By Mark Gutglueck
A crisis has beset the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office as a breakdown in the relationship between district attorney Mike Ramos and the woman he elevated to the position of assistant district attorney, Mary Ashley, has sundered the chain of command that has left the normally purpose-driven agency in limbo.
At the basis of the current trauma is Ramos’s penchant for womanizing, including engaging in trysts with office employees, some of whom have attempted and on occasion succeeded in using their relationship with Ramos to promote themselves professionally. The recent cavil between Ramos and Ashley is triply problematic in that it has created an awkward communications gap throughout the organization and a vacuum in leadership at its top, revived resentments among some senior members of the office over Ashley’s promotion and has resulted in reigniting what is now perceived to be an improper relationship between Ashley and a member of the bench.
Elements of the Ramos/Ashley spectacle come across as clichés from soap opera scripts, ones seemingly beneath the dignity of the county prosecutor’s office. Even prior to his election as district attorney in 2002, Ramos’s liaisons with many different women when he was employed as a deputy prosecutor under then-District Attorney Dennis Stout were known to some of his colleagues. After he assumed the post of district attorney, his activity accelerated with his elevation in status and became much more widely known, as his relationships with three of his own deputy prosecutors, two of his office’s evidence technicians and two of his office’s clerks scandalized the office. In May of 2009, the brewing calumny fully manifested when Ramos was publicly linked with a dozen women to whom he was not married.
Ashley’s amorous reputation was by comparison more sedate than was Ramos’s, though it, too, resulted in a minor brouhaha. A prosecutor assigned primarily to prosecuting crimes against children cases out of the Victorville Courthouse in the early 2000s, Ashley was married to San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Alex Martinez, who is now a San Bernardino Superior Court judge. David Mazurek was also a prosecutor with the district attorney’s office. An affair between Ashley and Mazurek ensued. Ultimately, both Mazurek’s and Ashley’s marriages ended in divorce, but not before Mazurek was appointed to the San Bernardino Superior Court by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006.
As a consequence, potentially career-complicating difficulty for both developed, as Mazurek heard criminal cases at the Victorville Courthouse, in which the district attorney’s office had a branch office from which Ashley worked as the lead attorney for the Family Violence Unit in Victorville, either directly handling or overseeing the prosecution of crimes against children, physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence and elder abuse. Neither ever disclosed to defendants Ashley was prosecuting or their attorneys the relationship she had with the judge, even when their cases were routed into Mazurek’s courtroom. This matter resolved itself, temporarily, when in January 2008 Ashley left Victorville for Joshua Tree, where she became the supervising prosecutor for the district attorney’s office there. But that conflict resumed and intensified thirteen months later, when in February 2009, Mazurek was assigned to the Yucca Valley Courthouse.
Within three months, rumors began to circulate about the relationship between Mazurek and Ashley, with concern growing that it was highly improper for her to be overseeing the entirety of the prosecutor’s office’s function in Yucca Valley while her paramour was hearing the cases she and the deputy district attorneys she supervised were prosecuting. On May 7, 2009, the subject of Mazurek’s bias was openly broached during a court proceeding, prompting him to claim, on the record, “And so the record is clear as far as bias goes, I am new to this courthouse. I am new to this community. I don’t live here. I was previously assigned to the Victorville courthouse. I’ve been here maybe two months, three months. I don’t know any of these people. I don’t know any of the parties. I am not familiar with any of the disputes in this region. I don’t know anybody.”
Conveniently ignored in Mazurek’s statement was that he and Ashley had worked together in the district attorney’s office, that he had been a judge in Victorville when she was prosecuting cases or handling matters there, oftentimes within his courtroom, and the nature of their personal relationship.
The relationship between Mazurek and Ashley proved somewhat nettlesome, ultimately requiring the expurgating intervention of then-assistant presiding judge Michael Welch.
In time, the embers between Mazurek and Ashley cooled, and Mazurek remarried, this time to the woman who had been a court reporter in his courtroom.
In the meantime, Ashley went her way. Among some of her colleagues, particularly woman, Ashley was perceived as a climber who was not above utilizing her sexuality to ingratiate herself with the men in the office or the legal community to advance professionally. It was not surprising then, that in 2011, she had initiated a relationship, described as intensely physical, with Ramos.
