trash, according to a motion filed by the U.S. attorney’s office. Hlawek later agreed to cooperate with investigators, submitting to “maybe hundreds” of interviews, the document said. He also recorded meetings and conversations with other alleged participants, once traveling to North Carolina to do so.
Officials told the judge Hlawek was twice threatened by people he identified during the investigation.
“If not for defendant’s cooperation, much corruption in San Bernardino County likely would have remained concealed,” the motion said.
Hlawek did not return calls seeking comment. His attorney, John Vandevelde, said his client’s sentence was just.
“If he had gone to jail,” Vandevelde said, “the people who stonewalled and obstructed the case would be laughing, saying that it shows that it’s foolish to come forward.”