Arlington and Falls Church Commonwealth’s Attorney-elect Parisa Dehghani-Tafti has announced her first planned appointment.
The incoming top prosecutor says she will promote current Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Cari Steele to Chief Deputy, lauding both her prosecutorial chops and participation in groups like the Mental Health and Criminal Justice Review Committee and the Sexual Assault Response Team.
Tafti, who will take office on Jan. 1, issued a press release about the move — perhaps signaling a departure from outgoing Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos, whose office issued few such communiques, aside from coordinating with police on press releases about the resolution of major cases.
More from the press release:
As her first planned appointment, Commonwealth’s Attorney elect Parisa Dehghani-Tafti will promote to Chief Deputy Cari Steele, who currently serves as Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney, effective January 1, 2020. Ms. Steele is a 17-year veteran of the office, having served since 2002. Throughout her career she has successfully handled numerous jury trials and bench trials before the courts of Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, including homicide, sexual assault, and robbery.
Ms. Dehghani-Tafti noted that “Ms Steele is uniformly well respected by the bench, bar, law enforcement, and the community at large, and will be invaluable in maintaining the institutional memory of the office. But just as importantly, her deep experience as a member of the local Mental Health and Criminal Justice Review Committee, as coordinator for the Sexual Assault Response Team, and as a liaison to the Arlington County Drug Treatment Court makes her a wonderful fit to implement our restorative justice and diversion policies.”
For her part, Ms. Steele stated “It has been a privilege to serve the citizens of Arlington County and the City of Falls Church for the last 17 years and I am excited to continue that service in this new role under the vision and leadership of our Commonwealth’s Attorney-Elect.”
Ms. Steele is currently the liaison to the City of Falls Church Police Department, the Child Advocacy Center, and the Special Victims’ Unit of the Arlington County Police Department. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Arlington County Bar Association. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Methodist College and received her J.D. from the University of Richmond in 2000. Ms. Steele is married to William Wetzonis and they have three children.
Last night, reform candidate Parisa Dehghani-Tafti was elected the next top prosecutor for Arlington and Falls Church, leaving questions about how her campaign promises could affect the area’s political and legal landscape.
Throughout her unusually contentious — and expensive — campaign, Tafti promised to stop prosecuting some marijuana possession cases, eliminate some cash bail requirements, and make it easier for defense attorneys to access case files, among other reforms.
Tafti declined to discuss details about her plans for the prosecutor’s office itself, but the other agencies most affected by her reforms say her tenure could have a big impact on their work.
Public defenders may have more time with their clients
Chief Public Defender Bradley Haywood has been a vocal critic of outgoing Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos and donated to Tafti’s campaign. He told ARLnow her win will “absolutely” change the work his office can do, adding that her election was an “amazing opportunity” for judges, lawyers, and prosecutors to work together on criminal justice reform.
One reform Haywood said will majorly impact public defenders is Tafti’s promise to do away with the the requirement that defense attorneys hand copy all the prosecutor’s files about their criminal cases — a process several attorneys say is “horribly inefficient” and makes preparing large cases impossible.
“We estimated that there were about 1,000-1,500 hours we spent in that stupid room typing manually,” Haywood said of his office’s work in the past year. “It’s going to go down from 1,000 hours to zero probably in January. That will give us time to actually learn more about our clients.”
Tafti told ARLnow last night after the polls closed and her campaign declared victory that she was “absolutely” still committed to digitizing the document policy.
The Arlington County Bar Association, which includes private defense attorneys, declined to comment when asked how the new prosecutor’s policy priorities could affect members’ work.
The Sheriff’s Office may need a budget bump
Another one of the reforms Tafti focused on during her campaign was ending the practice of “cash bail,” which she said penalizes lower-income people who might instead remain jail as they await trial.
Outgoing prosecutor Theo Stamos announced last November she would stop seeking bail for people accused of low-level misdemeanors after seven state lawmakers urged her to fix the system. However, public defenders criticized the plan for still excluding too many defendants, calling it a “cynical PR move” to help her bid for re-election.
