It may be past the Fourth of July, but there were fireworks during the District Attorney debate held Thursday night.
Challenger Tim Pirtle claimed District Attorney General Lisa Zavogiannis has been soft on crime, dismissing charges, and losing a large chunk of cases when her office does go to trial.
Zavogiannis fired back that Pirtle is intentionally misrepresenting the facts and if it’s not intentional then he doesn’t know a thing about criminal law.
The debate started peacefully enough with Zavogiannis outlining her first eight years in office during her opening statement.
“One of the things I was concerned about when I ran for DA was the victims. Victims of crime, I felt like, were not getting the attention they needed. I have spent a substantial amount of time making sure victims are informed on what is going on in their cases. If you have lost a child in a vehicular homicide, it is imperative you understand the system,” said Zavogiannis.
Zavogiannis said her office’s Child Support Division has handled over 3,000 cases in child support.
“When I took office, we were at the bottom in the state in child support collections. We were about No. 30 out of 31 districts. That’s pretty low. We have continuously every year been one of the top performing child support offices in the state of Tennessee. I have received multiple awards throughout my eight years in office. I am very proud of that. Not that I deserve those awards, because I do not. It is the seven people who work in that office every day and talk to those 3,000 people, actually 6,000 people because you have 3,000 cases. They deserve the recognition for the hard work they do. We collect millions and millions of dollars in child support. The first three months of this year, we collected $1.5 million and that is for the children of this district,” she said.
Zavogiannis said another area she thought needed improving was law enforcement.
“When I took office, the TBI was not in McMinnville. They basically did nothing here. The prior DA didn’t have them coming in his office. I have made sure the TBI is here. They have an office in my office. They have a key to my office. I think it is important we work well with law enforcement,” Zavogiannis said.
In his opening statement, Pirtle said he was running as an independent because he believes offices that involve the judicial system should be free of partisan politics. Pirtle quickly informed the audience what his biggest concern will be as district attorney.
“The reason I am running is because I am sick and tired of hearing my hometown referred to as MethMinnville. I am sick and tired of hearing the Nursery Capital of the World referred to as the Meth Capital of the World. We cannot advance the agenda with our community and recruit good jobs through manufacturing with a label like MethMinnville stuck on our town,” said Pirtle.
He cited the positive things Warren County has going for it such as a greenway with Barren Fork River, the recent revitalization of Magness Library and the downtown court square.
“We have so many things going right but the one thing going wrong and the 900-pound gorilla in this race is methamphetamine. My opponent didn’t mention methamphetamine in her opening statement and I am curious about that because our Sheriff Jackie Matheny has publicly declared that he has busted 270 meth labs in that last couple of years. This District Attorney’s office, however, has only taken a total of eight drug cases to court for the last full year for which statistics are available. And of those eight drug cases that they took to trial, they lost four of them,” said Pirtle.
Pirtle then scrutinized Zavogiannis’ prosecution record.
“I hear a lot from my opponent about a special domestic abuse prosecutor. There was one domestic abuse case tried in that last full year and it was lost. I hear a lot about a special DUI prosecutor. There were three DUI cases tried in that last year and two of those were lost. In an office with eight full-time lawyers and over 20 staff members, this District Attorney’s office tried only 19 juried cases with eight full-time lawyers. Of those 19 trials, they lost eight. They lost 40 percent of the cases they tried. I’m not suggesting it is a lack of talent. But, we have an office that is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the phones are turned off. The office is closed from noon till 1 p.m. That is a seven-hour workday. And, bless your heart if you are a member of the Van Buren County community because you have no DA’s office unless you get in your car and drive down the mountain to McMinnville. And, you’ve got to do that between 8 and 4 and you can’t do it during your lunch hour.”
Pirtle said the Van Buren community miss out on important programs such as drug court.
“If I am elected your district attorney, your are going to see the aggressive prosecution of cases as anyone who has known me in the past 35 years as a civil litigator has seen. I will not bargain away drug cases like Johnny Miller, the Country Club drug dealer who the sheriff busted red-handed with 44 pounds of dope and $60,000. I will not bargain those cases away for nothing. I will not let him walk with a diversion of the charge with an expungment of his criminal record. Go to the clerk’s office and ask to see State vs. Johnny Miller. His record has been expunged. You are not going to see that on my watch,” Pirtle said.
During her rebuttal, Zavigannis said a lot of the information given by Pirtle was wrong.
