Case Studies

Vindication for Real Estate Developer After Decades-Long Corruption Scandal


 

“The biggest corruption scandal in San Bernardino County, if not the state’s, history.”

Touted by then-Attorney General Jerry Brown in February 2010, this statement announcing the prosecution of real estate developer Colonies Partners, L.P. (“Colonies”), its co-managing partner Jeffrey Burum, and former public officials launched a legal saga that rocked the Inland Empire and dominated the decade.

Background

In 1999, San Bernardino County (“County”) tried to unlawfully seize 72 acres from Colonies. Chastised by the courts for deceit, fraud, and coercion in the land grab, the County lost two trials to Colonies and faced damages of over $300 million if the case did not settle. The County was then confronted by impending financial “Armageddon,” as one County official stated, and agreed to pay $102 million to Colonies to settle in 2006.

Incensed over the settlement and fearing the increased political prominence it afforded Colonies and Mr. Burum, former District Attorney (DA) Mike Ramos joined other County officials and the California Attorney General’s Office to launch a years-long investigation and prosecution to punish Colonies and Mr. Burum, neutralize their political power, and claw back the $102 million.

In addition to the criminal proceedings, which alleged Mr. Burum and three former County officials conspired to illegally obtain the 2006 settlement, Mr. Burum faced a separate civil taxpayers’ lawsuit in 2012. Partners Stephen G. Larson and Jonathan E. Phillips led Mr. Burum’s defense for both cases.


“A blockbuster prosecution.”

Daily Journal

An Unrelenting Battle

The basis of our defense was the fact that the prosecution’s case did not contain a shred of evidence. Nevertheless, both sides were unrelenting in their litigation and we aggressively defended Mr. Burum against the prosecution’s criminal allegations through trial. In 2011, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Brian McCarville dismissed five of the seven felony charges at the time against Mr. Burum following our successful motion challenging the sufficiency of the prosecution’s evidence.

“The court clearly recognized this case was grossly overcharged and the majority of charges against Mr. Burum were legally defective,” Stephen Larson noted.

For the next five years, we battled the prosecution with motions and petitions in trial and appellate court, including three oral arguments before the California Fourth District Court of Appeal and one before the California Supreme Court. In the civil taxpayers’ matter, our objection to the lawsuit was overruled, but we successfully appealed to the Fourth District Court of Appeal, which found that the plaintiffs lacked standing. This was affirmed by the California Supreme Court when the plaintiffs petitioned to review the case, effectively ending the litigation.

In the criminal case, we argued against the prosecutors’ appeal of Judge McCarville’s ruling in the Fourth District Court of Appeal, successfully affirming the charges already dismissed against Mr. Burum and obtaining an additional dismissal of conflict-of-interest and bribery charges. Unwilling to admit defeat, the prosecution took to the California Supreme Court to appeal the bribery charges. Between multiple return trips to both appellate courts, we ultimately achieved dismissal of the criminal conspiracy charges, but the bribery charges were reinstated.

On Oct. 17, 2016, jury selection for Mr. Burum and his co-defendants’ long-awaited public trial began.

A Sweeping Victory at Trial

While the double-paneled jury trial was a marathon (10 months from jury selection to verdict), the verdict was swift. On Aug. 28, 2017, Mr. Burum and his two co-defendants were acquitted of all charges after a mere few hours of deliberation. The case against the fourth defendant was dismissed after a separate jury hung on all charges and the prosecution elected not to retry the case.

We asked the jury to return a quick verdict to send a message to the prosecution, and they did, returning across-the-board acquittals in less than five hours of deliberation,” Stephen explained. “We said all along that this is a case that should not have been brought—that they were innocent and this was a political persecution. The jury agreed.”

In short, the jurors described the DA’s prosecution as a “boondoggle,” solidifying our argument from the start of the case that there was absolutely no proof of Mr. Burum and his co-defendants’ guilt.

There was also a related federal investigation that ended with a public declination by the U.S. Attorney’s office and a unanimous reversal by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on a search warrant-related ruling. Our team was awarded Daily Journal’s California Lawyer Attorney of the Year (CLAY) Award in 2018 for their fervent and triumphant defense of Mr. Burum.


“A signature case from the firm’s white collar docket.”

Daily Journal

Not Over Yet

Following the acquittals, we were far from finished fighting for our client. In March and April 2018, after exhausting the administrative claims procedures, Colonies and Mr. Burum each filed federal civil rights suits against the County, former DA Ramos, former Assistant DA James Hackleman, and other former County officials. The suits sought tens of millions of dollars of damages caused to Mr. Burum and his company by the defendants’ malicious, failed investigation and prosecution. Partners Kori L. Bell and Steven E. Bledsoe joined the ranks as Mr. Burum’s counsel and the team worked tirelessly for two years on extensive discovery and multiple contentious motions, as both sides once again vigorously contested the litigation. 

In June 2019, after numerous rounds of briefing, we succeeded in gaining access to internal DA Office emails concerning the investigation and prosecution which proved critical in developing evidence of intent to violate civil rights laws. Furthermore, in November 2019, we filed a motion with the court seeking sanctions against DA Ramos and the County for the spoliation of emails and text messages between DA Ramos and others using his private campaign email accounts.

In a significant development in March 2020, U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal sanctioned the defendants, finding that DA Ramos acted in bad faith when he destroyed the texts and emails. He also ordered an adverse inference jury instruction to be given at trial, meaning the jury would be told by the judge they may presume the records DA Ramos destroyed were unfavorable.

Finally, on July 29, 2020, Judge Bernal denied various motions for summary judgment brought by the County and individual defendants against both Colonies and Mr. Burum, finding ample evidence supporting trial on specific claims for First Amendment retaliation, fabrication of evidence, malicious prosecution, and conspiracy to deny civil rights, among others. Judge Bernal’s ruling paved the way for trial, marking a huge victory for Mr. Burum and Colonies after the years of political ruin Mr. Burum endured, and taking a monumental step in the efforts to unveil decades of corruption by the County and its officials.

The Resolution

Our team proceeded to slew the County’s multiple attempts in court to avoid trial, but the decades of litigation ultimately culminated when the parties came to an agreement following mediation before Hon. Louis Meisinger (Ret.) of Signature Resolution. On Nov. 24, 2020, the parties jointly announced that they had reached a settlement agreement resolving the litigation and that $65 million would be paid to Mr. Burum and Colonies, reflecting claims, damages, losses, and out-of-pocket costs incurred by Mr. Burum and Colonies during the alleged retaliatory investigation and prosecution.


“This agreement protects the county’s taxpayers from what could have been a more costly outcome. This subject has consumed a great deal of the County and Flood Control District’s attention and resources for the past two decades. The County and Flood Control District look forward to moving beyond this and giving their undivided attention to improving the lives of county residents.”

— David Wert, County Public Information Officer

“The settlement as approved by all parties brings to an end the long and traumatizing conflict that unnecessarily consumed more than two decades of Mr. Burum’s life and inflicted lasting damage on his business interests, his finances, his family, and his personal wellbeing. Despite a deep desire to see these matters presented publicly to jurors in a court of law, Mr. Burum and the Colonies Partners agree that, for themselves and the residents of San Bernardino County, the time has come to bring this troubling chapter to a conclusion.”

— Stephen Larson

 
We use cookies on this site to enhance your experience. By using our website, you accept our use of cookies.