County Loses Bid to Dismiss Colonies Lawsuits

Cars on highway

UPDATE: As of July 31, 2020, Judge Bernal’s ruling and the significant development in the Colonies Partners case has been covered by the San Bernardino Sun and the Daily Journal.

RIVERSIDE, Calif., July 29, 2020 — A federal judge on Wednesday rejected a desperate bid by San Bernardino County to dismiss civil rights lawsuits spurred by the former County District Attorney’s malicious, failed investigation and prosecution of Southern California businessman and philanthropist Jeff Burum and Colonies Partners, L.P. (Colonies), where he is a co-managing partner.

U.S. Federal District Court Judge Jesus G. Bernal denied motions for summary judgment brought by the County against both Mr. Burum and Colonies, finding ample evidence supporting a trial on specific claims for First Amendment retaliation, fabrication of evidence, malicious prosecution, and conspiracy to deny civil rights, among others. Defendants who are to stand trial include the County of San Bernardino itself, former District Attorney Mike Ramos, former Assistant District Attorney James Hackleman, and two former District Attorney Investigators, Bud Randles and Robert Schreiber. Defendant Adam Aleman, a former San Bernardino County employee, who did not file a motion for summary judgment, will face trial as well.

The ruling by Judge Bernal came just months after the Magistrate Judge ruled, and Judge Bernal agreed, that Ramos intentionally destroyed evidence by “deleting text messages and allow[ing] campaign emails to be deleted after this litigation commenced” that could prove his culpability in the case. Judge Bernal levied a $42,000 fine on Ramos and the County—which will be paid by the County and its taxpayers, even though voters swept Ramos out of office in 2018—and imposed an “adverse inference instruction” as a sanction.

With Wednesday’s ruling, the County faces hundreds of millions of dollars in potential damages from the two separate lawsuits brought by Colonies and by Mr. Burum, which outline multiple causes of action, including retaliation, malicious prosecution, fabrication of evidence, and conspiracy to violate civil rights. The County could also face significant punitive damages when the trial commences later this year.

“Colonies and Mr. Burum are grateful that Judge Bernal denied San Bernardino County’s latest attempt to sidestep responsibility for its corrupt acts, and the unconscionable action of DA Mike Ramos,” said Stephen G. Larson, Mr. Burum’s attorney. “The County spent 20 years waging a vendetta against Mr. Burum and his company, culminating in their shameless violation of his civil rights by pursuing a politically-motivated criminal case to deny him his freedom—a case that a jury deemed to be utterly baseless.”

In finding sufficient evidence of the County’s “substantial retaliatory motivation,” Judge Bernal cited just some of the evidence documenting Ramos’ political persecution of Burum and Colonies, including emails which show that “Ramos, . . . after being accused of womanizing and other misconduct by Neil Derry . . . directed PIU [Public Integrity Unit] to focus on filing a criminal complaint before the date candidates for countywide office could file to challenge him,” and that “Hackleman ‘reiterated’ to investigators Ramos’s ‘goal of completing all this’ before the February 2010 political season.” The Court also noted that “Hackleman emailed Ramos and others, stating his belief that ‘we will need at least every pressure we can bring to bear on [former SB County Supervisor Bill Postmus] if we ever have any hopes of seeing him turn,’” and later stating that the overriding objective of their ill-fated efforts was to “absolutely ruin Burum as a political operator.” Later in his ruling, Judge Bernal stated, “A reasonable juror could conclude that individual Defendants at the PIU and DA’s Office acted pursuant to ‘a longstanding practice or custom’ of retaliating against Burum or Colonies for protected speech activity.”

In 2018, Mr. Burum and Colonies sued the County, Mr. Ramos, and other county and state officials for their role in the rogue criminal investigation and prosecution that shattered Mr. Burum’s family, his reputation, and his businesses, including Colonies.

The lawsuits chronicle a staggering litany of misconduct, strong-arm tactics, and vindictive attacks by County officials on Mr. Burum and Colonies dating back to 1999 when the County tried to unlawfully seize 72 acres from the company. Chastised by the Courts for deceit and coercion in the land grab, the County lost two trials to Colonies and faced damages of over $300 million in a third. Confronted by an impending financial disaster, the County agreed to pay $102 million to Colonies to settle in 2006.  

Incensed over the settlement, Mr. Ramos joined other County officials and the California Attorney General’s Office to punish Mr. Burum by launching a years-long investigation and prosecution without a shred of evidence. In August 2017, Mr. Burum and three co-defendants were all exonerated after a 10-month trial ended with their acquittals or the dismissal of all charges. Jurors described Mr. Ramos’ prosecution as a “boondoggle.”

“Instead of doing the right thing, the County continues to stubbornly expose their taxpayers to hundreds of millions in liability in its vain effort to justify the indefensible and vengeful acts of former DA Ramos and other County officials. We look forward to questioning Mr. Ramos, other county leaders, and prosecutors in a public trial where their spiteful motivations and wrongdoing will be laid bare.” 

— Stephen G. Larson

The trial is currently scheduled for September 29, 2020.

Along with Stephen, partners Kori L. Bell, Steven E. Bledsoe, and Jonathan E. Phillips are on the Larson O’Brien team representing Mr. Burum and Colonies Partners.


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