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Story triggers claims of mistruth regarding San Bernardino Co. lawsuits

San Bernardino County Seal
San Bernardino County Seal
Courtesy of San Bernardino County

A story by The Sun’s Joe Nelson detailing settlements by San Bernardino County in a variety of wrongful death and employee misconduct cases did not sit right with a group of Colonies Four supporters. In the story entitled, “San Bernardino County has paid nearly $63M to settle lawsuits since 2008,” Nelson writes about those cases that settled in the past seven years but does not mention the $102 million settlement with Colonies that has resulted in the indictment of Colonies Partner Jeff Burum, former assistant assessor Jim Erwin, former Fourth Supervisorial District chief of staff Mark Kirk, and former chairman of the Board of Supervisors Paul Biane.

The $102 million Colonies settlement was initiated before the period covered by the story. But that hasn’t stopped the Colonies Four supporters from crying foul, claiming that Nelson left settlements out of the total figure. At least one also claims that the county is self-funded so therefore the settlements all come out of taxpayer monies.This reporter sent a request for information regarding the lawsuits and the county’s insured status to David Wert, Public Information Officer for the San Bernardino County Administrative Office. Wert provided the following information.

“Joe did his own research and came up with his own numbers. The county did not provide him with any dollar amounts. The county does not calculate a number that would show total value of settlements for any given period of time because that overall number would not be of value to the county. The county cost of settlements are borne by the individual departments from which the cases originated, and departments have to factor these expenses into their budgets.

“And you are right, the county does have various insurance policies to shield the taxpayers from the cost of settlements and judgments, and oftentimes these insurers have a voice in deciding whether to proceed with a case or settle, and for how much. If an insurer says it won’t cover the county on a particular case if the county goes to court and loses and that they want the county to settle instead, the county takes that into serious consideration. I probably should have mentioned that to Joe, but it slipped my mind.

“The biggest policy is through the California State Association of Counties, but the county does work with other private insurers as well. They don’t cover everything, but they do take some of the sting out of the big ones. Insurance is necessary, of course, because a large settlement or judgment could throw the county or a department for a loop and force cutbacks in services to the public. I’ve attached an old news release that references this dynamic.”

Although it is conceivable that Nelson missed some settlements, the conspiracy theory put forth by the Colonies Four supporters that he helped to hide almost $140 million in settlements appears to be without merit. However, as pointed out by Wert, the total value of settlements for a specific period is not a number kept by the county.