By Mark Gutglueck
District attorney Mike Ramos and one of his deputy prosecutors have left uncontroverted a report emanating from their office that they conspired to divert public money and personnel to support Ramos’ political efforts.
At the basis of the matter was an effort by both Ramos and deputy district attorney Dan Silverman to pressure the board of supervisors, in particular supervisors James Ramos and Robert Lovingood, to up district attorney’s office spokesman Christopher Lee’s salary by $21,000 while Lee engaged himself in an electioneering effort on behalf of Mike Ramos.
The central piece of evidence implicating both Mike Ramos and Silverman are emails they sent to James Ramos, who is no blood relation to Mike Ramos, and Lovingood in which the requests to advance Lee by six pay grades are clearly spelled out or reiterated. Though the emails from Mike Ramos and Silverman, which are in the main authored by Silverman, lay out the salary enhancements that are being sought for Lee, there is no mention of the justification for providing him the raise nor direct mention that he is to simultaneously work on behalf of the Mike Ramos campaign.
Mike Ramos has been district attorney since he was sworn into office in January 2003, following his election in November 2002. He faced no opposition for reelection in 2006 and turned back challenges in 2010 and 2014, winning both of those contests in the June primary elections and avoiding runoffs in the November general elections. In November 2014, he announced he would seek election in 2018 as California Attorney General. After then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris in 2015 began preparations to run for the U.S. Senate in 2016, Ramos stated he would accept an earlier appointment as attorney general from Governor Edmund “Jerry” Brown if Harris was successful in her Senate bid.
Lee was hired to serve as the district attorney’s office public affairs officer in 2011 at an approximate annual salary of $86,000. Available public records show that he was paid a salary of $86,403.20 and $507.01 in other pay and $36,490.24 in benefits in 2012; $85,684.88 and $41,943.77 for a total compensation of $127,628.65 in 2013; $87,166.02 and $42,246.18 in benefits for a total compensation of $128,412.20 in 2014; $88,565.34 in salary and $13,009.36 in other pay and $46,320.66 in benefits for a total compensation of $147,895.36 in 2015; and $95,789.92 in salary and $47,218.30 in benefits for a total compensation of $143,008.22 in 2016.
At least as early as 2010, the year before Lee became the official spokesman for the district attorney’s office, he did work as an internet site designer for Mike Ramos’ reelection campaign.
Between January 1, 2010 and March 17, 2010 Mike Ramos’ reelection campaign paid Christopher Lee Web Design, which is based in Redlands, $1,500; between March 18, 2010 and May 22, 2010 the Ramos reelection campaign paid Christopher Lee Web Design $1,500; between May 23, 2010 and June 30, 2010 the Ramos reelection campaign paid Christopher Lee Web Design $1,500; between July 1, 2010 and December 31, 2010 the Ramos reelection campaign paid Christopher Lee Web Design $640; between January 1, 2011 and June 30, 2011, the Ramos reelection campaign paid Christopher Lee Web Design $600; between July 1, 2013 and December 31, 2013 the Ramos reelection campaign paid Christopher Lee Web Design $2,500; between January 1, 2014 and March 17, 2014 the Ramos reelection campaign paid Christopher Lee Web Design $1,000; between March 17 and May 17, 2014 the Ramos reelection campaign paid Christopher Lee Web Design $1,000; between May 18, 2014 and June 30, 2014 the Ramos reelection campaign paid Christopher Lee Web Design $500; and between July 1 and December 30, 2014, the Ramos reelection campaign paid Christopher Lee Web Design $3,150.
Thereafter, payments from the campaign to reelect Ramos as district attorney to Christopher Lee Web Design ended. At that point, Ramos had seemingly abandoned his quest to be reelected district attorney in 2018, concentrating instead on his effort to transition into the office of California Attorney General. While it is known that Lee constructed the website promoting Ramos’ bid for California Attorney General, the precise amount of money Christopher Lee Web Design was paid for that work was not immediately available this week, as the Mike Ramos For Attorney General 2018 committee did not make electronic filings of its campaign finance statements.