The district attorney’s philandering had resulted in a rash of adverse publicity as well as a lawsuit by one of his bedmates, district attorney’s office evidence technician Cheryl Ristow. In fending off that lawsuit, the county in 2009 paid the Santa Monica-based legal firm Curiale Hirschfield Kraemer $140,000 to conduct an investigation into the circumstances pertaining to the Ramos/Ristow relationship and document that disciplinary action meted out to Ristow had not constituted “sexual harassment.” While Curiale Hirschfield Kraemer had been detailed to shore up the contention by Ramos and the county that Ristow’s job performance and failure to adhere to office protocol, rules and regulations justified the investigative and disciplinary action that had been taken against her, investigators for Curiale Hisrschfield Kraemer tracked what one of them termed “credible” indications Ramos had engaged in sexual intercourse with four of his office’s employees. Curiale Hirschfield Kraemer, in its 183-page report on the matter, avoided direct mention of the sexual relationship between the district attorney and Ristow, but a three-judge panel of the State of California’s Fourth Appellate District – consisting of justices Manuel A. Ramirez, Thomas E. Hollenhorst and Douglas P. Miller – was not so squeamish in summing up the action Ramos had engaged in with Ristow. “In September 2003, Ristow and Ramos were at a conference center in the city of Lake Arrowhead. While at the conference center, Ristow and Ramos began a consensual sexual relationship. An incident in Lake Arrowhead involved kissing, fondling, oral copulation, and sexual intercourse. In October 2003, another incident occurred in an office. The October incident involved kissing, fondling, oral copulation, and sexual intercourse. Other consensual sexual acts occurred between Ristow and Ramos in December 2004, in a Mervyn’s parking lot; and February 2005, in a Starbucks parking lot. In October 2005, Ramos, without consent, grabbed and fondled Ristow’s breast, and said, ‘I just want to touch and suck your nipples one last time,” according to an opinion filed on July 31, 2012 in which the appellate court rejected Ristow’s appeal of a trial court’s ruling on her lawsuit against the county, the district attorney’s office and Ramos.
This public exposure entailed for Ramos some degree of public embarrassment but, because he was and remains an independently elected official with a full complement of prosecutorial power and discretion, neither the board of supervisors nor any other authorities had the will to discipline him or remove him from office. Nor was he subjected to discipline by the California Bar. As his relationship with Ashley was intensifying in the late 2011/early 2012 time frame, Ramos nevertheless sought to be somewhat more discrete than he had been in the past. As it turned out however, the affair was exposed when Ashley sent a cellular phone text message to another member of the office, telling her that Ramos was at her residence. Word of Ramos’s liaison with Ashley leaked out from there, spreading to numerous other members of the district attorney’s office, as well as among several judges.
By Summer 2012, office members report, the relationship between Ramos Ashley had progressed to the point that Ramos was cohabiting with Ashley. The following year he filed for divorce from his wife of nearly three decades. Simultaneously, Ramos was seeking to groom Ashley for further advancement, giving her the prestigious assignment of carrying out the office’s evaluations of officer involved shootings.
As the 2014 electoral season approached, however, Ramos was facing reelection and found it expedient to present a somewhat more traditional and socially acceptable picture of his domestic situation. Accordingly, in November 2013, with the June 2014 election less than seven months away, he dismissed the divorce pleading. In June 2014, he was handily reelected. Two months later, In August 2014, the divorce proceedings were renewed.
Two months later, disguising his action as an “office reorganization, Ramos proposed creating a third assistant district attorney’s position in the office. The following month, November 2014, he presented it to the board of supervisors, who ratified it and funded it. In effectuating the reorganization, he promoted Ashley into the newly created assistant district attorney position, bypassing a multitude of other more experienced and respected prosecutors in the office, most notably John Kochis, who was widely viewed by his colleagues to be the most logical candidate for promotion to an open assistant district attorney’s position, based on his 37 years’ experience as a prosecutor, including a decade overseeing the Rancho Cucamonga office. Nearly two dozen prosecutors in the office, all with resumes equal to or surpassing Ashley’s – Michael Abney, Bruce Brown, Rob Brown, Terry Brown, Bob Bulloch, Lewis Cope, Michelle Daly, Gary Fagan, Charles Feibush, Joseph Gaetano, Clark Hansen III, Grover Merritt, Kathy Norman, Maureen O’Connell, Doug Poston, James Secord, Reza Sadeghi, Kevin Smith, Denise Trager-Dvorak, Charles Umeda, Ron Webster, Simon Umschied and Richard Young – were overlooked.
Within the office, resentment at Ramos’s promotional decision roiled below the surface, and the office’s members complained privately, but none would speak publicly about the matter.
Ashley had made her mark prosecuting cases that involved what were basically clearly cut issues of child, spousal and elder abuses in which the plight of the victims naturally resonated with most jurors. Generally, she had not handled more complex cases which dealt with conflicting evidence or ambiguity. Nor was her strong suit in the administrative realm. But as Ramos’s choice as assistant district attorney, she was thrust into a position of authority and gravitas, and was titularly responsible for hashing out procedural, personnel and legal problems an organization such as the district attorney’s office encounters, many of which she was hard-pressed to assimilate and understand, let alone handle. As such problems languished in want of a solution, bitterness over her advancement in the office simmered, enlarging the perception that Ramos has created a standard under which competence, dedication, expertise and merit are secondary criteria to maintaining a personal relationship with him.
Such was the situation during the last months of 2014 and roughly the first six months of 2015. At that point, the close relationship between Ramos and Ashley soured, creating further problems for the department yet, as the line of communication between Ramos and Ashley appeared to be severed.
