The job of district attorney in Philadelphia is incredibly complex. The duty is relatively simple.
Cops arrest people. The district attorney decides who should be held responsible by filing criminal charges. Judges, and sometimes juries, have the final say.
The key word in that formula: responsible.
If a district attorney holds people responsible, it follows that he or she should act responsibly.
That’s not what we saw last week from one of the seven Democratic candidates running to be the city’s next district attorney.
Tariq El-Shabazz was the subject of a deeply reported article in City & State that cited complaints from some former clients of his law firm who questioned his performance after paying for his services.
Reporter Ryan Briggs wrote that El-Shabazz backed out of an interview and declined to answer specific questions, relying instead on a statement issued to City & State.
El-Shabazz responded after the article was published with a lengthy screed released on Twitter (@TariqForJustice) that had a certain Trumpian ring to it.
El-Shabazz knocked Briggs in the first sentence as a “journalist.” He dismisses much of the reporting as “lies.” And he decries it all as “fake news.”
And there was this:
“The motive for his blatant lies are as clear as they are racist,” El-Shabazz wrote. “It is widely known that Mr. Briggs is in the pocket of those in our community who seek to inject their racist views into this important race.”
El-Shabazz, who is African American, offered no evidence that Briggs, who is white, was motivated by race or acting on behalf of anyone but his readers.
You can find Briggs’ story at cityandstatepa.com. I encourage you to read it and then El-Shabazz’s response to draw your own conclusions.
El-Shabazz has cried foul before about journalists covering the race for district attorney. In an April 19 post on the website PhillyInFocus.com, which also suggested racism was mixed into the coverage, El-Shabazz claimed: “It’s been clear that I’ve been treated unfairly.”
The issue then was El-Shabazz racking up tens of thousands of dollars in city and federal tax liens, some personal and some for his law firm.
El-Shabazz, when all that first came out, tried the don’t-worry-about-it approach, saying he was handling the debts.
That’s not a great way to apply for a job running an agency with a $53 million budget.
Then he turned dismissive. A campaign spokesman said El-Shabazz, who is listed on his five-attorney firm’s website as the “managing partner,” said he wasn't responsible for the firm’s liens because he didn’t manage human resources or administration.
If this has a ring of familiarity, remember that El-Shabazz worked until February as first assistant to District Attorney Seth Williams, who dropped his bid for a third term that month, and was indicted in March on charges of taking bribes from businessmen and stealing money meant for the care of his elderly mother.
Before the indictment, Williams complained bitterly about media scrutiny, including from me, of his troubled personal and political finances.
The word most commonly used to describe Williams these days is "disappointment." A lot of people had high hopes for his proposals to reform the office. They were sorry to see that falter.
They were also sad to see Williams thrash around before the indictment, as he tried in vain to avoid responsibility. It’s a bad look for a guy we put in charge of holding people responsible.