Meg Daly Heap is taking on controversial incumbent Larry Chisolm for the vital job of Chatham County District Attorney, the county’s chief prosecutor of criminals.
The two candidates are actually quite familiar to each other, both having the bulk of their experience and training together under former Chatham County D.A. Spencer Lawton (who last week endorsed Heap). Soon after his election, Chisolm actually hired Heap as his chief assistant district attorney, essentially the number–two job in that office, a position she quit in 2010 to go work for Judge Penny Freesemann.
The St. Vincent’s graduate, also an alumna of Georgia Southern and Mercer University law school, now works in private practice. She took a break from debate prep to speak to us last week.
Let’s cut to the chase: Do you draw a direct line between the performance of the current D.A. and the recent high–profile spike in violent crime? Are the two related?
Meg Daly Heap: There’s certainly a direct line in the sense of how much turnover there’s been in the D.A.’s office. There was a loss of 51 people out of 82 people on that staff. That’s over 500 years of experience!
Who we’re seeing now doing most of the violent crime are recidivists — repeat offenders — as in the Ashleigh Moore case. That man was a three–time convicted child molester. And the D.A.’s office lost evidence — they were not prepared or ready to go to trial. There are other cases where that lack of experience and competence plays out.
The police are doing their job arresting criminals, but the D.A.’s also got to do their job.
You’re running as a Republican and he’s running as a Democrat. Is there really an ideological difference between you, or are most of your criticisms a matter of process?
Meg Daly Heap: A combination of the two. It starts with recognizing the basic value of your employees. Larry has said the only people in his office he needs to maintain contact with are attorneys. I totally disagree. You could be best attorney in world, but if you don’t have the support staff of secretaries and advocates and people like that, to keep the victim whole and safe, you can’t do your job. I believe in hiring good competent people, giving them tools, training and support, and then getting out of their way.
One of Larry’s attorneys was held in contempt of court for not doing their job! That I thought was a shame, because that individual was someone having personal difficulties. As a leader you need to be aware of your staff. Is it a personal issue or a professional issue? You have to have your pulse on your office.
I notice you’re being diplomatic here about the multiple lawsuits against Chisolm alleging harassment and other improper workplace behavior.
Meg Daly Heap: I don’t talk too much about the lawsuits. I will say that former D.A. Spencer Lawton, who I worked under for 15 years, taught me how to manage people. He treated all employees with respect. I would have thought Larry might feel the same way, since he got the same training I did.
I can say three things about those lawsuits: One, if you’re getting sued by your employees you’re obviously not treating people like you need to treat them.
Two, taxpayers are paying for all this. The judgment against him was $270,000, taxpayers will foot that bill. Also the $32,000 in attorney’s fees. There’s also the appeal that Larry promises, which taxpayers will also pay for. Oh, and there’s still another lawsuit.So instead of building a new playground or starting a new program to keep juveniles out of trouble, we’re paying to defend personal actions against employees.
And lastly, instead of doing his job in the D.A.’s office, Larry Chisolm is sitting in federal court defending lawsuits! He’s on employee time, on our dime. We’re paying him a salary to sit in federal court!
I have to say I’ve been surprised how little outrage there’s been about it.
Meg Daly Heap: I’m astonished he even ran. I can’t believe he’s running.
Why are you running?
Meg Daly Heap: I come from a background of victim advocacy, that’s where my passion is. If your daughter’s raped, you don’t care about the process from A to B. You want to know, “is there somebody competent to handle my case and can we bring the rapist to justice?”
Crime crosses all boundaries. We all think “oh, it’ll never happen to me,” but it can and it does. Doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, black or white, man or woman.
When businesses look to relocate, they look at two things: the crime rate and education. There’s been an 11 percent increase in violent crime here! That’s serious.
I’m a huge supporter of law enforcement, and I believe our law enforcement officers do a great job. But then the case gets to the D.A.’s office and that office fails.
For better or worse, in this country the entire justice system really is geared to always favor the defendant, isn’t it? A district attorney’s job is really key.
Meg Daly Heap: We have the best criminal justice system in the world, and one reason is when you’re charged with a crime you’re afforded certain rights, as you should be.
But the other side people forget is the person who was victimized. The district attorney is the only voice the victim has in the entire system. That’s it. If they don’t give you a voice, you’re never heard.