Sheriff Beth Arthur, who won her re-election last night, told ARLnow she didn’t necessarily oppose more changes to the bail system. But she did express concern about how to manage resources if judges choose to release defendants before trial with conditions — like weekly drug testing — in lieu of bail.
“I do have concerns from a staffing perspective and from an operational perspective on how how this impacts the poor people who are managing the program and who have a caseload of 60-65 people,” she said of her office’s pre-trial program that supervises such defendants. “That’s a lot.”
However, Arthur said she’s hopeful that the county will grant her office additional resources to staff pre-trial programs should they be affected by Tafti’s reforms — or the jail diversion program for people with mental illnesses.
In June, the Arlington County Board approved a $45.3 million total budget for the Sheriff’s Office in fiscal year 2020.
(Updated at 4 p.m.) Last night, commonwealth’s attorney candidate Parisa Dehghani-Tafti defeated incumbent prosecutor Theo Stamos in a surprise victory that shocked many in the the county, and left some wondering about the future.
One person who wasn’t shocked was political strategist Ben Tribbett — also known as @notlarrysabato — of the Fairfax-based campaign consulting firm TRR Group.
“I think Parisa basically brought two very large groups together,” he told ARLnow today. “One are people newer to the county who really care about criminal justice reforms. The second was a coalition of people mad about internal Arlington politics.”
Tribbett said the first group is important because, “transient voters tend to get their info from national outlets.” He said the Washington Post’s endorsement of Tafti and the The Appeal’s critical look at Stamos’ handling of some juvenile cases could have helped sway those voters. The campaign even attracted an endorsement from multi-talented star John Legend.
Today is a big day for prosecutorial races taking place throughout Virginia. Your vote in local elections matters! Good luck, @parisa4justice!
— John Legend (@johnlegend) June 11, 2019
A map of yesterday’s voting shows the densest support for Tafti was located along the county’s more dense and Metro-accessible areas — places where young transient voters often live. Tribbett pointed out state Senate candidate Nicole Merlene, who lost her race against incumbent Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st), performed well in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor but struggled in the leafier, single-family-home neighborhoods to the north.
Arlington/Falls Church Prosecutor Theo Stamos lost re-nomination in the Democratic primary to more reform-minded Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. Major focuses of Tafti have been reducing incarceration, not seeking the death penalty, and not prosecuting minor pot crimes #VaPrimary2019 pic.twitter.com/dqG0NVLmcR
— Matthew Isbell (@mcimaps) June 12, 2019
Tribbett said Tafti’s other supporters, long-time residents fed up with Arlington politics, are part of the fallout from the election of John Vihstadt, who won the race for County Board in 2014 as an independent. Progressives are continuing a “decade-long war” against Democratic candidates like Stamos who supported Vihstadt over a fellow Democrat, Tribbett said, and could target County Board member Libby Garvey in the future.
But he said infighting costs the party influence at the state level, which comes at a time when Democrats across Virginia are striving to flip Richmond blue.
“What should have been a temporary rift has become a permanent rift,” Tribbett said. “It’s not good for the Democratic Party.”
Another perspective on the race comes from Paul Ferguson, current Clerk of the Circuit Court and former Arlington County Board member, who spoke to ARLnow in his personal capacity on Tuesday afternoon before polls closed.
Ferguson said Tafti has six months to settle in and choose which (if any) of Stamos’ assistant prosecutors she plans to keep on staff. (Stamos said last night she hopes her challenger will retain at least some of them.) Tafti will then be able to roll out policy changes, like her pledge to not prosecute low-level pot convictions, but Ferguson said it’s difficult to anticipate the impact because her victory is unprecedented.
“It’s reasonable to say in modern history, the last 40-50 years, the new prosecutor has always come from within the office, leaving very little policy transition,” he said. Nonetheless, he thinks it’s likely that there could be fewer misdemeanor cases cases in District Court, and perhaps fewer cases in Circuit Court, as a result of her changes.
Now that she has defeated incumbent Theo Stamos, Tafti is likely to have the opportunity to keep her campaign promise while in the prosecutor’s office.
