SAN BERNARDINO – County supervisors spent $22,500 last month to sweep their offices and other parts of the government center for secret recording devices and other hidden surveillance equipment.
The first sweep of the fourth and fifth floors of the county building occurred Jan. 23, and the purchase order provides for four more sweeps at undisclosed future dates.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Gary Ovitt, who requested the counter-surveillance, declined a request for an interview Friday. But a county spokesman insisted the sweeps had nothing to do with an ongoing government corruption scandal that has implicated the offices of Ovitt, Paul Biane and former supervisor Bill Postmus.
“This is something the county periodically does and the county was doing this long before there was a (District Attorney’s) investigation,” David Wert said.
In all, Wert said, the county has spent $42,865 on sweeps in recent years but refused to disclose when previous sweeps occurred.
Last week, District Attorney Michael A. Ramos and state Attorney General Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr., announced criminal charges against Postmus and former assistant assessor Jim Erwin in a wide-ranging corruption case.
Court documents also allege Biane and Ovitt’s chief of staff Mark Kirk – identified as John Does – accepted $100,000 bribes to secure a $102 million settlement payment for developer Colonies Partners LP of Rancho Cucamonga.
Colonies co-managing partners, Jeff Burum and Dan Richards – also identified as John Does in court papers – are suspected of blackmail and paying the bribes to end a four-year lawsuit over flood control easements on property Colonies was developing in Upland.
Only Postmus and Erwin have been charged but Ramos and Brown said the investigation is ongoing and additional charges could be filed.
In a brief statement, Ovitt said that:
“All surveillance measures taken by the County are to ensure integrity in the decision-making process as well as the safety of those who work at the county. We work hand-in-hand with public safety officials while developing these measures to ensure those objectives are met.”
Wert said taxpayers are put at risk when sensitive information relating to official county business is leaked because it opens the doors for potential costly litigation.
“It puts the taxpayers at a disadvantage in the courtroom and at the negotiating table,” he said.
On Friday, Biane confirmed that he allocated $5,500 from his district’s operating for sweeps of his offices in Rancho Cucamonga and San Bernardino in September.
The contracts were signed about two weeks after he and other supervisors were subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury investigating the Colonies settlement and a separate land deal.
Biane would not say Friday if there was a connection between the surveillance sweeps and his subpoena to testify before the Grand Jury. He released the following statement:
“Confidential communications about county personnel issues, legal cases, and property negotiations take place in my office regularly, and it’s necessary to ensure that these communications remain confidential – as allowed by law – to protect County taxpayers. Periodic surveillance sweeps help the board ensure that confidential communications are protected and that county taxpayers are not harmed by the release of confidential information.”
Wert said the county hasn’t utilized the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department for such services because the Sheriff’s Department is not on the county’s list of approved vendors.
“And also, the purchasing director didn’t know that the Sheriff’s Department can provide those kind of services to county departments,” Wert said.
Concerns about security breaches and other covert activity at the county government center date back at least five years, when a voice-activated tape recorder was discovered hidden under a chair in the Magda Lawson Room, where the Board of Supervisors conducts its closed session meetings.
At the time the tape recorder was found in 2005, the county was in heated settlement negotiations with Colonies which ultimately led to the landmark $102 million settlement.
“There’ve been numerous allegations of improper security breaches in the county for many many years,” Supervisor Neil Derry said.
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Filed under: Censorship, Civil Liberties, Communications, Free Speech, Information, Military Industrial Complex, Prison Industrial Complex, Privacy, San Bernardino County, SB Assesssor, SB DA, SB Military, SB Sheriff, SB Supervisors Tagged: | Bill Postmus, Colonies Partners, Dan Richards, David Wert, Edmund G. Brown, Gary Ovitt, James Erwin, Jeff Burum, Mark Kirk, Michael Ramos, Paul Biane, San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, surveillance