Valley Voices

‘Never complain, never explain’ worthy advice that public officials should follow

Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp
Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp Fresno Bee file

Years ago, I represented Henry Ford II after he was arrested in Santa Barbara for drunken driving. Ford’s wife was in Nepal, and a younger woman was in his car. When reporters hounded him for comment, the head of Ford Motor Co. offered them four words: “Never complain, never explain.”

That maxim, attributed to 19th century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, is timeless in relevancy and good advice for public figures. In two recent cases, prosecutors should have heeded it before making public comment. They are Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp.

David Minier Fresno Bee file

Robert Mueller, following a two year investigation of alleged Russian links to President Trump’s election campaign, filed a 448-page report ambiguous enough that both conservatives and liberals could interpret it in their favor: it either vindicated the president or provided grounds for his impeachment. When Attorney General William Barr released a four page summary of that report, however, Mueller complained. It “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of his findings, he charged.

That muddled things, so Mueller called a press conference to explain. He said his report “speaks for itself,” and he wouldn’t provide any more information. But he then went on to do just that. No, a sitting president couldn’t be indicted, he told us, but he wasn’t confident the president had not committed a crime, or he would have said so. Whatever all that meant. Mueller would have been better advised to “never complain, never explain.”

Special counsel Robert Mueller speaks at the Department of Justice Wednesday, May 29, 2019, in Washington, about the Russia investigation. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) Carolyn Kaster AP

Closer to home, Fresno District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp’s child cruelty prosecution of Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula generated controversy. Arambula’s attorneys claimed the prosecution was politically motivated because Smittcamp and Arambula are of different political parties . A reckless accusation, but not unusual for a high stakes case. Smittcamp chose to explain, telling The Fresno Bee in detail, including family relationships, why the prosecution wasn’t politically motivated. It was more information than we needed to know.

After a jury acquitted Arambula, Smittcamp complained to GV Wire about the “circus created by the defense.” Whatever the truth, that statement would have been better left unsaid beyond the walls of the district attorney’s office.

In prosecuting Arambula, Smittcamp merely did what prosecutors do: receive a referral for prosecution after an arrest by local law enforcement, then file charges if there is sufficient evidence to support a conviction. The District Attorney’s Office had a prosecutable case against Arambula, but lost it to a jury verdict after a hard-fought trial.

Lisa Smittcamp runs a quality office and has a reputation for integrity. She has no need to justify the prosecutions of her office. And much as a loss might sting, it is unwise for her or any other prosecutor to complain publicly about a jury acquittal. In high-profile cases, Smittcamp’s office will enjoy some heady wins, and suffer some tough losses. It comes with the territory.

Mueller, having closed his office and retired, has no further need of Benjamin Disraeli’s maxim. But Smittcamp, still in mid-career, would be wise to mount it on her office wall: Never complain, never explain.

As for Henry Ford II, who brushed off reporters with that maxim: he pleaded guilty and said nothing more. There was no trial, and no further publicity.

David Minier of Fresno is a retired Superior Court judge and former district attorney for Madera and Santa Barbara counties.