More from the candidate’s website:
Between 2013 and 2018, the current Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office prosecuted over 3200 cases of simple marijuana possession. African-Americans are at least 8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite the fact that studies show that different racial groups use marijuana at about the same rates. Marijuana should be the subject of civil regulation, but we should put our limited prosecutorial resources to better use focusing on serious crimes. Parisa will not prosecute simple possession of marijuana and support decriminalization and legalization, with appropriate government regulation.
The Arlington Green Party supports that stance, penning an open letter just before primary day calling for Stamos to “stop prosecuting people caught with small amounts of marijuana in Arlington.”
“Arlington police and prosecutors should concentrate on crimes of violence and significant felonies, and not waste our public dollars jailing and prosecuting mostly youth caught with a marijuana cigarette,” the party said in an email.
What do you think?
(Updated at 10:25 p.m.) The top prosecutor in Arlington and Falls Church has lost her bid for re-election.
In the most closely watched local race in today’s Democratic primary, incumbent Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos has been defeated by challenger Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who ran a campaign centered on criminal justice reform. Tafti has 52% of the vote compared to 48% for Stamos, with all 59 precincts in Arlington and Falls Church reporting, though the results are unofficial until certified.
The total unofficial margin of victory was 1,128 votes.
“I knew it could happen!” one supporter shouted at Tafti’s victory party at Fire Works Pizza in Courthouse as the final votes were tallied.
“Change can come here to Arlington,” said a campaign volunteer, Arlington resident Symone Walker, who said she’s mailed postcards and held meet and greets for Tafti because of her belief the challenger could reform the county’s justice system.
Tafti herself was breathless and wide-eyed as she passed through the group and gave hugs to her supporters. When Stamos called to concede around 8:15 p.m., Tafti thanked her and offered to meet with the incumbent later this week.
In a speech a few minutes before 9 p.m., Tafti thanked a crowd of her supporters, saying “it would have been easy for you to be silent.”
“I feel humbled and grateful and excited but with no illusions about the work ahead,” she told ARLnow afterward.
1/x I am humbled and honored at the trust the voters of Arlington and the City of Falls Church have placed in our campaign. This election wasn’t about me but about the community’s recognition that criminal justice reform is one of the civil rights issues of our time.
— Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (@parisa4justice) June 12, 2019
3/3 Arlington and Falls Church stand ready to show the Commonwealth and the country what it means to put justice back in the criminal justice system.
— Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (@parisa4justice) June 12, 2019
“I always thought she could win and should win, but it’s never an easy battle against an incumbent,” said state Sen. Adam Ebbin, who supported Tafti’s campaign and stood next to her as she addressed the crowd.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe cheered during the event, later telling ARLnow that he supported Tafti’s campaign because he was “looking for new leadership” after Stamos opposed his legislation to restore voting rights to felons in 2017.
“I think a lot of people wondered why I did it,” he said of wading into a local prosecutor race. “But it was the right thing to do.”
(Updated at 10:55 a.m.) Starting at 6 a.m. today, voters began showing up at their polling places across Arlington as voting in the Democratic primary kicked off.
At Randolph Elementary School in Douglas Park, St. Agnes Catholic Church in Cherrydale, and Madison Community Center in Old Glebe, lines were short and skies were clear.
“It’s been slow, but steady. There’s been 83 people so far, or 2.7 percent turnout. It’s pretty normal,” said Bill Harkins, election officer at St. Agnes.
At Randolph Elementary around 41 people had cast their ballots by 7:41 a.m., according to election officer Harry Dunbar, and another 13 voters arrived in the next half hour. Dunbar said there are 3,000 people who live in the precinct.
“Half of that is normal for a busy general election,” Dunbar said, noting that primary election turnout is usually much lower.
By mid-morning, Arlington’s elections office reported that turnout was somewhat light, but higher in precincts in Arlington’s northwest. Voters in residential northwest Arlington tend to be a bit more conservative, at least relative to the rest of the county.
Update: looks like some of our northwest precincts are reporting a higher turnout, closer to 8% as of 10:30.
— Arlington Elections (@ArlingtonVotes) June 11, 2019
The only hiccup noticed so far was a ballot that wouldn’t scan at Randolph Elementary. At around 8 a.m., officials had identified the likely culprit: blocks that printed too faintly along the border of the document.
