I read Mike Geniella's May 24, 2006, article on Norm Vroman in the Press Democrat.
Before that article was published, I kept silent to the press about the Mendocino County District Attorney's race, as have the other Deputy District Attorneys. Certainly, as thinking adults, and just like any other informed county resident, we have our own political views, including views on the District Attorney's race. However, it has been generally understood within the office that the three candidates are quite capable of speaking for themselves.
And while each of us in our individual capacity as a County prosecutor may be affected by County politics, ours is not a political position. Our duty, regardless of who is the elected District Attorney, is to tell the truth and to speak up when the truth is not being told.
It is not my intention in this letter to tell the people of Mendocino County whom they should elect for District Attorney, although I will tell anyone who asks who I voted for and the reasons why. This letter is not an endorsement of a candidate, but an attempt to ensure the voters make their decision based on the truth.
I read the news to be informed. With the exception of an editorial piece, I look for and expect journalistic reporting that I can trust to be based on verifiable facts. I form my own opinions based on those verifiable facts.
It is for these reasons that I am writing. The content of the May 24th Press Democrat article misinforms the public about the Mendocino County District Attorney, Norm Vroman, and the District Attorney's Office. The timing of its publication appears to be an attempt to influence the outcome of the current election, rather than to accurately inform the public. In an attempt to impugn the character of the current District Attorney, the article impugns the integrity of each hardworking and dedicated employee, attorney, investigator, and support staff, of the Mendocino District Attorney's Office.
I believe it is proper and ethical for the editor of the Press Democrat to use the paper to endorse a candidate other than Norm Vroman. However, I believe it is improper and unethical to use the news to misinform the public about key facts on key issues in a pending District Attorney's race to benefit the paper's endorsed candidate. It is apparent that the writer and the paper sacrificed journalistic integrity in reporting on the Mendocino County District Attorney's race to influence the outcome of the race.
The content of the article is not based on verifiable facts, although the true facts were and are easily verifiable:
It is not true that the Mendocino District Attorney's Office "with little oversight" has spent "$100,000 in public funds to buy submachine guns, silencers, thousands of rounds of ammunition, a gun safe for his personal office and on firearms training."
The truth was, and still is, easily verifiable:
1. County Auditor records do not show the District Attorney spent $100,000 on guns, silencers, ammunition, a gun safe, and firearms training. If those records exist, publish them, along with the Auditor's statement to Mr. Geniella that "our records are not complete." Include Mr. Geniella's statement to Mr. Vroman that he [Mr. Geniella] did not believe the Auditor's records were accurate because "they don't even add up."
2. The Press Democrat's own numbers published in the body of the article add up to $53,667, half the banner headline amount.
3. Asset Forfeiture: Not all persons who are convicted of a crime have their assets seized. Asset forfeiture money comes from only those assets seized from people convicted of specific crimes where it was also proved — in a separate hearing — that the seized assets were the profits or proceeds of a criminal enterprise, usually drug manufacturing or sales. How asset forfeiture money is seized, collected, allocated to law enforcement agencies (including the DA), and spent (including the DA) is controlled by state law. A copy of the statute is attached.
4. All "oversight" of asset forfeiture procedure and proceeds statewide is done by the State of California, Department of Justice, not the local county. If any impropriety with asset forfeiture funds was suspected or found, it would be documented by the State of California. No such impropriety by the Mendocino County District Attorney has been found or suspected by the state agency charged with the duty to oversee the proper use of asset forfeiture funds. A copy of the DOJ accounting from 2005 is available for the asking.
5. The District Attorney's Office did use the profit and proceeds of criminal enterprises seized from convicted criminals to buy office computers, office technology, peace officer vehicles, and to train and equip prosecutors and investigators. The District Attorney's Office also spent drug seizure money on the Mendocino Youth Project, which is a drug education and rehabilitation component of the juvenile drug court.
6. There is not a gun safe in Mr. Vroman's office. I know because I have been inside his office. Mr. Geniella need only have looked for himself. Mr. Vroman's office is open to the public. Anyone can, and many do every day, visit in Mr. Vroman's public office.
7. There is a gun safe in the District Attorney's Office because that is where guns are safely stored. The gun safe is in with the sworn peace officers employed by the District Attorney's Office. Only the sworn peace officers employed by the District Attorney's Office have access to the gun safe.
8. Mr. Vroman does not have an MP5 or any other submachine gun in his office.
9. The District Attorney's Office did not purchase and does not have any MP5 submachine guns "the most common SWAT weapons for law enforcement." The District Attorney's Office did purchase two weapons called "select-fire" rifles that may be fired one shot at a time, in two round bursts, or fully automatic. The sworn peace officers in the District Attorney's Office are trained to use these weapons for staff, court, and witness protection. Since September 11, 2001, all sworn peace officers, which includes District Attorney investigators, are trained and available for Homeland Security purposes.
