Registrar, attorney face felonies, but will a public official lose her job?

Former electoral board member Stephanie Commander and Charlottesville Registrar Sheri Iachetta were charged with a combined 10 felony counts on Wednesday, September 17. Photos: Charlottesville City Police Former electoral board member Stephanie Commander and Charlottesville Registrar Sheri Iachetta were charged with a combined 10 felony counts on Wednesday, September 17. Photos: Charlottesville City Police

Charlottesville Registrar Sheri Iachetta is back at work after her arrest last week on multiple felony charges related to misuse of public funds, and the majority of the electoral board that has the power to fire her say they want to see her keep her position—at least until after the November elections.

Iachetta and local defense attorney Stephanie Commander turned themselves in to police on Wednesday, September 17. Their arrests marked a dramatic moment in a scandal that unfurled over the course of several weeks, thanks in part to relentless prodding from The Daily Progress: For years, Iachetta had been approving taxpayer-funded cell phone plans for Commander, a former electoral board member who left office in 2011, as well as Iachetta’s husband, Pat Owen, a former employee who left the registrar’s office in 2009.

The cell phone payments first came to light when a deputy registrar brought them to the attention of City Manager Maurice Jones in March, according to reports. But it wasn’t until last month that Jones ordered an investigation, prompting the appointment of a special prosecutor from Nelson County to look into the payments. Electoral Board Chair Joan Schatzman has criticized him harshly for not acting sooner, but Jones said in an e-mail this week that he initially wasn’t aware of how long the cell phone payments had been going on.

“I was under the impression that this was a recent issue,” Jones wrote. “I intended to discuss this with Ms. Iachetta at our annual meeting this past summer,” but once he learned the payments had been going on for years, he immediately asked for a police investigation.

Iachetta and Commander have since repaid the city more than $7,000, but they still face serious consequences. Commander received four felony counts of embezzlement, which could mean four years in jail—not to mention disbarment. Iachetta was charged with six felony counts of misuse of public funds and assets, which carry a maximum sentence of 60 years. Neither responded to requests for comment for this story.

But Iachetta is not in immediate danger of losing her job. The sole Republican on the electoral board, Rick Sincere, declined to comment, but the two Democrats indicated they wouldn’t necessarily force Iachetta out of office, let alone call for a vote before November.

“We’re focused on the election right now,” said the electoral board’s vice chair, Democrat Jim Nix, who has expressed frustration with how the incident was aired in public. Iachetta, like other registrars in the state, is serving a four-year term that ends next June. Only a majority vote by the three-member board can remove her, said Nix, and the grounds must be nonperformance of duty.

When asked whether the board might vote her out, his response was sharp.

“I have no idea, and if I did, I wouldn’t share a comment now,” he said. “I can tell you absolutely nothing will happen before the election.”

Board Chair Joan Schatzman, also a Democrat, said she and Nix might have disagreed on how to handle the media fallout around the cell phone debacle—“he wanted to keep it quiet and I didn’t,” she said—but they agree that Iachetta should stay for now, and the ultimate decision should weigh the outcome of the charges she’s facing. Schatzman said she met with Iachetta Monday, and was satisfied that the registrar would be able to oversee the November election even as she’s dealing with her felony charges. 

“What she did with the phone bills and running the election are two different things,” Schatzman said. “If she’s convicted of a felony, so long. If not, then the board is going to have to discuss it. Sheri’s given us 16 years of good, clean, efficient elections, so if she pleads to a lesser charge and it’s a misdemeanor, well, everybody makes mistakes.”

The legal community is watching, too. Charlottesville defense attorney David Heilberg said the arrest of Commander came as a surprise.

“She’s always been a conscientious, capable, and well-liked attorney, and she does a lot of court-appointed work,” he said.

As for what kind of defense she might mount, and what explanation she might offer for continuing to use a city-funded phone three years after she left office, Heilberg said it’s possible she could claim she understood the phone was paid for in return for “uncompensated long-time volunteer service.” Commander and Iachetta’s move to pay back what they owed wasn’t necessarily an admission of guilt, either—of civil liability, maybe, he said, but not criminal. 

And the buck likely stops with them. For Jones to be held criminally liable, a prosecutor would need to show he was a co-conspirator or an accessory.

“That’s a little more extreme,” Heilberg said.

A few things are sure. The situation is unusual, he said—he can’t remember a Virginia registrar ever being tangled up in a case like this. And, he added, “it really is unfortunate.”

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