Today’s primary marks the end of several hotly contested races between the Democrats on the ballot — namely the race for commonwealth’s attorney and the state Senate seat in the 31st District. With most races still lacking a non-Democratic candidate, the primary could also decide the Nov. 5 general election.
At Randolph, the race on most people’s minds was the one for commonwealth’s attorney between incumbent Theo Stamos and challenger Parisa Dehghani-Tafti who have clashed in debates since kicking off their campaigns last winter.
Evelyn Luis, a long-time Douglas Park resident, said she doesn’t usually vote in the primaries but showed up today to support Stamos.
“Even though she’s running as a Democrat and I am not a Democrat I know I have to make a choice between the two candidates.” Luis said.
Luis wore a shirt from the 1990s-era Crime Prevention Council of Arlington County, on which she was a board member. She said she disagreed with Tafti’s platform and PAC funding.
Another voter, Aaron Willis, who has lived in the area for a decade, said he’s voted in every primary since moving to the D.C. region. He feels part of the “nerve center” of politics after coming from Ohio where he sometimes felt disconnected.
Willis said he supported Tafti in today’s election, citing her record of pushing for reproductive rights and restoring voting rights to felons.
The interest in the prosecutor’s race also ran high at St. Agnes.
“The important race to me was the commonwealth’s attorney,” said St. Agnes voter Chris Guest. “I think it’s always good to have options, but I wanted to vote against outside money, especially when that’s heavily for one candidate.”
“All of the races are important. Arlington is a great place to live and we have good candidates,” said St. Agnes voter Sarah Devoe this morning. “I’ve been surprised with the commonwealth’s attorney race; it’s not really a race I think of as being competitive. There’s been a lot of TV and print ads. There are two strong candidates.”
Stamos’ record in office and Tafti’s proposed criminal justice reforms have split support among local attorneys and sparked conversations about police brutality and the county’s discovery policy in criminal cases.
Here is the unedited response from Theo Stamos:
By now, you know the issues in this election. Rather than rehash them, it is important for you to know who I am, my leadership in the legal community, why Arlington is so important to me, and why I deserve your vote for Commonwealth’s Attorney.
I am from the South Side of Chicago. After graduating from Northern Illinois University, I moved here to work in the Senate for a Democrat from Illinois, then worked full-time as a reporter while attending night school at American University Law School. In 1987, I started as an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney and have been proud to work for this community for over 30 years.
Soon after I started, I saw firsthand how Offender Aid and Restoration works closely with the courts, the jail, defense attorneys, prosecutors and the community to help offenders lead productive, responsible lives. I joined the Board to be a part of this important, collaborative work. Through OAR, I got involved with Encore Learning, becoming a member of its Advisory Council and a lecturer on criminal justice issues. Even back then, I was talking about criminal justice reform, educating our citizens on what our system looks like and how it can be improved. I am also a proud graduate of Leadership Arlington, cementing my firm belief that true leadership includes learning from those around you. My roots in this work are deep because I started so many years ago, forging relationships both within our legal system and the wider community.
The strength of these relationships is what fosters meaningful improvements of the criminal justice system. Lasting change is done deliberatively, thoughtfully and most importantly, collaboratively. That’s why I am a member of the Steering Committee of Virginia’s Criminal Justice Conference, a statewide organization that brings together prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, legislators, and academics. We bring everyone to the table to work towards our common goal – a system that is fair and equitable for everyone. I helped create the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys Committee on Justice and Professionalism. Finally, I was honored to be inducted into the Virginia Law Foundation. That award only goes to attorneys who are leaders in both the legal profession and their communities who are “committed to the highest ideals of the law.”
My work is not only at both the local and state levels, but also on the national level. I serve on the Board of Directors of the Prosecutors’ Center for Excellence, focusing on improving criminal justice and on developing best practices in prosecution.
Legal ethics and professionalism are the cornerstone of our work. As a member of the Virginia State Bar’s professionalism faculty, I have taught young lawyers–and reminded old ones–that our most important assets are our credibility and our integrity. Two principles that should always guide us, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, are do the right thing, and always tell the truth.
