By Herman Sillas
Recent investigations by the FBI have brought to my mind my own experience of being investigated by federal agents.
President Jimmy Carter had been elected, and California’s Sen. Alan Cranston created a citizen committee to interview attorneys desiring to be one of the four United States attorneys for California. After their interviews, the committee would make its recommendations. Cranston would send his recommendations to the president and the U.S. attorney general.
Gov. Jerry Brown appointed me in 1976 as the director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles, and I wanted to get back into the law. I submitted my application to Cranston’s committee and was interviewed for the Sacramento U.S. Attorney position. I faced the committee and their questions. Cranston called me and told me I was chosen to serve Sacramento.
That is when I met the FBI. They interviewed me and sought the names of my friends whom they would contact. It was believed the attorney general would review the material and then he would call me if he had any questions. My friends called me and told me they had been contacted by FBI agents asking them questions as to my character and background. But my friends also said that they had been asked by the FBI if they thought I, as a Mexican-American, would bring criminal cases against Mexicans.
Eventually, the time passed and I received the call. The attorney general advised me he had received the FBI report. He heard I had provided murals in the Department of Motor Vehicles, and he hoped I wasn’t planning any such murals in the United States Attorney Office. I told him I was not planning any such murals. I had spoken to a lawyer’s group and jokingly said if I was appointed to be a U.S. attorney I was going to check the treaty made with Mexico. That comment had gotten to the attorney general. I assured him that was not my intention. I had said it as a joke. He then advised me I would be the new United Stated Attorney for Sacramento. I was excited to take on that position.
I contacted Gov. Brown and asked him if he would present me to the court at my swearing-in. He agreed to do it.
I was flying high. My appointment made the newspapers. Next thing I knew, a local group of Sacramento attorneys had a press conference saying my appointment should have been given to a local person. They didn’t see me as a local person, even though I lived in Davis. I was surprised by the comments.
Two days later, the local Mexican American Lawyers Club held a press conference announcing their support for me as the new United States attorney for Sacramento. I felt better after their press conference. My swearing-in went on as scheduled. Brown introduced me to the court, which was filled to capacity. The governor introduced me to the presiding judge and the crowd. I was sworn in by the presiding judge.
I then rose to speak to the court, the FBI agents, my family and friends. I said, “I understood there were questions being asked by the FBI agents, would I, as a Mexican-American, prosecute Mexicans? When I heard about the question being asked, I went down to Mexico. I asked the government’s Mexican lawyers if they prosecuted Mexicans when they violated the law. They answered they did. So, I wanted you to all know that I’ll be doing the same thing here in the United States.”
The crowd cracked up. The FBI agents and I got along well.
That is the view from the Pier.
Herman Sillas is a former Director of the CA DMV and a former U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of California. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.