What is known is that as Mike Ramos was settling in to begin his fourth term as district attorney in the fall of 2014 in the aftermath of his reelection victory that June and was retooling his political machinery to make a stab at capturing the California Attorney General’s position four years later, deputy district attorney Dan Silverman, considered to be one of Mike Ramos’s most faithful office loyalists, sent an email from his district attorney’s office email address – DSilverman@sbcda.org – to both San Bernardino County Supervisor Robert Lovingood at his official county email address – firstname.lastname@example.org – and to Supervisor James Ramos at his official county email address – email@example.com. That email went out on November 4, 2015 at 9:47:09 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, with an electronic carbon copy to district attorney Mike Ramos at his official department email address – MRamos@sbcda.org. The email had for a subject line “District Attorney personnel reclassification information.” The body of the email reads as follows:
Mike Ramos has requested that I provide you with some information regarding his request for an equity salary increase for the District Attorney Public Affairs Officer, Christopher Lee.
The District Attorney is requesting that the PAO be changed to Salary Range 73 from Salary Range 67. This would cost the department approximately $21,000 annually (taking into account the increased marginal benefit cost).
It is important to note that the district attorney’s office is not requesting any additional general fund dollars for these two items. There is sufficient departmental funding through savings in other areas to cover these increases within our current budget.
If you or any member of your staff has any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me or have them contact me. I am happy to answer any questions that you or they may have.
Beneath the body of the email, Silverman provided his phone number and email address, identifying himself as “Special Assistant to the District Attorney.”
As if to emphasize that Silverman was speaking with the full authority of the district attorney’s office, 28 minutes later, at 10:15 a.m. Pacific Standard time on November 4, 2015, Mike Ramos forwarded from his email address, MRamos@sbcda.org, the electronic carbon copy of the email from Silverman to Lovingood and James Ramos, again to their respective official email addresses of firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. The sole change Mike Ramos made was to add at the top of the email the phrase “Need your help!”
In some fashion, word of Silverman’s effort on behalf of Lee spread to several members of the district attorney’s office staff, and a copy of the email chain was obtained and distributed among at least a handful of deputy prosecutors. Silverman’s effort on behalf of Lee garnered resentment because, the Sentinel has been told, promotions of district attorney’s office personnel normally occur at a glacial pace, in all but the rarest of cases being done on a gradual and incremental basis. And while deputy prosecutors do see increases to their salaries over time, those raises, referred to as steps, are granted only as a consequence of serving at each preceding and succeeding step a required number of hours. The progress up this remuneration ladder cannot, a deputy prosecutor said, under normal circumstances be artificially bypassed to allow employees to get salary advancement credit for having spent time in a given assignment that they did not actually work. What was requested for Mr. Lee was seemingly unheard of within the district attorney’s office, as no such mercurial rise involving an employing vaulting six pay grades could be recollected by anyone the Sentinel had access to. Indeed, within the district attorney’s office, the majority of prosecutors cannot realistically expect more than one or two promotions up the chain of command over the course of a typical 30-year career.
Moreover, one member of the department suggested Mr. Lee’s intended salary enhancement coming as it did when it did was meant as a creative way for Mike Ramos to recompense Lee for the continuing work he was engaged in toward Ramos’ political efforts, in particular Ramos seeking election to the California Attorney General position in 2018.
Utilizing taxpayer money for political purposes is illegal under California law. California Government Code § 19990, while stating it is applicable to state governmental employees without specifying government employees generally, holds “A state officer or employee shall not engage in any employment, activity, or enterprise which is clearly inconsistent, incompatible, in conflict with, or inimical to his or her duties as a state officer or employee.”
Government Code § 8314(a) states, “It is unlawful for any elected state or local officer, including any state or local appointee, employee, or consultant, to use or permit others to use public resources for a campaign activity, or personal or other purposes which are not authorized by law.”
Uses of public facilities, equipment, personnel or funds for political purposes can also be prosecuted under Penal Code § 424.
Indeed, Ramos has himself prosecuted and convicted at least one elected official, former assessor Bill Postmus, and several of his employees for conducting partisan political activity from a public office and while employed as public officers.
Ultimately, the board of supervisors balked at the $21,000 salary increase that was proposed for Lee in Silverman’s email. Nevertheless, the following year, 2015, Lee did see his $88,565.34 salary augmented by $13,009.36 in other pay, and in 2016 Lee did see his salary jump by $7,224.58 over the previous year, going from $88,565.34 to $95,789.92.