While I worked in the office, I was raising my two boys with my husband, Craig. I had a bird’s eye view of the myriad ways lives can go off track with one poor decision. That motivated me to work with parents and young people to help them try to avoid dangers like substance abuse, and drunk driving. I became the Chair of the Family Network at both Swanson Middle School and Yorktown High School, providing a forum for these conversations. I convened a Town Hall to foster a dialogue between parents and our schools about the opioid crisis.
I am a proud Democrat and have been active in Democratic politics here for decades, knocking doors for other candidates, stuffing envelopes for Dollars for Democrats, and delivering the Messenger. I have always voted in general elections, Democratic primaries, and Democratic School Board caucuses.
My campaign is a grass roots campaign, run and funded here. I have spent many years earning the trust of our citizens through old fashioned hard work and heart. I love this community. I have worked to improve the criminal justice system so that it works for everyone – victims and defendants. I’ve lived my personal and professional life guided by principles of service to others, integrity, fairness, and equity.
This election is about Arlington, not any other community. No doubt that we have challenges and can do better. We are a criminal justice success story with much to be proud of, but with more work to do. I have the experience, the relationships and the integrity to continue that work. I ask for your vote on Election Day.
Jail Holds Family Event for Inmates — “Some Arlington County children got a rare opportunity Tuesday night: a chance to visit with their fathers and mothers — who are in jail — without any barriers between them.” [WJLA]
Local Girl Scouts Help Seniors — “They came in need of help, smartphones in hand… Girl Scout Troop 60013 was on it. This week, the Arlington, Virginia-based scouts hosted ‘TechBridge,’ their first walk-in clinic to help local senior citizens learn how to use their cellphones.” [CNN]
County Fair Seeking Judges — “Organizers of the Arlington County Fair are seeking volunteers both to register and judge entries for the competitive-exhibit competition. Volunteers with expertise will serve as superintendents and judges in a host of categories, with judging taking place Thursday, Aug. 15 at 10 a.m. at Thomas Jefferson Community Center.” [InsideNova]
Campaign Ad Questioned — A TV ad placed by a political action committee on behalf of commonwealth’s attorney candidate Parisa Dehghani-Tafti is being questioned. The ad brings up recent anti-abortion laws in other states says incumbent Theo Stamos “would enforce anti-choice laws” in Virginia. The video cited in the ad shows Stamos saying she “takes an oath to uphold the law” but would not enforce an unconstitutional law. [Blue Virginia]
An Arlington County policy on how defense attorneys access the materials they need to prepare their cases has become a hot topic in the already heated commonwealth’s attorney race.
Since Parisa Dehghani-Tafti launched her campaign to unseat Theo Stamos in the June 11 Democratic primary, discussions over the county’s discovery policy have featured in a candidate debate, a public endorsement, and a public letter opposing Stamos.
A discovery policy dictates which case files a prosecutor is required to share with defense attorneys. Some attorneys say Arlington’s policy of asking attorneys to hand copy this information at the courthouse is so cumbersome that it makes it difficult for them to represent their clients.
Stamos argued during an April debate with Tafti that the hand-copying policy protects witnesses’ privacy by preventing information like addresses, Social Security numbers, and dates of birth from leaving her office. She said her office would need additional resources to make the redactions necessary to share copies with defense attorneys.
This contrasts to neighboring jurisdictions like Fairfax County and Alexandria, which regularly email copies of similar files to defense attorneys or provide take-home hard copies.
When asked if she had evidence showing increased incidents of witness intimidation in neighboring jurisdictions as a result of the more permissive discovery policy, Stamos told ARLnow the other jurisdictions might not have to “worry about the witness intimidation piece because they have an efficient redaction process.” She hopes to implement the same process in Arlington.
Four defense attorneys who spoke with ARLnow disagreed that the current policy was necessary, calling Arlington’s unique process for accessing case files “onerous,” “cumbersome,” and “horribly inefficient.”
Resisting Reform or Protecting Privacy?
“I’m looking at the police report in a paper format. And whether I’m typing it on my laptop or handwriting notes, I am literally just copying word for word what it says,” said defense attorney Elizabeth Tuomey, who has worked in the county for the past 15 years. She called the discovery policy “a complete waste of time.”
