Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Choice for State's Attorney

Marilyn Mosby is the most incompetent state's attorney Baltimore has had in my 30 years as a city resident (21 of which I spent in the state's attorney's office.)   Crime has exploded on her watch, and despite her shucking of all responsibility, much of the blame lies with her.  

First, her ethically and legally flawed prosecution of the Freddie Gray "six" produced a profoundly chilling effect on the police department, which could not depend on Mosby to apply the law and facts without bias as it did its work.  Second, she has decimated the State's Attorney's Office, which now lacks the experience and talent to successfully focus resources on fighting crime.  Mosby was not qualified for the job to begin with, and has since demonstrated an unfitness of temperament and judgment to learn anything along the way.

But right now a vote for or against Mosby is a referendum on the Freddie Gray case.   I believe that most city voters who don't understand the law or know how she has destroyed her office will want to reward her for "trying" to do something about police brutality.  Only the passage of more time and escalating suffering at the hands of violent criminals will change that.

Nevertheless, one can hope for a change, although my faint hopes were nearly extinguished when neither one of her two challengers withdrew before the ballot deadline.   A split non-Mosby vote ensures four more years of Mosby ineffectiveness.

But despite my pessimism, I still choose to vote.  On the eve of early voting, for those who want to know my opinion, here it is.

Thiru Vignarajah  is a very smart man, smarter than me, and smarter than Ivan Bates, the other challenger.   He has a plan to fight violent crime that he could very well put in place.  (By the way, all the "plans" sound alike.  Focus on violent offenders, provide treatment for the non-violent, etc. etc.  For me, the devil is in the details, and most especially in one's ability to execute those details.)  Vignarajah appears to understand how to implement a strategy better than  Bates.  I also believe he is the harder worker, who will pour energy into the job. 

Bates is a likable man who came up through the ranks in the city prosecutor's office.  He spent less than two years in the homicide unit, his last stop, before leaving for criminal defense work, so his claim of being "undefeated" in prosecuting murder cases always struck me as hyberbolic.  He got into a spat with Mosby (who tried no murder cases) and Vignarajah about it the other day, but what bothered me more than an exaggerated claim was Bates' resort to a silly conspiracy theory:  that Vignarajah was in the race to benefit Mosby.  Voters don't need more garbage to sort through, especially from someone who wants to be the top law enforcement attorney.

I don't believe that Bates is the high-energy, strategic thinker that Vignarajah is, but he is a competent and intelligent attorney.  I think he will improve recruitment and retention in the prosecutor's office, and will bring in the people who can help him execute a focused plan.  He is not an egotist, someone who thinks he knows better than anybody else, and he will listen, both critical qualities in a leader. 

On strategical thinking, on physical energy, I give the nod to Vignarajah, though I expect Bates to do fine.  But there's a final category that's very important to me: ethics.  Vignarajah came over from the U.S. Attorney's office to lead a special crime-fighting unit for then-State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein.  There he demonstrated the smarts to learn quickly and create strategies.  But he also raised concerns about ethics, both in discovery (turning required evidence over to the defense) and in charging.  In his zeal to attain certain objectives, he was not always careful to heed to each ethical standard, causing alarm among well-respected colleagues.  To me, behavior like this is a symptom of ambition, a willingness to short-cut rules to achieve pre-set goals.  Ambition in politics is expected and normalized.  But ambition for something other than adherence to rules and ethics in a prosecutor scares me.  You know, like what Mosby did.

And then there's his judgment when it comes to women.  He promoted a young woman to his special unit who lacked not only the amount of experience that other applicants had, but the minimum experience needed for the position.  And when he left the State's Attorney's Office for the Attorney General's Office, he changed the qualification requirements so that he could hire her there, too.  (They have since been changed back.)

And while at the Attorney General's office, during the course of an attempted sexual encounter, he gave out information about his office that he admitted would be "really bad" if it came out publicly.  Unluckily for Vignarajah, the woman he pursued was not looking for sex but for suckers to compromise themselves on hidden camera.  

