Challenger vows to bring transparency, reforms to commonwealth’s attorney office

Picture of Descano talking to woman
(Steve Descano for Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney image)

Who is Fairfax County’s commonwealth’s attorney? And what does the commonwealth’s attorney do?

A lot of residents may not know the answers, and that’s part of the reason that Steve Descano has mounted a Democratic primary challenge to current Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond Morrogh. A former federal prosecutor, Descano says Morrogh’s low profile has obscured the importance of the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, and allowed the county’s justice system to operate without appropriate transparency.

“The commonwealth’s attorney needs to be out in the community and listening to people,” Descano said in an interview last week. “Transparency and community engagement are two sides of the same coin, and that’s something I want to do.”

Beyond transparency, Descano is highly critical of Morrogh’s policies, which he described as “regressive” and out of touch with the values of residents.

Descano, 38, says on his website that the war on drugs has been “a resounding failure,” and that a 70 percent increase in drug arrests since 2010 has done little to combat addiction in the county. He vows to confront systemic discrimination and implicit bias in the criminal justice system and “treat people of all races and ethnicities equally.”

Descano also wants to eliminate cash bail, a practice he calls “outdated” and says unfairly penalizes poor residents.

“[Morrogh] is in favor cash bail,” Descano said. “I support creating a more equal justice system, and that’s through elimination of cash bail.”

Descano’s campaign is part of a wave in the past few years of reform-minded candidates seeking to unseat incumbent district attorneys. The election of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2017 is the most high-profile win for reformers, and closer to home, a challenger who holds positions similar to Descano is running to unseat Arlington’s commonwealth’s attorney.

“The criminal justice system is so important is that we have to make sure the values of the community is represented there,” Descano said. “The more I looked into [Fairfax County’s system] over the past year, I saw things that were pretty stunning.”

Descano specifically cited Morrogh’s leadership role in the National District Attorneys Association, which praised the 2016 selection of Jeff Sessions by President Trump as Attorney General. Morrogh, in his capacity as at-large director of the NDAA, also testified on Capitol Hill in 2014 against the Obama administration’s effort to reduce prison sentences for low-level drug offenses. Morrogh also joined with other prosecutors in the state opposing former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s 2016 decision to restore voting rights to convicted felons.

“If you take a look at somebody who can take those positions, it shows somebody who is really out of step with the community,” Descano said.

Morrogh took office in 2007, beating a Republican challenger to replace longtime Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Horan. Morrogh had served under Horan since 1983 and prosecuted a number of big cases as his deputy, including the case of D.C. sniper Lee Boyd Malvo.

Morrogh was re-elected without opposition in 2011 and 2015, but by the end of his second term he had begun to come under criticism for the county’s handling of a number of high-profile cases involving law enforcement officers. The 2009 police shooting of David Masters on Richmond Highway, the 2013 police shooting of John Geer in Burke and the death of Natasha McKenna — who died after being shackled and tasered by deputies in the county jail in 2015 — cost the county millions of dollars in civil settlements, but resulted in little criminal punishment.

Morrogh chose not to prosecute any law enforcement officers in the cases of McKenna or Masters, and transferred the Geer case to federal investigators five months after the shooting. The officer in the case eventually pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in 2016, and was sentenced to a year in jail.

“My opponent’s performance in some of these cases has been lacking,” says Descano, who faulted Morrogh for not taking action in Masters’ case, and said “the Geer case was handled incredibly poorly.”

In addition to his time as a prosecutor, Descano has served as a trial attorney in the Criminal Tax Division and Consumer Protection Branch of the Justice Department. A 2002 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Descano served as an Army helicopter pilot. Descano has lived in the county for eight years. He currently works as Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel at Paragon Autism Services.

Descano also served on the Fairfax County Police Civilian Review Panel, which was formed in the wake of the Geer shooting. Descano said he believes that the county is moving in the right direction on criminal justice reforms — except for the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, which he says remains “a black box.”

“There’s no accountability, there’s no transparency,” Descano said of Morrogh’s office. “[But] the Board of Supervisors and the police have become more transparent.”