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Newly elected Chesterfield chief prosecutor begins making changes, so far firing 2 attorneys from previous administration and naming a chief deputy

Newly elected Chesterfield chief prosecutor begins making changes, so far firing 2 attorneys from previous administration and naming a chief deputy

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Scott Miles is wasting no time sweeping out the old as he prepares to make way for the new as Chesterfield County’s newly elected commonwealth’s attorney.

During his first week in office, Miles fired the office’s Republican chief deputy who ran against him and another top deputy who led a regional grand jury that serves six localities. Miles then named as his second-in-command a veteran county prosecutor who supported his campaign.

Miles also began shedding the 31 cases he was handling as a defense attorney that had reached the trial level, which has required the county’s circuit court judges to appoint special prosecutors to avoid conflicts of interest.

Much more change lies ahead.

In coming weeks, Miles will hire more attorneys who share his vision as members of his management team to help him deliver on the promises he made to “improve this office’s service to the community.” Bringing in new leaders means that most but not all of the prosecutors currently in senior positions will be let go, he said.

“This isn’t a new phenomenon, [it] is an expected result of a commonwealth’s attorney’s election,” said Miles, pointing to similar house cleanings made by Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor, who removed seven prosecutors when she was first elected in 2011, and Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring, who dropped five of the office’s six deputy prosecutors after his first election in 2006.

During the campaign, Miles said he made it known that he would be offering positions in his administration to lower-ranking employees, including every member of the office support staff and all of the assistant commonwealth’s attorneys, “so the work of this office will continue without significant disruption as I adopted new policies and procedures.”

But several attorneys recalled Miles’ statements differently. Thomas McKenna, the deputy prosecutor Miles fired soon after the election, said his dismissal came as a surprise. “Mr. Miles said publicly and privately to various people that he would not fire anyone.”

Hours after Miles’ victory became assured in a close race with Republican John Childrey, Miles sent McKenna an email that he would not have a job once Miles took office. Miles sent a similar email termination notice to Childrey. Miles was sworn in a week later.

The email firings left a bad taste in the mouths of some of McKenna and Childrey’s colleagues and other courthouse attorneys.

McKenna, who served 18 years as a Chesterfield prosecutor, said he was fine with leaving, but, “I think the way he handled it, by email, was very unusual.”

He added: “I would not want to have remained in any event, given his strongly ideological stance on criminal justice.”

Miles, who served four years as a Richmond prosecutor ending in 2009 and sought to lead the Richmond Public Defender’s Office two years ago, made clear during the campaign that he wants to enact progressive reforms to Chesterfield’s criminal justice system.

That includes scaling back the war on drugs, reducing the rate of incarceration, “tearing down the school-to-prison pipeline,” implementing policies and procedures that would seek to “defelonize” some nonviolent crimes and reducing felony drug offenses to misdemeanors for defendants charged with simple possession of any drug.

Miles said he plans to name an “effective and experienced prosecutor” to replace McKenna as special counsel to the multijurisdictional grand jury and the Central Virginia Drug Task Force spearheaded by state police.

Miles said he has discussed his selection, whom he has not yet publicly disclosed, with the county’s chief circuit court judge, “who expressed respect for her.”

“I’ll be continuing the necessary movements to get her in place so pending prosecutions aren’t disrupted,” he said.

Several area elected prosecutors whose localities participate in the grand jury said Miles didn’t consult with them about his decision to fire McKenna, whom they supported, adding that decisions such as personnel matters and the mission of the two bodies traditionally have been made collectively among the jurisdictions.

“Everybody has input into the multijurisdictional grand jury,” said Petersburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Cheryl Wilson. “We all have input on that position. We were always notified as to who that person was. I’m pretty sure we’re all going to have to get together and have a conversation.”

After Miles was sworn in as commonwealth’s attorney on Tuesday, he announced he had selected Sangeeta Darji as his new chief deputy. Darji has been a Chesterfield prosecutor since 2007 and worked three years before that in the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.

In a statement, Miles said he selected Darji “to help me work toward reforming our criminal justice system to ensure that we focus on violent offenders, not on nonviolent residents struggling with addiction.”

Her father, Jayantilal Darji, who immigrated to the U.S. from India decades ago and was one of the founding members of the Hindu Center of Virginia, was one of Miles’ top donors. His $2,500 donation was equal to what the Chesterfield Democratic Party contributed to his campaign, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which compiles candidates’ campaign contribution records.

Miles said Friday that he had decided Darji would be his chief deputy “well before her father contributed to the campaign.”

“She and I were co-workers at the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, and I have learned to respect her abilities and judgment over the years,” Miles said. “Since announcing her promotion, I have received many approving comments from our colleagues in the Bar.”

During the campaign, Miles also received donations from at least two dozen attorneys — mostly lawyers in private practice but also several prosecutors outside Chesterfield, VPAP records show.

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