There's a lot of talk about divided loyalties in San Bernardino County government, but one principle cuts through the rhetoric: Politicians must be completely loyal to their constituents. Indeed, California law requires our elected representatives to put the interests of the people they serve ahead of their own. When they fail to do so, they risk losing office and even going to jail.
James Ramos, a candidate for County Supervisor, has promised voters that he will not let conflicts interfere with his representation of the citizens of San Bernardino County. Announcing his candidacy, Mr. Ramos complained that "public faith in our institutions" was undermined by politicians "being forced to recuse themselves from important duties and votes due to legal problems." His problem in making his promise to voters will be keeping it: If elected, Mr. Ramos will hardly be able to avoid the massive conflict of interest created by the County's numerous contracts with his San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.
For years, as a member and then as Chairman of the San Manuel tribe, Mr. Ramos received millions in casino profits. It has been reported that Mr. Ramos still receives up to $100,000 monthly from the tribe. What's more, Indian tribes with gambling interests have bankrolled Mr. Ramos's election bid, including a $25,000 check from Mr. Ramos's San Manuel tribe, now run by Mr. Ramos's aunt. That does not even count thousands of dollars indirectly donated through political action committees and other hard-to-trace sources.
Mr. Ramos is working hard to avoid this apparent conflict by hiding the extent of these connections. Despite numerous requests from various sources for Mr. Ramos to fully disclose the magnitude of his ties to the San Manuel tribe - including his per capita income distribution, salary, or his ownership interest in its economic concerns - Mr. Ramos refuses to do so.
Why are Mr. Ramos's financial ties to the San Manuel tribe and its casino important? Every year, the Board of Supervisors negotiates contracts with San Manuel worth millions of dollars - contracts for a variety of services critical to the success of the tribe and its casino operations, including law enforcement, fire protection, infrastructure support, and the like, all of which directly impact casino operations. Given that San Manuel casino profits are a primary source of Mr. Ramos’s income, these contracts create an obvious conflict of interest under California law. California Government Code Section 1090 provides that elected representatives "shall not be financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity," and it makes it a felony to willfully violate these provisions. Mr. Ramos's participation in approving these contracts as a County Supervisor would constitute the same legal conflict of interest for which he has criticized others.
Sadly for San Bernardino County, this glaring conflict of interest is being ignored. Indeed, District Attorney Michael Ramos - another political beneficiary of casino-generated campaign funds - has closed his eyes and endorsed Mr. Ramos despite these obvious conflicts. With election about a week away, James Ramos must come clean with voters regarding his plans to address the conflicts that await if he is elected. Otherwise, he will be just another politician hampered by legal problems and, to use his words, "forced to recuse himself from important duties and votes" - precisely what he claims that San Bernardino County doesn't need.
Edmund Burke once said that "hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises; for never intending to go beyond promises, it costs nothing." Mr. Ramos' conflicts of interest raise crucial questions regarding his ability to represent and protect the interests of San Bernardino County citizens by seeking this position. Those are questions he must answer before, not after, election day, lest he become just another purveyor of broken promises.
Robert J. Prata is a native of the Inland Empire and a founding partner of the law firm of Prata & Daley, LLP, in Los Angeles.