While the consideration that Lee did not get the raise specifically sought by Silverman and Mike Ramos might have obviated certain criminal implications in the matter, there is precedent for adjudging co-conspirators guilty of conspiring to engage in a crime without the crime being fully executed as planned.
The Sentinel achieved no response to its efforts to engage both Lee, as the district attorney’s office’s spokesman authorized to speak on behalf of Mike Ramos, and Silverman in discussions about what had transpired with the emails sent and forwarded to Lovingood and James Ramos .
Lee did not provide any response to pointed questions about what the basis for providing him with the proposed pay raise was or why the salary enhancement was warranted, whether his superiors in the office believed his skill level exceeded his job classification, whether he had discussed with Mike Ramos or Silverman the salary increase proposal prior to the posting of Silverman’s email to supervisors Lovingood and Ramos, whether the pay increase was meant to offset his work being done for Mike Ramos’ political campaign, if there was any concern that his receiving the increase in pay while working on Mike Ramos’ campaign might be an actual or perceived violation of the law and whether Silverman’s emails and Ramos’ forwarding of them might qualify as a criminal conspiracy to pressure James Ramos and Robert Lovingood into an inappropriate, improper or even illegal provision of money to recompense him for his work on Mike Ramos’ campaign. Lee also declined to address the subject of the propriety or impropriety of his working as the district attorney’s office’s official spokesman while he was simultaneously working on behalf of Ramos’ political campaigns.
Similarly, Silverman opted for silence when asked whether the salary increase he had sought for Lee was actually intended to serve as pay for Lee’s work on the Mike Ramos campaign, if he disputed the notion his email to Lovingood and James Ramos in tandem with Mike Ramos’ forwarding of the same email to the two supervisors constituted a criminal conspiracy to violate the law by conferring on Lee a raise in his capacity as a public employee that was meant to pay for his political work on behalf of Mike Ramos, whether he took stock of the appropriateness, propriety and legality of his email to supervisors Lovingood and Ramos before he sent it, if he had been pressured by Mike Ramos to author the email, and whether, upon reflection, he now considers the email to have been inappropriate or if he regrets having sent it.
Reports have reached the Sentinel that Lee was not given the raise requested by Silverman because the board of supervisors would not support it, that Lovingood deemed the request improper and that James Ramos, who is otherwise a firm ally and backer of Mike Ramos, was made uncomfortable by the request.
It is unclear how Silverman’s email was compromised. One possibility is that an open server in the district attorney’s office allowed office staff members to access it. When it comes to their boss, district attorney’s office personnel appear to be divided into essentially three camps: line prosecutors and their supervisors composing a majority of the office earnestly intent on carrying out their prosecutorial function along lines that are in keeping with what might be considered professional norms who are generally accepting of and supportive of Ramos’ stewardship of the office and have either no consciousness of or are untroubled by indications or suggestions of anything amiss in the office; a relative handful of prosecutors, Silverman among them, who are aligned with Ramos and absolutely accepting of the standards of conduct, operation and focus he has espoused and whose professional advancement is linked to their support of and close association with him; and an equally small but growing number of prosecutors who have reservations about the way Mike Ramos has conducted himself and his guidance of the office in terms of prosecutorial priorities and what they perceive as the twisting of the office’s authority for either political or venal purposes. None, or very few of this latter group, it seems, are willing to voice their concerns publicly, though the occasional surfacing of internal documents, such as in this case Silverman’s email, attests to their presence.
One variant report was that Lovingood, outraged at the boldness with which Mike Ramos was seeking to promote Lee while he was engaged as a consultant on Ramos’ political campaign, shared it with others.
In response to an inquiry by the Sentinel about the various reports, Don Holland, a special assistant to Lovingood said, “There is no comment at this time.”
Molly Wiltshire, James Ramos’ chief of staff, was unwilling to discuss the matter.
In the aftermath of Kamala Harris’s 2016 U.S. Senate victory, Governor Brown appointed Xavier Becerra to serve the remaining two years of Harris’ term as California Attorney General. In March, Ramos said he would forsake trying to become attorney general and would again seek reelection as district attorney in 2018.
By Mark Gutglueck