The investigation of a San Bernardino County gang prosecutor accused of making some disturbing social-media posts has understandably become national news because of what it could imply about the county's fair administration of justice and level of professionalism. The recently defeated and controversial District Attorney Michael Ramos issued tough comments about the situation, but the remarks from DA-elect Jason Anderson reflect a lackadaisical attitude that's disappointing given his welcome promises to reform the department.
For those who missed the news, Deputy District Attorney Michael Selyem, the county's top hard-core gang prosecutor, is being investigated for a Facebook post about U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.): "Being a loud-mouthed c#nt in the ghetto you would think someone would have shot this bitch by now," Selyem reportedly posted a meme of a man wearing a sombrero: "Mexican word of the day: Hide." And after a police shooting, he reportedly wrote: "That s—bag got exactly what he deserved. … You reap what you sow. And by the way go f— yourself you liberal s—bag."
The now-deleted posts were captured on screenshots from posts with Selyem's name, in a report by the San Bernardino Sun.
In statements, Ramos said he is "aware of the negative comments and they do not represent" his department's views, and emphasized the importance of having "fair, ethical and unbiased" prosecutors. After public outrage, the DA's office placed Selyem on paid administrative leave while the department reviews the matter. However, the DA's office wouldn't tell the Orange County Register whether it even had a social-media policy for its employees. Selyem didn't respond to the newspaper's request for comment. Nor did his union.
But Anderson's response slays me. The incoming DA referred to the comments as a "little bit salty" and added that it's "not a reflection of the image I would like to portray." Dictionaries define salty language as "down-to-earth" and "coarse." The main problem with such language is one of tone and word choice, like when your lovable but crusty Navy veteran uncle drops too many f-bombs—a habit he got from all those years on the sea.
Having a top prosecutor allegedly use the worst word one could call a woman, joke about Mexicans who need to hide, and wonder why no one has shot a congresswoman suggest a much deeper problem than one of saltiness or bad imagery. This language undermines the department's fundamental mission, which is to fairly administer justice. Prosecutors help imprison people. The stakes are high, so the system should be above reproach.
Community groups have sought Selyem's firing, but union protections make that a longshot. Clearly, Selyem has every legal right to post any blather that he chooses. But in the private sector, people can easily be fired for inappropriate comments given how poorly they might reflect on the employer. In the government, firing is a tough road even though officials hold such powerful positions. My guess is that he'll eventually be reinstated after the brouhaha blows over.
"A prosecutor is different," said John Manly, a Newport Beach attorney who represents victims of crime. "Your job isn't to put people in jail. Your job is to administer justice." And the reported comments—about women, Mexicans, and a congresswoman—call into question whether a prosecutor can be unbiased. Manly agrees that the court system might end up revisiting some of the gang-related cases that Selyem has prosecuted. If district attorneys behave poorly, it has troubling results throughout our communities, as we see in Orange County after some mistrials were declared because of that DA's scandal involving the use of jailhouse snitches.
Prosecutors are supposed to be held to the highest possible standards. As the American Bar Association explains, "The prosecutor is an administrator of justice, an advocate, and an officer of the court; the prosecutor must exercise sound discretion in the performance of his or her functions." The above comments hardly epitomize the use of sound discretion. Furthermore, the ABA notes that "the duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict." Likewise, the reported social-media posts show no sense of justice, or even fairness or professionalism.
A local defense attorney defended Selyem to the San Bernardino Sun, arguing that he never saw these ideas influence Selyem's professional duties. That's certainly good to hear. But I'm more inclined to agree with the Los Angeles accountant who forwarded the social-media posts to this newspaper group: "A person that harbors these types of views, and feels such courage to espouse them with impunity, does not belong in the district attorney's office … . I fail to see how this man can be impartial in his solemn task of helping to seek truth and justice."
Indeed. It should go without saying, but it's hard to trust San Bernardino County's justice system if the district attorney's office doesn't deal firmly with this situation.
This column was first published by the Orange County Register. Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.