The District Attorney's Office does not have any "silencers." There is significant difference between a firearm "silencer" and "suppressor." According to Wikipedia Encyclopedia:
"A suppressor, also commonly (but incorrectly) known as a silencer, is a device attached to a firearm to reduce the amount of noise and flash generated by firing the weapon. It generally takes the form of a cylindrically-shaped metallic tube that is fitted into the barrel of the firearm, with various internal mechanisms to reduce the sound of firing by manipulating the escaping propellant gas, and sometimes by reducing the velocity of the bullet. The internal combustion engine muffler or silencer is descended from the firearm suppressor, and applies many of the same techniques to engine exhaust to provide quieter running engines."
Once the purpose of a suppressor is considered and understood, the safety benefit of reduced noise and flash to a law-enforcement team working in close quarters is obvious.
In addition to directly misinforming the public with bad facts, the opinions of Larry Scoufos, Andy Cuellar, and Brenda Grantman are out of context, incomplete and inaccurate.
The sum total of Mr. Geniella's journalistic investigative reporting on asset forfeiture was to contact "a deputy Alameda County district attorney who advises other counties on asset forfeiture requirements, [who] said it's usually a 'political decision' in every county on how the forfeiture money is spent."
That's it? What does "political decision" mean? Does that mean District Attorney Norm Vroman acted appropriately? What about Health and Safety Code section 11495, which authorizes asset forfeiture proceedings to take place and establishes oversight procedures?
How or why would a Marin County attorney who is president of an organization whose acronym is "FEAR" know why "the Mendocino County District Attorney's Office needs two submachine guns?" What are her qualifications to offer such an opinion? Since she is opposed to asset forfeitures in all cases, perhaps she has some bias? Did she really say that Norm Vroman, or just "some public officials" see asset forfeiture funds as their "own personal party money"? Is there any evidence to support that statement, if she even said it, about Norm Vroman? By any standard, how can this be considered reasonable, responsible, or objective reporting?
How or why would a deputy district attorney in Sonoma County know if "any district attorney" purchased a submachine gun? He didn't know 65% of the other District Attorney Offices had some form of automatic weapon for their sworn peace officers.
Perhaps the wrong person or persons are being asked the questions.
1. Why not ask the District Attorney of Sonoma County? His name is Stephan Passalacqua. His website is www.sonoma-county.org.
2. Why not ask the California District Attorney's Association (CDAA)? Get the facts from the organization to which all of the elected District Attorneys belong. The website is www.cdaa.org. All of the contact information is available at that site.
3. Why not ask the State of California, Department of Justice? The website is ag.ca.gov. They have a 407-page manual and report in PDF format. Go to page 154, where every asset forfeiture dollar is accounted for that was collected in Mendocino County.
According to Bill Lockyer, California Attorney General:
"The goal of asset forfeiture is to remove the profits from those who benefit from the illegal drug trade. Illegal drug trafficking diverts money from lawful commerce to illegal activity. While drug seizures and arrests present a temporary setback for drug traffickers, asset forfeiture takes away proceeds from them and diminishes their ability to continue the illegal enterprise ... Law enforcement agencies are permitted by law to use the proceeds of forfeiture to purchase safe, more effective equipment they otherwise could not afford. Thus, law enforcement is able to convert criminal profits into supplemental funding, which in turn, is used to inhibit the illegal drug trade."
That is what the District Attorney's Office has done and continues to do.
That is what every Deputy District Attorney would expect any future District Attorney to do. That is exactly what Norm Vroman has done over the last eight years.
Critical scrutiny of public and elected officials, including the District Attorney, is clearly recognized as the news media's duty to the public. However, that duty requires fair and accurate scrutiny.
Norm Vroman would be the first to admit that he is not above that scrutiny and, quite frankly, for right or for wrong, has drawn his fair share. Political ax grinding, however, is irreconcilable with fair and accurate scrutiny, and thus has no place in news reporting. Political ax grinding is for the editorial page. Mr. Geniella's article was nothing more that a political hatchet job on Norm Vroman.
If there is any question about the Mendocino County District Attorney's Office, go to www.co.mendocino.ca.us/da and take a look at who we are and what we do. Look at the 2004-2005 biennial report. It has the data to support what we do. Or, call me at my direct line 707-463-6517.
(Keith Faulder is Assistant District Attorney for Mendocino County.)