Mark Burnley was a colleague of mine at the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office for the past 23 years. Yesterday, Mark retired after a brilliant career of service to the nearly 10 million residents of Los Angeles County. Before leaving, Mark sent one last email to District Attorney George Gascon. It is as eloquent as it is revelatory of Gascon's first two years in office. Although addressed to George Gascon, it speaks to all registered voters in the county who need to know what is happening inside the world's largest local prosecutorial agency that serves the world's largest county and local court system. I have reprinted the letter here with the permission of its author Mark Burnley.
Dear Mr. Gascón, Today is my last day as a Los Angeles County DDA. I joined the office in late July 1999. I was previously a DDA in another county for almost four years. All told, I’ve been a prosecutor for nearly 28 years. I spent approximately 14 years as a line prosecutor, 4 years in a special unit, 4 years as a special assistant, and 6 years as a supervisor. There’s nothing unique or exemplary about my prosecutorial experience, especially when compared to the outstanding prosecutors in the office. But I certainly had far more experience and familiarity with the office than you, the chief deputy, the chief of staff, and your “special advisors.” Until December 2020, I thought I had the best job in the world. I was proud of the work I did. I enjoyed working with law enforcement, witnesses, and victims. Contrary to what you think, I know to a moral certainty that LA County prosecutors do their very best to honor and respect the rights of suspects and defendants. I will not miss the job as nearly as much as I will miss the wonderful DDAs, support staff, and investigators I called my colleagues for the past 23 years. These people are a remarkable group of hardworking, dedicated professionals with integrity, courage, and the unwavering desire to do the right thing. I am constantly amazed by the expertise and knowledge of the DDAs in this office. They are deeply devoted and have a breathtaking amount of experience. It’s a shame you cannot or will not recognize that. Like a lot of my fellow DDAs, I agree that criminal justice reform is needed. I am in favor of alternative sentencing programs, assuming they are funded and actually provide needed services to qualified defendants. I support diversion programs for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, as well as mental health courts. Again, these programs need to be adequately funded and cannot merely be window dressing for meaningful criminal justice reform. I also believe that serious and violent crimes must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and vigorously prosecuted when appropriate. Bright-lines rules based on flawed, cherry-picked “science and data” and ignorance results in unnecessary and entirely foreseeable harm to victims. I’d like to share some of my experiences over the last two years. Approximately two weeks before you were sworn in, I received a phone call from Judge Kathy Mader, who was apparently part of your transition team. I was assigned to her preliminary hearing court at LAX in 2001-2002. I always got along well with her and enjoyed being assigned to her court. Judge Mader told me that you were not going to institute any dramatic policy changes. The conversation was positive, and, based on her comments and questions, I was cautiously optimistic that your new administration would make a concerted and serious effort to get to know and work with us. On the morning before you were sworn in, I received another call from Judge Mader. Somewhat flustered, she told me you were going to make immediate changes after being sworn in. The call certainly called into question your managerial ability, as you seemingly kept your own transition team in the dark. It also made me reconsider my naïve optimism. I subsequently read the special directives in stunned disbelief. Fifteen minutes of basic legal research would have been more than enough to modify the policies to conform with the law. Later that day, you hosted a Zoom meeting with the Head Deputies, Assistant Head Deputies, and Deputies-In-Charge in the office. You exhibited a staggering lack of prosecutorial experience and knowledge. For example, you seemed completely unaware of how your policies would impact hate crime and financial crime prosecutions. The combination of arrogance and inexperience was obvious.
The potential legal or ethical issues with your policies could have been addressed had you decided to sit down with the office’s subject matter experts. The DA’s Office has some of the most accomplished prosecutors in the nation who are frequently consulted by other prosecutorial agencies. But from the beginning you instead chose a divisive, adversarial approach. You discounted and delegitimized the dedication and experience of over 900 deputy district attorneys. Clearly you and your “staff” were and still are completely overwhelmed by and unprepared to run an organization as large and complex as the Los Angeles County DA’s Office. For some unfathomable reason you either failed to or refused to consult with the existing managers for guidance and assistance. Instead, you chose to insult us and destroy office morale
I find it particularly infuriating when you and your supporters complain that DDAs “follow the law” whenever doing so interferes with your goals and policies. I seem to remember taking an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution as well as the California constitution when I was sworn in as an attorney.
You have engaged in systemic, retaliatory transfers of DDAs who speak truth to power by pointing out flaws in your policies. These transfers dilute and/or eliminate institutional knowledge. You have also shattered the personal and professional lives of scores of people who decided to devote their legal educations to public service. Litigation and settlements will end up costing the county millions of dollars, although you seem to care little about such details.
In their place, you selected bureau directors, head deputies, assistant head deputies, and special assistants/special advisors based not on ability but for their fealty. The chief deputy, chief of staff, several bureau directors, numerous head deputies, and most special assistants are mediocre attorneys and/or uninspiring leaders who would have been kept out of management positions in a competently run office.
I have had few direct interactions with your administration since you took office over two years ago. To my knowledge neither you nor anyone on your executive management team have ever tried to meet the office’s head deputies, assistant head deputies, or deputies-in-charge. I have been profoundly unimpressed on the rare occasions I was able to speak with you, the chief deputy, the chief of staff, or a special assistant. You and your administration realize you lack the legal skills and background to interact with more experienced prosecutors. This intellectual inferiority complex results in the near total lack of transparency in managerial decisions and the refusal to interact as professionals.
I’ve known and worked with many DDAs over the course of my career, and it greatly saddens me when more than a few turned against the rest of the office in order to advance their own careers. They should be ashamed of themselves, but their egos and sense of entitlement dictate their actions.
It’s an absolute shame the Board of Supervisors, the California Attorney General, and the local news media are purposely ignoring your incompetence. The citizens of Los Angeles County will never get a full and complete picture of how badly you treat the office’s dedicated and professional public servants.
Although you have turned the office into a managerial dumpster fire, all is not lost. The spirit and dedication of the DDAs, support staff, and investigators is what drives the office, not you. The office will continue to provide equal justice under the law to all the citizens of Los Angeles County.
Hopefully you will display more humility and less arrogance during the remainder of your term. What have you learned from the two recall efforts? It takes courage and integrity to conduct an honest self-assessment; I doubt you’re up to the task.
Authored by Retired Deputy District Attorney Mark Burnley