On September 3, Ramos and Ashley appeared together at a press conference in which the office’s filing of a single felony assault charge against each of three San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies seen on a video taken last April beating, punching and kicking an arrestee as they were taking him into custody was announced. Ramos, as is his custom, had the senior members of his office present at the announcement. In addition to Ashley, assistant district attorneys Mike Fermin and Gary Roth were at the September 3 media event. Despite her having been included in the assembly, the chill between Ramos and Ashley was evident in the body language they displayed in the well-lit forum in front of the members of the press, still camera photographers and videographers. At one point, in crediting her and others with having assisted in making the charging decision, Ramos referred to her simply as “Ashley.”
Whereas late last year and earlier this year some matters which had fallen into Ashley’s bailiwick were addressed by being conveyed to a troubleshooter or on occasion Ramos himself by her or one of her assistants, the frosty separation between Ashley and her boss has now created a situation where the resources in the office that Ramos could once make available to augment her function with a phone call or memo are no longer at her disposal.
One deputy prosecutor said the channels of communication that run through Ashley’s office have become administrative cul-de-sacs, with nothing being resolved. “If you send something over there, it’s a dead end. It’s almost like no one is there,” one said.
Word has reached the Sentinel that Ramos briefly entertained the notion of removing Ashley as assistant district attorney, as this would mollify some members of office who believe the assistant district attorney’s function would be better carried out by someone else. At the same time, however, he is said to be in a state of paralysis because, though he has the authority to remove an at-will employee such as the assistant district attorney, there is a possibility that demoting Ashley or terminating her outright would trigger legal action on her part in which she would claim some level of sexual or gender harassment.
It is unclear to observers outside the office or anyone within the office below the executive level as to whether Ashley will remain as assistant district attorney, and if so, for how long.
Ashley, when asked directly if she would consider, for the good of the office, voluntarily resigning as assistant district attorney and returning to one of her previously held positions as deputy district attorney or supervising deputy district attorney, did not respond.
One consideration is the apparent resumption of the relationship between Ashley and Judge Mazurek. Given her current position as assistant district attorney, the implication of that relationship is yet greater than it was during the previous phases of their relationship when he was on the bench and she was serving in the capacity of deputy district attorney and supervising deputy district attorney. A failure to disclose the existence or nature of such a relationship to defendants being prosecuted by the district attorney’s office who are appearing before Judge Mazurek could prove problematic for both the court and the district attorney’s office if a defendant who is convicted or cornered into a plea arrangement under Mazurek’s watch resolves to contest his or her conviction.
Moreover, a failure by Ashley and Mazurek to forthrightly disclose the circumstance could provide Ramos with the leverage he would need to discipline, demote or even fire Ashley.
The Sentinel has learned that information pertaining to the Ashley/Mazurek relationship has begun to spread around the San Bernardino Justice Center. Last month, in open court, Judge David Cohn heard testimony relating to Ashley’s relationship with Mazurek, denying objections to that testimony from lawyers for both the plaintiff and the defendant in the case, Koenig vs. Falossi, while making from the bench further inquiries as to the nature and implication of the relationship between his fellow judicial officer and the assistant district attorney and allowing the information elicited to be recorded into the record. As details relating to the Mazurek/Ashley relationship play out into an ever wider venue, if the conflict is not in some fashion redressed, the chances of it shedding discredit on the district attorney’s office and the Superior Court intensify.
Ashley declined to say if she believed her relationship with the judge presents a conflict for him or the department, if she believed that defendants being prosecuted by her office who appear before Judge Mazurek should be informed of their relationship or if she was concerned that her relationship with Judge Mazurek might provide Ramos with ostensible grounds to remove her as assistant district attorney.
Efforts by the Sentinel to pose what are essentially the same questions to Mazurek were met with this response from his judicial secretary: “I have spoken with Judge Mazurek and he said he would not feel comfortable discussing that.”
The Sentinel’s inquiries with regard to the situation made to San Bernardino County Superior Court Presiding Judge Marsha Slough were fielded by Debra K. Myers, who doubles as the chief of judicial staff and general counsel to the San Bernardino County Superior Court. Myers said of the reports of the relationship between Mazurek and Ashley “I have not heard that, so I have no independent knowledge of the situation,” adding her comment should not be construed as either a confirmation or a denial that the relationship exists.
Myers said she was constrained from offering any substantive comment on the circumstance.
“Your question calls for me providing a legal opinion, and as a court employee, I am precluded from doing that,” Myers said. Furthermore, she said, “This is a matter not within my expertise. I am not an expert on personnel issues and I am not authorized to speak with regard to judges’ conduct or other personnel matters. I am general counsel to the court. I would suggest you look at the Judicial Canon of Ethics.”
Repeated efforts to engage Ramos and his official spokesman, Christopher Lee, in an exchange with regard to the unfolding controversy relating to Ashley were unsuccessful.
By Mark Gutglueck