Tuomey, who is one of the signatories of the letter opposing Stamos, told ARLnow that the prosecutor’s office also does not allow defense attorneys to make copies of photos in discovery files. As a result, Tuomey says she has to describe the images in her notes and write down the file name if she wants to ask prosecutors to show an image during trial.
Defense attorney Terry Adams said he dictates descriptions of photos and sometimes has to draw sketches of important ones. He was an Arlington deputy sheriff in 1987 before becoming a private attorney, and he has donated to Tafti’s campaign and signed the letter opposing Stamos.
(Updated at 4:15 p.m.) Total fundraising in the heated race for Arlington and Falls Church’s top prosecutor is nearing an unprecedented $1 million as the June 11 primary approaches.
Commonwealth’s Attorney candidate Parisa Dehghani-Tafti raised $604,682 between April 1 and May 30, in large part due to one political action committee (PAC), according to new campaign finance filings.
The Justice and Public Safety PAC, which is funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, previously donated to Tafti’s campaign and paid for her social media videos. In the latest filing period it made a total of $515,492.28 in donations, including $190,000 in cash and $325,492.28 in in-kind contributions.
After spending $189,000 on a TV ad buy, and racking up other expenses, Tafti’s campaign reported ending the quarter with $57,255 in its coffers.
Theo Stamos’ campaign, on the other hand, reported closing out May 30 with $22,077 left in its war chest, after raising $55,426 and spending $133,999 in total.
All told, the incumbent raised $161,760 for her 2019 re-election bid compared to the $743,604 Tafti raised to unseat her.
The combined sum of $905,364 from both candidates dwarfs the money raised in the state’s other commonwealth’s attorney races.
“I think our voters are going to see through this effort from all this outside money,” Stamos told ARLnow today (Tuesday.) “It’s so unprecedented for it to be happening in Arlington.”
When asked if her challenger’s large fundraising haul affected her chances of keeping her seat, Stamos said she thought residents will end up voting for someone they’ve known for years over Tafti who has, “absolutely no experience, who is not prepared for the job, and who has quite honestly run a fundamentally dishonest campaign.”
Tafti said in a press release earlier today that she was “proud” the campaign has continued, “to garner the support of not just small dollar donations but also that of local and national organizations that will help maintain enthusiasm and engagement” in the election.
In the press release, the progressive campaigner also highlighted $39,000 in cash contributions from individuals and the endorsements she’s received, saying: “Simply put, this level of local support for a challenger is unprecedented in a local primary election where the incumbent has not ever faced a robust primary challenge. What it shows is that community leaders and ordinary citizens understand the office is in dire need of reform.”
Two other PACS also donated to Tafti’s campaign this past quarter.
Racial justice-focused New Majority Virginia PAC donated $31,545 to Tafti’s campaign last month, and Real Justice PAC, which was co-founded by civil rights activist Shaun King donates to progressive prosecutor candidates nationwide, contributed $5,814.
Other notable donations to Tafti’s campaign include:
- $1,350 in combined donations from four local private defense lawyers. Three of the lawyers (Terry Adams, Edward Ungvarsky, and Christopher Leibig) previously signed a letter opposing Stamos. The fourth lawyer-donor (Mark Rochon) did not sign the letter.
- $1,000 from former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has publicly endorsed Tafti’s campaign.
- $150 from former Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman.
For Stamos, some notable donations included:
- $1,162 from former independent County Board member John Vihstadt, whose unsuccessful bid for re-election Stamos supported despite displeasure from her Democratic colleagues. The figure includes a $912 in-kind contribution from Vihstadt’s campaign committee.
- $651 from former Arlington School Board member Noah Simon
- $500 from theater labor union I.A.T.S.E. Local 22
Next week’s primary will determine which Democratic candidate progresses to the November general election. Voters can cast their votes between 6 a.m. to 7 p.m on Tuesday, June 11.
Candidates from other parties may declare their intention to enter the race after the primary election. If no other candidates runs, the winner of next week’s primary election will most likely win the general election.