Bates is no saint, either.  As a defense attorney, he once admitted to others that he attempted a "trick" in court that he had learned from another defense attorney,  But when called out and investigated for it, he testified that he had not been involved.

I don't like what Bates did as a defense attorney, but I dislike even more ethical compromising from an ambitious prosecutor.   The first duty must always be to the law and the facts, and decisions can't be influenced by personal desires.  

Vignarajah told me how much money he could raise to defeat Mosby.  He failed to deliver.  As of the last fundraising statement, through May 15, Bates had raised more (if one doesn't count the $250,000 Vignarajah loaned to his own campaign.)  Rather than becoming the leading challenger, Vignarajah will play the spoiler.  

So Ivan Bates for State's Attorney.  And whoever wins, God help the city of Baltimore. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Rod Rosenstein, American Hero

It is curious--curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.   
                    --Mark Twain

     I met Rod Rosenstein one time, back in 2008 when I asked if I could interview him in his role as Maryland's U.S. Attorney.  I was a recently retired local prosecutor writing a little blog with a limited audience.  But he agreed, and gave me all the time I wanted to ask questions.

    I told Rosenstein what I thought:  that despite the eagerness of local officials to claim credit for Baltimore's dramatic decrease in homicides, he deserved the credit for focusing federal efforts on violent and gun-wielding criminals.  Rosenstein demurred.  He talked only about the initiatives he presided over and praised the cooperation of his local law enforcement partners.  His display of utter professionalism left a deep imprint upon me. 

     So I was surprised to read last year that he had taken the job of Deputy Attorney General.  To me, Donald Trump's lawlessness was so apparent before the election that I wondered how any person of integrity could work for him.  But I decided that he, like many others, thought Trump was more bluster than danger, and that as a career federal attorney the post of Deputy Attorney General for the entire United States represented the pinnacle of his career.  He probably also thought he could do tremendous good from there. 

     Almost immediately Rosenstein found himself skewered with liberal contempt for writing a memo used by Trump as a pretext for firing FBI director James Comey.  Again, I have no knowledge of Rosenstein's motivations or whether he knew how the memo would be used.  But I read his memo, and Rosenstein was exactly right in what he wrote:  Comey had on more than one occasion acted improperly in his FBI role, beginning with his scathing public criticism of Hillary Clinton when he declined to recommend charges against her.  If his boss had asked him to write his opinion of Comey's actions, there would be no reason for Rosenstein to refuse.  Most importantly, what he wrote was correct.  He didn't lie to serve a corrupt master.

     So while many in the liberal community distrusted Rosenstein, I felt confident that he, now in charge of the Russian investigation, would do the right thing.   I felt a thrill when he appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel (and read Mueller's simple but profound response:  “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability.”)  Rosenstein brilliantly picked the one person everyone agreed would be non-political, who would follow the evidence and the law wherever they led him, whether liberals or conservatives liked the results or not.  Only as evidence seemingly mounted against Trump did he and his stooges mount their campaign to discredit Mueller and Rosenstein, to the point of labeling them mob bosses.  (There are no suitable words I can think of to describe this conduct.  They are the actions of morally degraded persons who care nothing for what made American great, the dedication to the rule of law etablished by a constitutional and democratic process.)

     For the entire length of his service as deputy attorney general Rosenstein has performed his duties with a figurative guillotine over his head.  Yet he has consistently maintained in the face of Trumpian pressure that there is no cause to fire Mueller.  And he had to know he would trigger the descent of that guillotine by referring an investigation into Trump lawyer Michael Cohen to federal prosecutors in New York.  Unlike some, who transition back and forth from public service to private law firms, Rosenstein has spent his entire career as a federal attorney, and loss of his job will sting him more than most.  He may also be saying goodbye to a federal judgeship, if he wanted that.  But Rosenstein has acted courageously anyway, in stark contrast to all the toadies who have groveled and dissembled or actively subverted justice.  (Devin Nunes is our modern Joe McCarthy -- or McCarthy junior, after Trump.)

