Ex-S.B. County CAO’s claim describes environment of favoritism, threats
10:00 PM PDT on Friday, April 2, 2010
By IMRAN GHORI and DUANE W. GANG
San Bernardino County supervisors and their staffs regularly bypassed their top administrator to deal directly with county departments, worked to secure no-bid contracts for individual projects and threatened employees with their jobs.
That’s the picture former County Administrative Officer Mark Uffer paints in a detailed claim filed against the county on Thursday.
Uffer, ousted late last year on a 3-2 vote, is seeking $15 million in damages and accuses the county of wrongful termination, defamation and fraud. He said he was retaliated against for cooperating with the grand jury and an ongoing district attorney’s investigation.
If the supervisors reject Uffer’s claim, his next step would be filing a lawsuit against the county.The claim names supervisors Brad Mitzelfelt, Neil Derry and Gary Ovitt individually along with Bill Postmus, former assessor and supervisor, Ovitt’s chief of staff Mark Kirk, and Jim Erwin, former assistant assessor and former chief of staff to Derry.
“What is going on with San Bernardino County government is absolutely unbelievable and needs to be stopped and corrected,” Sanford Kassel, Uffer’s attorney, said Friday.
The county officials named in the claim all either denied the allegations, declined to comment or could not be reached for interviews.
In the 19-page claim and 160 pages of supporting documents, Uffer contends the supervisors violated the state’s open meetings laws, conducted backroom deals and engaged in favoritism — threatening him when he tried to thwart them.
“We have evidence and proof of each claim and every statement,” Kassel said.
Many of the allegations in Uffer’s claim could not be independently verified on Friday. The accusations in Uffer’s claim include:
Uffer objected to the purchase of a building from developer Jeff Burum.
Ovitt and Kirk sought county purchase of a Citizens Business Bank Arena luxury suite.
Kirk pushed no-bid contracts for the Chino Airport.
Uffer was berated for resolving a sheriff’s issue.
County staffs were pushed to give jobs to Postmus’ friends.
Erwin began targeting Uffer after Erwin’s girlfriend was forced to resign.
Uffer raised concerns over a potential conflict of interest with Derry.
Uffer contended supervisors held a drunken meeting in violation of the Brown Act.
Building purchase: In March 2007, Uffer contends he learned there was an attempt by Postmus to have the county purchase a building in Rancho Cucamonga from Burum, a co-managing member of Colonies Partners, the developer that secured a $102 million settlement from supervisors in November 2006.
The settlement is the target of an ongoing criminal investigation, and Postmus and Erwin face multiple charges as part of the case.
Uffer believed the purchase of the building would raise a conflict of interest, according to the claim. The county bought the building anyway, and Supervisor Paul Biane moved his district office into it.
Luxury suite: Ovitt, Kirk and Greg Devereaux, then the city manager in Ontario, were working with the county through the Economic Development Department to lease a luxury suite at the new Citizens Business Bank Arena in June 2008. The arena is owned by Ontario.
Uffer insisted that public funds should not go toward the purchase since it could be considered a gift, according to the claim. The county’s lawyers also raised objections.
Documents included with the claim do not show whether the suite was purchased.
Devereaux this year replaced Uffer as county administrative officer.
Chino Airport: In January 2008, Kirk pushed departments directly to host an open house for the Chino Airport. Nearly $1 million was spent to market the airport in Ovitt’s district.
According to separate public records not part of Uffer’s claim, the airport work was done through more than a half-dozen noncompetitive contracts that mostly fell below the threshold that would have required a public vote by the Board of Supervisors.
At least one internal county e-mail raised questions about the deals with the subject line, “This is getting out of hand.”
Uffer berated: In August 2006, Uffer had a meeting about Sheriff’s Department seniority staffing. According to the claim, Uffer resolved the issues but was berated for doing so.
“Mark Kirk then became extremely confrontational and adversarial when he discovered that Mark Uffer had resolved the issue and verbally accosted Mark Uffer on the telephone,” according to the claim.
“Mark Kirk was screaming at Mark Uffer so loudly that Mark Uffer had to close his office door.”
Postmus’ friends: In January 2006, Uffer contends his staff was pressured to assign a project to rework a county radio system to Postmus’ friends.
Uffer said the project would raise suspicion but was told by a Postmus aide that the supervisor didn’t care. Uffer later recommended the board halt the project, according to the claim.
Erwin’s girlfriend: Elizabeth Sanchez, the county’s former human resources director who lost her job because of an affair with Erwin, a former head of the sheriff’s deputies union, filed a lawsuit against the county.
In September 2006, Uffer learned that Postmus “heavily pressured the County’s privately retained attorney” to settle the case, even though the attorney said Sanchez’s case lacked merit.
Erwin began targeting Uffer after Sanchez resigned, according to the claim.
“Jim Erwin boasted and bragged of having a list of employees, including Mark Uffer, upon which he would seek retribution which became a common topic of conversation throughout the management ranks, known as Jim Erwin’s ‘Hit List,’ ” the claim reads.
Derry conflict: In September 2009, Uffer expressed concern that Derry did not declare a conflict over his past employment with Southern California Edison. Ray Gonzalez, an Edison retiree, formed a consulting company and received a $25,000 contract with the help of Derry, according to the claim.
Brown Act: Uffer contends he discovered at least two violations of the Brown Act, the state’s open meetings laws.
One of the two alleged violations occurred at a California State Association of Counties meeting in San Diego in December 2008.
Derry, Mitzelfelt and Biane went to Mitzelfelt’s hotel room to talk about county health insurance plans. The three “discussed County business while intoxicated until about 5:00AM,” according to the claim.
In an e-mail Friday, Postmus called the allegations against him baseless and described Uffer as an inept county administrator.
“This claim/lawsuit is nothing more than a smokescreen for his lack of performance and trying to cause additional division within the county,” he said.
Erwin declined to comment.
In a statement, Mitzelfelt said he was disappointed by Uffer’s approach. He said he was limited in how he could respond because the issue involves possible litigation.
“I strongly disagree with his allegations, believe he is wrong, and will defend my statements and actions,” Mitzelfelt said.
Derry said Uffer’s allegations are untrue but didn’t want to comment on the specific issues.”The claim that he was fired because he was working with the district attorney is simply false,” Derry said. “Certainly I didn’t and I don’t believe anyone else knew he was supposedly working with the district attorney.”
Supervisor Josie Gonzales said she did not have a chance to review the claim. Gonzales, who along with Biane voted against firing Uffer, is not accused of any ethical violations or wrongdoing in Uffer’s claim.
Ovitt and Biane did not respond Friday to requests for comment.
Reach Imran Ghori at 951-368-9558 or ighori@PE.com
Reach Duane W. Gang at 951-368-9547 or dgang@PE.com