“My opponent has been saying that I dismissed half the cases, that I have only done two cases. The problem my opponent has is he is not reading the fine print, or maybe he doesn’t understand criminal law, or maybe he is intentionally misleading you. Because the fact of the matter is what he is citing and quoting and showing the public is dealing with counts. And if he had looked at his documents, he would know those are counts that are being dismissed. Those are not cases. That’s as much difference as daylight or dark. Further, if he were very informed in the criminal world, he would also understand Van Buren County has access to every single thing the citizens of Warren County have. They have me going to their homes. They have me meeting them at the courthouse. They have a child support office that was given to them free in Van Buren County. If my opponent was aware of what is going on, he might know that,” said Zavogiannis. “But, it appears my opponent can only think of one thing. That is methamphetamine. You know, methamphetamine is a problem, absolutely, but it is not the only problem we have here. We are busting those meth labs. We are prosecuting those meth labs. Last year we had 572 cases in Circuit Court. Of those, 65 of them were methamphetamine cases, 89 of those were prescription drug cases. He keeps forgetting about that. That is a huge problem in this district and we cannot ignore our prescription drug abuse cases. We also have cocaine here. We have lots of cases, but, you know, what has really, really bothered me tonight is the fact he is misleading you to believe that Johnny Miller got a diversion. If he knew anything about criminal law, he would understand that Johnny Miller did not get a diversion. Johnny Miller was placed on probation for two years. You know why he was placed on probation for two years, because what he had was a Class D felony. Now, attorneys who practice criminal law on a regular basis understand a Class D felony carries with it two to four years. Now, we know if we practice criminal law, that you have to look at first of all probation. You have to look at their prior history. Johnny Miller had one DUI in his prior history. He’s not eligible for diversion. He couldn’t have possibly gotten diversion. He had to get probation. He also had to give up $60,000 that was given to our drug fund where they took that money to get other drug dealers. Also, a vehicle they took to get other drug dealers. If you want to see what happened to Johnny Miller go to the Circuit Court Clerk.”
Pirtle said, “You can ask for a copy and they will tell you as they did me yesterday. His record has been expunged. He has no record in the Circuit Court of Warren County. I guess the moral to the Johnny Miller Country Club drug dealer case is, if you’ve got $60,000 in drug money laying around you can buy your peace and you will never serve a day. If you are a kid on the strip who gets pulled over with a marijuana roach in your ashtray, you can end up with a drug conviction on your record that will haunt you the rest of your life. As far as the statistics that I am misquoting, they are published under the direction of the Tennessee Supreme Court by the office of the administrator’s court. I am talking about the number of cases tried, the number of acquittals, and the number of convictions. Don’t take my work for it. Come up and look at it yourself. As far as the number of cases dismissed, the figures recorded compiled and published by the administrator of the court under the guidance of the Tennessee Supreme Court shows that 46.7 percent of the criminal dispositions for District 31, Warren and Van Buren counties, were dismissed.”
In her closing statement, Zavogiannis said she has documents to prove Pirtle is misleading groups of people he has spoken to while running for office.
“I want you to know that despite what my opponent says, I have aggressively fought the drug issue in this community. I have aggressively worked to make our community safe for my children and for your children. But, I’ve gone above and beyond doing that because I think there is more to this job than just going to the courtroom. I’ve gone to the schools. I’ve talked to the children. Do you know that more children in this community know me than adults? If I go out to the community, I’m finding that I may not know their parents but they are telling their parents who I am. That tells me I am making a difference. We are making a difference in helping our children. Because you know we can go to the courtroom and we can fight these cases every day which we will and we do but we’ve got to look at doing more. We’ve got to look at preventing crime. We need to be in the schools. I’ve been in the schools. I want to continue doing that. I want to continue fighting for our children who are children of abuse. I worked hard during my term and I would like to continue doing that. When I took this job, I took an oath and that oath was to pursue justice, to protect the innocent and do the right thing. And, I assure you every day I remember that oath. And I have done that. I will appreciate your vote,” said Zavogiannis.
Pirtle said in his closing statement that if elected district attorney general, he will immediately reach out to Sheriff Jackie Matheny and other law enforcement officials to form a drug task force which this community has lacked since Dale Potter was district attorney.
“I will lock arms with those departments of law enforcement and together with community support we will march across this district and we will fight the fight against not only methamphetamine but other drugs. That is the real challenge our community faces. Murders, rapes, bank robberies, I did those from the first year I was in practice. And, although, of course, every case is serious when you are prosecuting for the victim of a crime those cases are easy compared to ridding this community of the plague of methamphetamine and other illegal drugs,” said Pirtle.
Pirtle also promised to open a full-time district attorney’s office in Spencer to serve the needs of Van Buren County.
Video footage from the political forum is available on the Standard’s website, www.southernstandard.com.