McCleary addresses DUI conviction from first year of college
By Preston Knight -- firstname.lastname@example.org
STRASBURG -- Another chapter in the clash of words between the two candidates seeking the Shenandoah County commonwealth's attorney post began during a forum Tuesday morning and carried into statements through the afternoon.
The Kiwanis Club of Strasburg held a candidates' forum for all county races and an opening on the Town Council in the Nov. 8 election at Strasburg United Methodist Church early Tuesday. The candidates spoke for roughly five minutes each to a crowd of about 50, and depending on whether they went first or second, they were able to answer their opponents' words.
The only race that has been anything close to heated, though, is that of commonwealth's attorney, in which Woodstock Mayor Jeremy McCleary, the GOP nominee, and Strasburg defense attorney Amanda McDonald Wiseley, an independent, have traded jabs -- in news releases, interviews and one previous forum -- questioning the other's qualifications, among other things. The sparring continued Tuesday.
McCleary, speaking first at the forum, said he was the only candidate with professional experience as a prosecutor -- he handles Strasburg cases in General District Court -- and that his leadership skills honed as mayor, such as balancing a budget despite a $500,000 shortfall this year, will translate to the prosecutor's office.
"My opponent has tried to do all she can to avoid the issues," he said.
Among those, McCleary said, are accusations in a recent news release that he would employ his wife, who is currently an assistant to retiring Commonwealth's Attorney Albert T. Mitchell, and seek higher political office during his first term. McCleary stated Tuesday that his wife would enter private practice should he be elected, and he pledged to seek re-election for commonwealth's attorney if he won.
Additionally, some have wrongly focused on his conviction for misdemeanor DUI when he was a college freshman in the late 1990s, he said Tuesday afternoon. It has been purged from his record, he said.
"I made a foolish decision to move my car one evening in order to prevent a parking ticket which would have resulted if the vehicle had remained in the parking lot overnight," McCleary, 30, said in a written statement. "I moved the car a short distance and I was charged with and convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol. This foolish indiscretion in my first month of college served as a wake-up call and a profound moment in my life. ... It is a shame that my opponent and her supporters are focusing on this incident from the distant past rather than the serious issues currently facing our county."
Wiseley, meanwhile, labels McCleary's assessment of her defense-only background as confusion -- in her final year of law school at the University of Richmond, she prosecuted cases under the supervision of another attorney as part of a placement program, she said at the forum. She also said it is to her benefit that she would bring a defense attorney's mentality to prosecuting, and noted that she has been involved in "hundreds and hundreds" of felony cases, unlike her opponent.
"When you're up against a defense attorney who's been practicing for 20 years, you don't want it to be your first jury trial," Wiseley said. "Balancing a budget is not going to help you when you look at 12 strangers and try to convince them [someone is guilty]. It takes experience to be able to do that. Jeremy's a nice guy. He just doesn't have the experience."
Later Tuesday, McCleary said Wiseley should not consider her time prosecuting as professional experience because it was as an intern, which he also was in law school at Syracuse University.
"I think it can be a great way to learn," McCleary said in the written statement. "But to claim that this counts as actually being a prosecutor is quite a stretch."
Bryan Layton, an assistant commonwealth's attorney in Warren County and former classmate of Wiseley's at Richmond, said by phone that it is and isn't a "stretch." But the interns do "call the shots" on everything, and are 98-99 percent responsible for the prosecution of cases, he said.
Wiseley got the last word Tuesday afternoon.
"[T]o suggest that the work I did in Richmond courts shouldn't 'count' is just a desperate ploy by a man who has never tried a felony, never had a jury, and who has less than one third my experience," she said in an email.
In other contested races spotlighted during the forum, Conrad Helsley, the District 6 representative on the Board of Supervisors, is seeking re-election against Van C. Holmes II; former Town Council members Edith Wallace and Steve Nicholson are vying for a spot on the panel again, along with John M. "Red" Hall; and incumbents Joan Comanor and Mary Gessner face challengers Craig Orndorff and Ken Cruise for two seats as directors for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.