State lawmakers ask attorney general to probe disgraced San Bernardino County prosecutor’s past cases
Did racism and bigotry seep into the prosecutions of alleged gang members in San Bernardino County?
Four members of the state Legislature are beseeching California’s attorney general to open an investigation into Michael Selyem, head of the hard-core gang unit of the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, in the aftermath of revelations about Selyem’s offensive and highly partisan social media posts.
“Without question, it is appalling when anyone makes these comments,” said the letter signed by Assembly members Freddie Rodriguez, D-Pomona, Eloise Reyes, D-Grand Terrace, Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, and Sen. Connie Levya, D-Chino.
“But, as a prosecutor, member of law enforcement, and an officer of the court, such activity takes on a different significance,” their letter said. “This reprehensible behavior is contrary to the canons of legal and professional ethics and invites the question of whether, in any way, such discriminatory, racist, and bigoted beliefs impacted or affected his judgment relating to the prosecution of any case he tried before a court of law, including plea agreements, and those in which he was directly or indirectly involved or supervised.”
The legislators don’t want to impede the San Bernardino County district attorney’s own investigation into Selyem, but said, “it is important to know whether the civil rights of any individual was affected by the Deputy District Attorney due to the questions raised regarding his beliefs and exercise of legal judgment in the performance of his duties.”
The Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the letter.
Offensive social media posts
Selyem’s posts on Facebook and Instagram targeted outspoken U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, former first lady Michelle Obama, Mexican immigrants and the victim of a police shooting. Of Waters, Selyem said: “Being a loud-mouthed (expletive) in the ghetto you would think someone would have shot this bitch by now …”
In an online argument with someone over the police shooting of a civilian, Selyem 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.”
Selyem apparently is an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump. Beneath a Facebook post offering free tickets to Trump’s presidential inauguration, Selyem wrote: “I love that all of you liberal f—–g p—–s are so filled with hate. Gonna be a long 8 years for you scumbags. choo choo trump”
Selyem also posted a doctored picture of Michelle Obama holding a sign saying, “Trump grabbed my penis,” and a photo of a man in a giant sombrero with the words, “Mexican word of the day: Hide.”
Many of the gang members in San Bernardino County are Latino.
“We cannot allow our system of justice to harbor individuals who may be prejudiced and have authority that may substantially and detrimentally change the life of another,” the Legislators said in their letter to Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
Selyem’s comments were first reported by the Southern California News Group on July 6 and sparked national outrage, with many community groups and civil rights activists demanding his dismissal.
Selyem is on paid leave as an internal investigation by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office continues. His pay last year as a deputy district attorney was $148,842, according to state controller’s data published by Transparent California. His benefits totaled $59,821, for total compensation of $208,663.
In addition, Selyem collected $48,114 last year in disability payments from the Orange County Employees Association, according to the data. Selyem retired from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department after almost eight years as a sheriff’s deputy, the Sheriff’s Department said.
Neither OCERS nor the Sheriff’s Department would explain why Selyem qualified for such an early retirement, citing privacy concerns.
The four legislators argue that Becerra’s office should, at the least, be involved in the San Bernardino County D.A.’s probe, “as a neutral and transparent agency to ensure the integrity of any internal investigation.”
A deputy district attorney has a duty to maintain the integrity of the legal profession in accordance with the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, they said. “Unfortunately, Deputy District Attorney Michael Selyem has broken that sacred trust, and might have violated professional ethics.”
Mary Boland, a former prosecutor in New York who is now a composition professor at Cal State San Bernardino, would agree.
“Generally speaking, lawyers have a duty to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. This is especially important for prosecutors, whose work affects the very liberty of others,” she said via email.
“In this case, Mr. Selyem’s comments were overtly racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, and transphobic,” Boland said. “While his expressed attitudes cannot be mistaken for evidence of misconduct in the cases he’s prosecuted, they do fairly undermine public confidence in his work. I am relieved that the SBDA’s office is conducting an internal investigation and reconsidering his fitness to serve.”
Civil rights groups call for action
Selyem’s posts prompted rallies last week by civil rights activists outside the District Attorney’s Office and the San Bernardino County Government Center. The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. held a news conference at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in San Bernardino calling for Selyem’s disbarment.
Los Angeles civil rights activist Najee Ali said Thursday he filed a complaint with the State Bar of California on July 13. He and members of his organization, Project Islamic Hope, also took to social media, encouraging others to file complaints with the State Bar. Ali said that, as of Thursday, he had not heard back from the agency that disciplines lawyers.
On July 9, political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, complained to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, demanding federal criminal charges be filed against Selyem for threatening a congresswoman. On Thursday, he said via email he was still awaiting a response from the Department of Justice.
State Bar spokesman Jonah Lamb could neither confirm nor deny receipt of the complaints, but did say it is office policy to send letters to complainants acknowledging receipt of their complaints and to keep them updated on the status of any investigation that is launched.
“If the allegations prove to be true, then I would hope that he would resign from his position,” said Yvonne Gonzalez Duncan, state director for the California League of United Latin American Citizens.
Others want stronger action. “It seems to me that the incidents cited should warrant firing,” said Zeke Hernandez, president of the Santa Ana branch of the League of Latin American Citizens No. 147.
Representatives for Jackson and Waters did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Staff Writer Tony Saavedra contributed to this report.
Below is the complete list of all the closed criminal cases San Bernardino County lead gang prosecutor Michael Selyem had been assigned in his 12 years with the District Attorney’s Office. The cases highlighted in yellow were ones Selyem made court appearances on but was not assigned. Cases Selyem was prosecuting at the time he was placed on paid administrative leave on July 9 have been reassigned to other prosecutors. A list of those cases are below.
This is a list of San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Michael Selyem’s open cases he was prosecuting at the time he was placed on paid leave on July 9. The cases have since been reassigned to other prosecutors, District Attorney Mike Ramos said.
Updated 11.48 p.m. with Sen. Connie Levya as a signatory to the letter