Judges agree former San Bernardino County DA deleted emails and texts in bad faith

Attorney for Rancho Cucamonga developer sought electronic data as evidence in civil litigation

Stephen Larson, the defense attorney for Colonies Partners co-managing partner Jeff Burum, speaks during public comments at the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. Colonies Partners, the Rancho Cucamonga developer embroiled in years of litigation with San Bernardino County including this year’s failed public corruption prosecution, wants the Board of Supervisors to restore $45.2 million the partnership spent to successfully defend itself in both civil and criminal court. The amount includes $32 million in legal fees and $13.4 million in lost profits on hasty land sales made to help defray legal costs. (Stan Lim, San Bernardino Sun/SCNG)

By JOE NELSON | jnelson@scng.com | San Bernardino Sun

PUBLISHED: April 21, 2020 at 3:48 p.m. | UPDATED: April 21, 2020 at 7:51 p.m.

Former San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos acted in bad faith when he deleted text messages and emails sought by attorneys representing Rancho Cucamonga developer Colonies Partners and its managing partner in federal lawsuits, a judge has ruled.

In a March 27 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Jesus G. Bernal accepted the Feb. 27 findings from U.S. Magistrate Judge Shashi H. Kewalramani, who concluded Ramos had a duty to preserve emails and text messages sought by attorneys representing Colonies Partners and its co-managing partner, Jeffrey Burum.

Bernal ordered the county to pay attorney fees to the law firm Larson O’Brien LLP in Los Angeles. Attorney Stephen G. Larson, a partner at the firm who is representing Colonies and Burum in the litigation, filed a motion with the court in November 2019 seeking sanctions against Ramos and the county and dismissal of the case. Larson O’Brien is seeking $42,589 in attorney fees for the preparation and filing of that motion.

Bernal concurred with Kewalramani that the jury will receive an instruction that it may presume that Ramos’ deleted emails and texts messages were “unfavorable to the plaintiffs,” meaning they would have painted Burum and Colonies in a bad light.

In his report, Kewalramani found that the county should have ensured Ramos preserved the text messages from his personal cell phone and emails from his two campaign accounts. Ramos claimed he did not know he was obligated to save his text messages or emails. Kewalramani found that excuse unacceptable.

“Ramos, with the assistance of his experienced counsel, had a duty to preserve his emails and text messages following the commencement of the litigation. Instead, Ramos deleted text messages and closed his campaign account and is now claiming he had no idea he was required to preserve such ESI (electronically stored information),” Kewalramani said in his ruling. “Ignorance of this obligation of preservation, especially from sophisticated parties who have the assistance of experienced counsel, is not persuasive to this Magistrate Judge.”

The county did not object to Kewalramani’s findings, Larson said.

Attorneys representing Ramos and the county declined to comment for this story.

According to Larson’s motion, Ramos and the county became aware of anticipated litigation in October 2017. Colonies filed its lawsuit against the county in March 2018 seeking $80 million in damages, and Burum filed his lawsuit a month later seeking $50 million in damages.

Ramos deleted the emails and text messages sometime after July 2018.

“Based on the timing and circumstances of the text message and email deletions, the Court infers bad intent from Defendants’ actions,” Kewalramani said in his report and recommendation to the court.

Ramos, according to Larson, used his elected office as a “political machine” to attack his political adversaries, while the county looked the other way and enabled the activity.

“It is shocking that any lawyer, particularly one serving as District Attorney, would act in ‘bad faith’ and destroy evidence relevant to on-going litigation,” Larson said in a statement Tuesday. “I cannot describe the outrage felt by Jeff Burum, the Colonies, and the others who have been subjected to Mike Ramos’ political persecution over this past decade, now only to discover that he destroyed evidence of his nefarious conduct.”

Colonies and Burum filed separate lawsuits against the county following a nearly decade-long, ill-fated public corruption case in which the District Attorney’s and state Attorney General’s offices accused Burum of conspiring with three former county officials to fix a $102 million legal settlement, in Colonies’ favor, to settle longstanding litigation over a flood control dispute in exchange for political favors and bribes.

Burum and the other three defendants — former county Supervisor Paul Biane; Mark Kirk, former chief of staff for former county Supervisor Gary Ovitt; and former Assistant Assessor Jim Erwin — maintained their innocence from the beginning and maintained the prosecution was politically motivated.

The cases ended in the summer of 2017 with Burum, Biane and Kirk acquitted on all counts and prosecutors dropping the case against Erwin.

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