Opinion/Commentary: We deserve answers on Aug. 12 that only an independent and bipartisan commission can provide

Counter protesters walk away from a smoke canister during a Unite the Right rally protest over the name change of Lee Park on Saturday Aug. 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Va. SHABAN ATHUMAN/TIMES-DISPATCH

Like millions of Americans, we were shocked and sickened by recent events in Charlottesville. On Aug. 12, our community saw violence and chaos on our streets and we now seek answers. Law enforcement and first responders deserve gratitude for their extraordinary service that weekend. Nothing can diminish the service and sacrifice of those who risked — and those who gave — their lives to avert additional violence.

 

Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the intelligence, planning, command, control, and implementation of law enforcement’s response to these events were flawed. Tim Heaphy, a lawyer at a private firm and a former U.S. Attorney, was among the first to solicit a role in assessing these events. However, in our opinion, any attorney representing the city of Charlottesville, a central actor in — and named civil party to — what took place is not equipped to provide the credible and independent investigation to which our community and country are entitled.

Put simply, private attorneys are ethically bound to represent the interests of their clients, not the public. Private attorneys owe clients broad and far-reaching duties of loyalty, confidentiality, and zealous representation. It is plainly unreasonable to expect a lawyer representing a client that planned and coordinated the response to the events of August to publicly deliver an independent assessment of those events. Moreover, any report will be reviewed by a city manager and council unlikely to waive confidentiality if doing so casts them or the Charlottesville in a negative light.

In addition, the state has denied access to key information, attaching priority to its own investigation. Law enforcement agencies have had no obligation to cooperate, and other parties are unlikely to voluntarily disclose adverse information. Other actors have even sought to establish investigative bodies of their own. This piecemeal approach is not only unhelpful, it frustrates objective assessment and the public accountability that comes with it.

The poignancy of August will not diminish over time, but the clarity of these events inevitably will. To ensure transparency and timely accountability, Virginia’s governor and General Assembly should authorize a balanced panel of respected, bipartisan professionals to assess the official preparation and response to these events. Panel members should be free of professional bias, personal interest, and future political aspiration.

Of crucial importance, the panel should be vested with legal authority and compulsory process, including subpoena power, access to information, compelling witness statements under oath, and other tools essential to rendering a comprehensive and credible report to the public. The composition of the 911 Commission — and the quality of its findings — may serve as a potential model for a Virginia panel.

We must never allow ourselves to be defined by those whose beliefs are anathema to who we are. What the world saw this summer was neither Charlottesville nor Virginia. And it was not America. America is about faith, freedom, equality, unity, and justice. Few tasks can more urgently uphold our values, and honor the memory of those who died in our city, than the creation of a truly independent bipartisan panel to find out what went wrong — and why. Charlottesville, and America, deserve no less.

Robert Tracci is the Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney. He previously served as special assistant U.S. attorney, deputy assistant attorney general and chief legislative counsel and parliamentarian to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.

The Rev. Alvin Edwards is pastor at Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church in Charlottesville. He established the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, whose mission is to establish, develop and promote racial unity within the faith leadership of the Charlottesville-Albemarle region. Edwards is a former Charlottesville city councilor and former member of the Charlottesville School Board. He served as Charlottesville’s mayor from 1990 to 1992.

Like millions of Americans, we were shocked and sickened by recent events in Charlottesville. On Aug. 12, our community saw violence and chaos on our streets and we now seek answers. Law enforcement and first responders deserve gratitude for their extraordinary service that weekend. Nothing can diminish the service and sacrifice of those who risked — and those who gave — their lives to avert additional violence.

Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the intelligence, planning, command, control, and implementation of law enforcement’s response to these events were flawed. Tim Heaphy, a lawyer at a private firm and a former U.S. Attorney, was among the first to solicit a role in assessing these events. However, in our opinion, any attorney representing the city of Charlottesville, a central actor in — and named civil party to — what took place is not equipped to provide the credible and independent investigation to which our community and country are entitled.

Put simply, private attorneys are ethically bound to represent the interests of their clients, not the public. Private attorneys owe clients broad and far-reaching duties of loyalty, confidentiality, and zealous representation. It is plainly unreasonable to expect a lawyer representing a client that planned and coordinated the response to the events of August to publicly deliver an independent assessment of those events. Moreover, any report will be reviewed by a city manager and council unlikely to waive confidentiality if doing so casts them or the Charlottesville in a negative light.

In addition, the state has denied access to key information, attaching priority to its own investigation. Law enforcement agencies have had no obligation to cooperate, and other parties are unlikely to voluntarily disclose adverse information. Other actors have even sought to establish investigative bodies of their own. This piecemeal approach is not only unhelpful, it frustrates objective assessment and the public accountability that comes with it.

The poignancy of August will not diminish over time, but the clarity of these events inevitably will. To ensure transparency and timely accountability, Virginia’s governor and General Assembly should authorize a balanced panel of respected, bipartisan professionals to assess the official preparation and response to these events. Panel members should be free of professional bias, personal interest, and future political aspiration.

Of crucial importance, the panel should be vested with legal authority and compulsory process, including subpoena power, access to information, compelling witness statements under oath, and other tools essential to rendering a comprehensive and credible report to the public. The composition of the 911 Commission — and the quality of its findings — may serve as a potential model for a Virginia panel.

We must never allow ourselves to be defined by those whose beliefs are anathema to who we are. What the world saw this summer was neither Charlottesville nor Virginia. And it was not America. America is about faith, freedom, equality, unity, and justice. Few tasks can more urgently uphold our values, and honor the memory of those who died in our city, than the creation of a truly independent bipartisan panel to find out what went wrong — and why. Charlottesville, and America, deserve no less.

Robert Tracci is the Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney. He previously served as special assistant U.S. attorney, deputy assistant attorney general and chief legislative counsel and parliamentarian to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.

The Rev. Alvin Edwards is pastor at Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church in Charlottesville. He established the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, whose mission is to establish, develop and promote racial unity within the faith leadership of the Charlottesville-Albemarle region. Edwards is a former Charlottesville city councilor and former member of the Charlottesville School Board. He served as Charlottesville’s mayor from 1990 to 1992.