Political ties hinted in probe of S.B. County assessor's office

The Press-Enterprise

A political and public relations consultant hired by San Bernardino County Assessor Bill Postmus last year is a possible subject of an ongoing investigation into the assessor's office, multiple sources say.

Mike Richman and his MPR Strategies firm received a $49,000 noncompetitively bid contract in July 2007 to create community outreach events, promote a monthly newsletter and forge ties with the state Board of Equalization.

Last week, district attorney's investigators served a search warrant at the assessor's Third Street headquarters and seized computers and documents, sources close to the assessor's office said.

Through a spokeswoman, the district attorney has declined to state the nature of the inquiry, but the sources say investigators and the county grand jury are looking into whether the assessor's office was illegally used for political activity.

At the same time Richman worked for the county, he was a paid consultant for at least six political campaigns across the state, including four in San Bernardino County.

Postmus spokesman Ted Lehrer said that to his knowledge, Richman never worked on political campaigns while at the assessor's office, where he would spend two to three days a week.

Lehrer declined to comment on the investigation or whether Richman's computer was taken by investigators.

Postmus is fully cooperating with the investigation, Lehrer said.

Richman did not respond to phone and e-mail messages Tuesday.

MPR Strategies was contracted to create community outreach events, schedule the assessor's annual report presentations and promote the office's newsletter, Bill's Tax Bytes, according to the contract.

The assessor's office has more than 230 employees and a $21 million annual budget. Its primary role is establishing property values to determine how much residents and business owners pay in taxes.

Richman is a political consultant who briefly served as executive director of the San Bernardino County Republican Party at the end of Postmus' tenure as party chairman in 2007.

Since Richman received the county contract in July, he also has been a consultant on at least six other campaign committees across the state. They included Chino Hills Councilman Curt Hagman's campaign for the 60th Assembly District and Bob Smith's campaign for the 34th Assembly District, campaign finance records show.

Richman also is a paid consultant for Postmus' assessor campaign committee and for Michelle Steel, whose district on the state Board of Equalization includes San Bernardino County. He was a consultant on her 2006 race for the state board and headed her transition into office.

Political Pay

Postmus' campaign committee paid Richman $4,000 in August for political consulting, records show.

Richman briefly was a consultant for San Bernardino City Councilman Neil Derry's campaign for the Board of Supervisors. Derry said in an interview this week that he no longer uses Richman.

Richman is campaign manager for Bob Watkins, a San Diego Republican seeking the GOP nomination for the 52nd Congressional District, and worked for Shawn Steel, an Orange County lawyer seeking a position on the Republican National Committee, according to campaign finance records and published reports.

Campaign finances reports show that all told last year, Richman received more than $45,000 in consultant fees from various political campaigns.

Lehrer said Richman and his firm have helped the assessor publish monthly newsletters, set up community meetings and foster a better relationship with the Board of Equalization.

Richman helped with the assessor's 2007 annual report and advises Postmus on pending legislation in Sacramento, Lehrer said.

"MPR Strategies was selected to consult and advise the assessor due to the firm's relationship with Board of Equalization member Michelle Steel," Lehrer said.

The professional experience Richman had with Steel allowed him "to serve as a liaison between our office and the Third District of the Board of Equalization," Lehrer said.

The Board of Equalization administers some state tax programs and works to ensure fair tax administration.

Under $50,000 Mark

The Richman contract was not competitively bid and was below the $50,000 threshold required for a public vote by the Board of Supervisors.

In his time as assessor, Postmus has helped residents use Prop. 8 to temporarily reduce property assessments during the housing market slump. He has revamped the office's Web site and created what he calls the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate, which has two full-time positions.

Employees work like field representatives for county supervisors, helping residents and representing Postmus at various community meetings.

Postmus has hired a number of employees who do not have traditional backgrounds in real estate or property appraisal.

Assistant Assessor Adam Aleman ran Postmus' campaign for assessor and was executive director of the San Bernardino County Republican Party while Postmus was chairman.

He is president of a company called ALP Group LLC, which provides political services to local campaigns. The group was paid by at least five campaigns for what finance records list as information technology costs, and for Red County, a Republican political blog.

Greg Eyler, a taxpayer advocate for the assessor, is a former field representative for Supervisor Paul Biane. Eyler also was operations director of the county GOP when Postmus was chairman.

Postmus also created the position of intergovernmental affairs director, a liaison with city governments. Rex Gutierrez, a Rancho Cucamonga city councilman, holds the position. Gutierrez is a candidate for the county Republican Party Central Committee.

When Postmus became assessor he appointed Bob Hunter, a Victorville city councilman, to the position. Hunter had been a field representative for Postmus' supervisorial office. Hunter served in the post about two weeks.

Lehrer said Postmus has a senior management team of experienced property appraisers advising him daily. Assistant Assessor Harlow Cameron, who has 35 years experience, leads the staff, Lehrer said.

Postmus' executive staff, including Aleman, Eyler and Gutierrez, has extensive experience in public policy, local government and in constituent services, Lehrer said.

Staff writer Zeke Minaya contributed to this report.

Reach Duane W. Gang at 951-368-9547 or dgang@PE.com

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