Wednesday, July 2, 2014
Postmortem for a State's Attorney
"What's that Bernstein doing anyway?"
Every time my mother asked me that question over the past few years, I knew Baltimore state's attorney Gregg Bernstein was in trouble with voters.
My mother reads the paper and watches the news regularly. But Bernstein wasn't penetrating her consciousness. She knew I had supported his election when he upset incumbent Patricia Jessamy in 2010, so she turned to me for insight. Unfortunately, I had none to give her.
For me, the warning bells began the same month he took office. Bernstein seemed to listen to just one adviser: his wife, Sheryl Goldstein, chief of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, who unofficially ruled over the police department. Bernstein let Goldstein choose his closest staff. My friends jumped on me for criticizing him for this so early, but I felt a deep unease. It was very unsettling, having the police choose the state's attorney's leadership.
In listening only to his wife, Bernstein failed to heed anyone with intimate knowledge and long experience with the prosecutor's office. He did what Martin O'Malley did as mayor: run up to New York to import a new strategy into Baltimore. I personally implored Bernstein to talk with Jim Green, an attorney in the police department and a former city and federal prosecutor. Green was a goldmine--a career public servant who defined the word "service," who was always working on creative ideas based on his broad experience. Green (who is now a judge) could have cut Bernstein's learning curve in half.
But Goldstein had shunted Green aside in the police department, hostile to any ideas but her own. Bernstein took his cue from her, as he did in other matters. For example, in a domestic violence "stat" meeting, Goldstein put forth a plan for handling reports of domestic assault. Two police supervisors and the chief of Bernstein's domestic violence division politely and professionally disagreed. One police supervisor was reprimanded and the other transferred. It's easier to get rid of prosecutors: Bernstein fired his chief. No alternative views allowed.
So what about Bernstein's own ideas, his crime plan and promises for improvement? I heard Bernstein give his first report to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council a year after his election. His oral presentation featured generalities and assertions, but zero factual support. He said it was too "early." Yet he never figured out a way to impress upon the public how many criminals he indicted, what they were accused of doing, or the impact he was having with his strategy. As the murder rate climbed upward, Bernstein remained practically invisible.
Bernstein also told me that his first priority, a year into his term, was to move from the courthouse to new offices. I was stunned. Citizens weren't the least bit interested in fancy new offices that cost taxpayers $1 million per year. They wanted to know what he was doing about crime.
Bernstein promised "transparency" but his favorite phrase was "no comment." He took forever to post his promised conviction rates, but when he did they told us nothing about his crime-fighting strategy or its impact.
Bernstein never relished the public side of being State's Attorney, the part where he had to keep listening to citizens and demonstrating his deep concern for the city. He needed to be visible enough that ordinary people like my mother could form an impression. (She liked, for example, former police commissioner Fred Bealefeld, who made her believe that he cared and was trying.) Bernstein asked for the job, the citizens gave it to him, and he needed to tend to them. He knew--he told me he knew--that he needed at least two terms to make his improvements stick. But he refused to do what it took to make that happen. This isn't hindsight: in defending Bernstein from a media attack in 2011, I also tried to warn him.
It wasn't for his personal career that I wish Bernstein had worked on his public perception, but the city's. Too much turnover in police and prosecutor agencies, where experience is crucial to success, is not healthy. Mayor O'Malley demonstrated how to decimate a police department with his four police chiefs in seven years. Experienced people leave with each change. New systems that have barely been integrated get junked in favor of new ones, and the agency starts again. Change when needed--like it was when Bernstein was elected --is a good thing. Change just for change is not.
Marilyn Mosby, who just defeated Bernstein in the primary election, lacks the experience to fully comprehend the enormity of the task in front of her, let alone be able to hit the ground running. And the state's attorney's office will hemorrhage experienced people these next six lame-duck months, making the task that much harder. It doesn't mean that Mosby, should she win in November, can't eventually succeed. But her learning curve will be very steep and at public expense.
But neither am I crying that Bernstein got tossed. It isn't just that he wouldn't listen, or that he refused to embrace the public aspect of his job. Call me naive, but I still like to see integrity in my top prosecutor. Am I accusing Bernstein of lacking it? I will just tell this story:
Not long after his election, Bernstein made a very good hire. He asked Janice Bledsoe, a defense attorney in private practice, to take the job of investigating police officers accused of breaking the law. After giving Bernstein's offer careful thought, Bledsoe closed down her law practice and became a prosecutor. She got high marks from the police department for the work she did.
Then Bernstein's office was asked to investigate two police commanders suspected of submitting phony overtime claims. One of them, Robert Quick, had been represented by Bernstein some years back when Bernstein was a private attorney. Bledsoe very properly and ethically asked Bernstein whether he might have a conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. This was a good prosecutor attempting to ensure that the public could have confidence in her boss's decisions. Bernstein should have said yes, and asked another prosecutor's office to handle the investigation.
Not only did Bernstein refuse, he fired Bledsoe. He sent her packing with no explanation, just dumped her back into the world of private practice, except she had no practice to which to return, having sacrificed it to work for him.
And then he publicly lied. He proclaimed that Bledsoe "left to pursue other opportunities."
Bernstein cleared his old client, Quick. And now we know from a recent TV news investigation that while Bernstein was supposedly looking into the phony overtime scheme, Quick and Bernstein's wife were exchanging friendly, personal e-mails, including requests from Quick to wish "Gregg happy Father's Day" and to "Say 'hi' to Gregg."
The State's Attorney is dead, and I can't bring myself to mourn.