     Worse than potential loss of job has got to be the endurance of all the barbs, lies and despicable characterizations.  That is probably why moral courage is harder to come by.  Physical courage contains no ambiguity.  One runs into the fire, or falls on the grenade, and everyone agrees about courage.  But those who whistleblow, or defy unethical bosses, or speak truth to power, are objects of suspicion at best and public humiliation and loss of livelihood (or, in other countries, life) at the other end.  Yet they act anyway.

     Rosenstein would probably demur again at the credit I am giving him, like Acting Attorney General Sally Yates after she was fired by Trump for telling him the unpleasant truth about his national security advisor Michael Flynn.  ("I was just doing my job.")  Doing one's job is very difficult when it means crossing a power greater than oneself.   

    Rosenstein, Mueller and Yates make me proud that I chose prosecution as my career.  The discipline it takes to stick to evidence, obey the rules, and ignore politics is nutured in that profession, and they are shining examples of ethical public servants, champions of the rule of law and unsullied by politics.    

     Here's to you, Rod.  

Monday, February 26, 2018

One Chance, Two Many Choices

Baltimore is facing a local election more important than anything else - the governor's race, congressional seats, assembly seats, everything else.

State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby is up for re-election.  The Mosby who immediately upon taking office in 2015 proved her unfitness, first by purging experienced prosecutors for grudge reasons and then by persecuting six police officers for the death of Freddie Gray who were innocent of any crime.

I won't reiterate the facts of that folly.   Here is what relevant now:  that Mosby and her team have presided over a rate of crime that exploded with her Freddie Gray prosecution and shows no sign of abating.

And while the Police Department hasn't helped matters with a corrupt Gun Trace Task Force that the feds had to bring down (in a real prosecution), the fact remains that no good cop on the street can do his or her job with any confidence that the city's top prosecutor won't charge them criminally for any mistake or accident that occurs on their watch.  No wonder the Police Department faces problems recruiting qualified candidates.  And what lawyer of any competence and experience would want to work for Mosby?  Criminals are walking free on her watch and the crime rate proves it.  

Fortunately, we have two men ready to challenge Mosby, willing to take on the herculean task of repairing the damage she has done to both the prosecutor's office and the police department.  Unfortunately, we have one challenger too many.   

Most city residents outside the criminal justice community do not understand Mosby's incompetence.  What they see is a young African American woman who "tried" to do something about bad police officers.  Many are willing to blame the "system" for her failure, and credit her for taking it on.  

So to defeat Mosby, the challenger will have to make people understand not that Mosby has made them less safe, but that he can make them more safe.  It's a delicate tightrope to walk.   He will need low voter turnout, an energized base of his own, and one more crucial component:  the ability to get every single non-Mosby vote. 

Instead we have two challengers to divide that vote, neither of whom agree with me.   Both Ivan Bates and Thiru Vignarajah told me that while having a second challenger makes the task of defeating Mosby more difficult, each believes he can win anyway.  Vignarajah is counting on his fundraising ability, and Bates on his church base.  

Which candidate do I prefer?  It doesn't matter, because the presence of both of them will re-elect Mosby.  Two of them equals four more years of Mosby.   Perhaps city residents need that extra four years of high crime to convince them that Mosby needs to go.  I just shudder at the cost. 

I respect and admire Bates and Vignarajah for their efforts.  Being a serious candidate for any office is one of the most difficult and energy-sapping endeavors I can think of, especially in an era of anonymously vile internet attacks that candidates must ignore.  And I hope that I am wrong and they are right, that one of them will defeat Mosby. 

If both men file to run for State's Attorney this week then I will offer my view for voters wondering what to do, for what it's worth.  But here's hoping one of them puts the defeat of Mosby above their own candidacy.