Grand Terrace City Councilman Jim Miller was arrested Wednesday and charged with felony conflict of interest stemming from his votes to place the city’s legal advertisements in his wife’s community newspaper.
His wife, Grand Terrace City News publisher Margie Miller, posted his $25,000 bail and he was released from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Central Detention Center shortly after 2 p.m.
Jim Miller did not acknowledge reporters’ questions as he left the jail, and his wife declined to comment. Jim Miller did not return a phone message left on his cell phone.
The arrest came just hours after Jim Miller attended a Tuesday night City Council meeting and voted on the fate of embattled Acting City Manager Steve Berry, who was accused by the Sheriff’s Department seven years ago of embezzlement and fraud in connection with the tinting of windows at city buildings by a jail work release inmate.
“How did this perfect little quaint, quiet city turn into a cesspool?” Grand Terrace Councilman Walt Stanckiewitz said by phone Wednesday. “Why is this going on? I’m at the end of my rope with it.”
Stanckiewitz said he does not expect the council to press for a resignation from Jim Miller, who has served since 2004 and would face re-election in 2012.
“If it is a legal matter, that will need to be resolved” before Jim Miller’s status on the council is addressed, Stanckiewitz said. “I think that’s how our justice system works.”
Prosecutor John Goritz said Jim Miller can keep his council seat while the case against him proceeds.
State law prohibits anyone convicted of conflict of interest charges from holding public office in California. The provision does not apply to those charged but not yet convicted, Goritz said.
Jim Miller faces a prison sentence of 16 months to three years if convicted.
The 61-year-old councilman has been placed on paid administrative leave from his job as a real estate services manager for San Bernardino County, said David Wert, a county spokesman. He said the county did so because the alleged offense is a felony and involves public malfeasance. Miller will be allowed to return to work if county personnel officials determine the arrest has no connection to his work for the county, Wert said.
Payments for ads
The charges stem from payments the city made to the Grand Terrace City News, said Goritz, of the Public Integrity Unit in the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office.
From Oct. 26, 2006, through Aug. 12, 2008, Goritz said, Jim Miller voted to approve routine items on the council’s consent calendar authorizing payments to the newspaper for legal advertising. Goritz said the payments amounted to about $18,000.
Goritz said it is the act of voting on matters that could potentially generate financial benefit, not the dollar amount, that makes the offense a felony.
Margie Miller said last week that Grand Terrace City News was running legal ads for the city when she bought the publication in 2006.
She continued the practice until Berry sent Jim Miller a letter on Sept. 11, 2008, stating that he considered the practice a conflict of interest with Jim Miller serving as a councilman and had ordered city staff members to stop advertising in the newspaper.
Margie Miller said her staff was still receiving requests from the city to run ads, but stopped accepting them as soon as she received the letter.
In a statement filed by investigators to support the criminal complaint, Jim Miller was quoted as saying he did not think he had a conflict of interest because he did not own any part of his wife’s business. In a financial disclosure statement filed Sept. 7, 2007, he stated that he owned less than 10 percent of the business’ total worth.
Grand Terrace City Attorney John Harper said Wednesday that Jim Miller had contended until Tuesday that he had no personal interest in the newspaper.
“He said both indirectly and directly to me on many occasions that it is his belief that his wife owns the newspaper and that it is her separate property,” Harper said.
Jim Miller told an investigator during a May 8 interview that “I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong up to that time,” referring to the time when the city informed him of the conflict. He said he had checked with Harper before his wife bought City News to determine if the purchase would pose a problem.
The investigator wrote that Jim Miller told him “the city attorney researched it and he came back and said, ‘No, as long as it’s her sole and separate property there shouldn’t be a problem.’ ”
Jim Miller told the investigator the city dealt directly with his wife when doing business with the newspaper, according to the report.
“I really didn’t think anything … about the City News and the approving the contracts, or approving the vouchers, or doing anything was a real issue because it was between my wife, the company and the city,” Jim Miller said, according to the report.
He told the investigator that he had not received conflict of interest training from the city and that he believed someone there would tell him if he was committing a violation. He later told the investigator that he now recognizes the problem.
“I essentially voted on approving payments to my wife’s business,” he told the investigator.
Harper said he did not know until August, a month before the practice was stopped, that Jim Miller was approving payments to his wife’s newspaper for legal advertising.
The city attorney said he wouldn’t have suspected a conflict existed “unless they disclose it to me. In fact, even today I don’t know what the ownership interest is.”
Harper said he was alerted to a potential conflict in August 2008, when Jim Miller referred at a council meeting to “my wife’s newspaper.”
Harper said he wrote a letter to Jim Miller outlining the legal ramifications of state conflict of interest and political reform laws. He said he did not address the potential City News conflict because he did not have enough facts.
Jim Miller’s arrest came the morning after he and other council members took part in a lengthy closed-door discussion of Acting City Manager Berry’s fate in a performance evaluation that was to include a discussion of allegations against Berry that recently came to light. A recently disclosed sheriff’s report, written in 2003, accused Berry of wrongdoing in connection with the tinting of windows at several city buildings by a county jail work-release inmate.
After the private council session, Jim Miller voted with three other council members to allow Berry to continue as acting city manager until a permanent manager is hired, as early as next month.
The council decided not to consider Berry for the permanent job.
Some say that the leak of a sheriff’s report alleging misconduct by Berry was connected to Berry’s move to end the city’s advertising in the paper. Margie Miller denied that she and her husband had anything to do with making the sheriff’s report about Berry public.
Berry said last week that he received an anonymous letter accusing Margie Miller of leaking the sheriff’s report to the media.
Stanckiewitz said he believes the complaint to the district attorney about Jim Miller was made by a fellow council member, but he would not say who. He said he believes it was an attempt to discredit Jim Miller before the council could decide Berry’s fate, but came too late.
Staff writers Paul LaRocco and Leslie Parrilla contributed to this report.
Reach Darrell R. Santschi at 951-368-9484 or dsantschi@PE.com