District attorney's raid at the San Bernardino County Assessor's Office

Most leaders silent on Assessor's Office probe
George Watson and Lauren McSherry, Staff Writers
Article Launched: 04/11/2008 10:15:23 PM PDT

With rumors swirling about the district attorney's raid at the San Bernardino County Assessor's Office, elected leaders generally made themselves scarce Friday.
Paul Biane, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, issued a news release about district attorney's investigators serving search warrants Thursday at the Assessor's Office.

"The county can assure the public that there is no indication either the subject of the investigation or the investigation itself involves or will have an impact upon the efficient operation of the assessor's functions," Biane stated in the release.

He was one of the few officials to comment in any way about the warrants, which district attorney's investigators served at the Assessor's Office just before noon Thursday.

District attorney's officials refused to discuss the investigation, which appears to be linked to a grand jury inquiry initiated in 2007.

But sources in the Assessor's Office said Friday that during Thursday's search, district attorney's officials confiscated desktop computers used by Assistant Assessor Adam Aleman and staff members Sheila Raines, Wanda Nowicki and Mike Richman.

Assessor Bill Postmus' computer was not taken, the sources said.

The Sun reported in late 2007 that Postmus and Aleman had been called to testify before the grand jury. Several sources said the inquiry was multi-faceted.

Investigators were looking at how the office operated, ranging from



the hiring of employees to whether staffers were working on political matters for Postmus.
Postmus hired people to fill seven of the office's top 12 positions after taking office.

Joshua White, 19, was hired as Aleman's special assistant. White, who also was subpoenaed by the grand jury, recently resigned.

White attended Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire for a year and worked as an intern during Postmus' campaign for assessor.

In 2006, White worked as a volunteer coordinator for the county's Republican Central Committee.

College administrators were surprised to learn White had gained such a lofty position, but said he was a "good worker" and "a smart kid."

Corruption concerns have plagued the county since a major investigation brought down several top officials in the late 1990s, including then-Supervisor Jerry Eaves.

Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, called the county the "Wild West of ethics."

"Whenever we think about major problems, we think about San Bernardino County because so many things have occurred there," he said.

The number of grand jury investigations, subpoenas and search warrants involving county officials exceeds those in other California counties, Stern said.

He added that the only comparable county is Los Angeles, which has had some small prosecutions at the city level.

"There seems to be a different culture there that people think they can get away with it," Stern said about San Bernardino County.

Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, whose 1st District encompasses much of the High Desert, was the one public official willing to discuss the case in person on Friday.

Mitzelfelt, who was Postmus' chief of staff when Postmus was a county supervisor, cautioned against immediately linking the recent news to the past, but said he was ready to take action if necessary.

"I trust that the DA is going to thoroughly and expeditiously find out what he needs to find out in the Assessor's Office," Mitzelfelt said. "As a county government official, I want to know what may have gone on as well, so if action needs to be taken, we can take action."

Postmus did not return calls for comment Friday.

Ted Lehrer, his spokesman, issued a news release that said Postmus' office was working with investigators and that the assessor is seeking a swift resolution to the investigation.

"Taxpayers should know that my office stands ready to assist them and all service will continue uninterrupted," Postmus stated in the news release.

The investigation is likely to become a key part of the June 3 supervisorial election.

Mitzelfelt and Supervisor Dennis Hansberger face opponents, all of whom have made it clear that county ethics and corruption are issues they plan to raise.

Hansberger, who did not return a call for comment Friday, has spoken proudly of having been part of cleaning up county corruption.

His opponent for the 3rd District seat, San Bernardino Councilman Neil Derry, has disagreed, saying Hansberger is too entrenched.

If elected, Derry - who declined to comment for this story - has said he plans to call for an independent ethics commission to monitor county leaders.

Mitzelfelt could face a more stern challenge. Not only was he Postmus' chief of staff, he was then appointed by the Board of Supervisors to fill Postmus' seat.

On Friday, Mitzelfelt dismissed concerns about his connections to Postmus.

Since Postmus took over the Assessor's Office, Mitzelfelt said he has only visited it once - to inspect it after Postmus made a budgetary request for a renovation of the facilities.

"If there is a question of any political concerns, there is only the fact that I used to work for Mr. Postmus when he was supervisor," Mitzelfelt said. "If he were being investigated, anything related to my working with Mr. Postmus should be contained to when he was supervisor."

Still, all three of Mitzelfelt's opponents linked him to the assessor.

"I consider them both one and the same," said Rita Vogler, a Hesperia councilwoman. "Shortly after (Mitzelfelt's) appointment, I met with him. At that time, he stated to me that he was very very proud of the work he had done for Mr. Postmus."

Bob Nelson, another candidate and a longtime critic of county corruption, said he was not surprised.

"I have watched county politics for a long time, and I wouldn't expect that the DA would go this far if he didn't have something really strong," he said.

Bob Conaway, another Mitzelfelt opponent, called Mitzelfelt and Postmus "part of one big happy family" of an "old boys network" that continues to look out for special interests.

Mitzelfelt disagreed.

"In the upcoming election, I trust voters will judge my candidacy based on my performance in office and my qualifications," he said.

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