Parole Board scandal raises big questions – about state watchdog agency

Governor Ralph Northam, pictured with Attorney General Mark Herring and Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran, far right, in 2019 (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

It might not be Teapot Dome or Iran-Contra, but it looks like some Democrats would have you believe the nearly year-long Parole Board scandal is nothing more than those old folks. Republicans rushing over minor procedural errors to spark election year attacks – even after audio emerged from the defiant members of Governor Ralph Northam’s administration gave the Inspector General and his subordinates.

To be sure, much of the heat coming from GOP lawmakers is likely based on their belief that some violent criminals deserve to die behind bars as well as the fact that for a party desperate to regain some control in a state that slipped out of their “soft crime” offensives targeting Democrats are back to basics.

But that’s not to say there aren’t many out there, especially for people concerned about government transparency, the ability of oversight agencies to do their jobs, and whistleblower protection, all of which Democrats have recently said they care a lot, at least when it comes to Donald Trump’s White House.

To recap:

• The Office of the State Inspector General, acting in response to complaints filed with the State Hotline for Waste, Fraud and Abuse, conducted an investigation into the release of Vincent Martin – who was convicted of the 1979 murder of a prison officer, earning a reputation as a model prisoner – amid an outcry from conservative police, prosecutors and lawmakers.

• In July, the IG office was set to release its findings that the board and former president Adrianne Bennett violated state law and its own victim notification procedures in the case. de Martin when the Northam administration was informed that the report was about to reach reporters. The email “seemed to set off a chain of events that would delay the report’s release and end with almost everything in it being written,” Mercury’s Graham Moomaw reported in November.

• Republicans in the General Assembly have demanded an unredacted copy of the report, are getting it and releasing it in August. The state code states that the IG “shall inform the chief of staff of the governor, the president, the chief of the majority and the chief of the minority of the House of Delegates, and the president pro tempore, the chief of the majority and the Senate Minority Leader of the problems, abuses or deficiencies. relating to the management or operation of a public agency or a non-state agency. “

• Shortly after the report was released to the General Assembly, Inspector General Michael Westfall and his staff were called to a meeting in which administration officials hammered them over the report’s release by government officials. GOP lawmakers and aggressively challenged some of the results. Westfall and his associates, who largely stuck to their guns, said there were other reports of wrongdoing from the Parole Board. Northam officials, including Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran and Chief of Staff Clark Mercer, appeared determined to ensure that more embarrassing details were not made public.

Clark Mercer, chief of staff to Governor Ralph Northam, discusses an investigation into the Virginia Parole Board at a press conference in August. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

• Westfall has apparently taken this message to heart. In October, we learned that there were half a dozen more reports from the IG office on whether the Parole Board was following state law and its own release procedures. convicted killers. They were almost entirely redacted, but then leaked to the media in unredacted form, revealing Bennett’s zeal to free detainees and ignore victim and prosecutor notification requirements extended to others. case. The Northam administration and the Inspector General’s office, ascribing surprising transitional properties to the broad Freedom of Information Act exemption enjoyed by the Parole Board, asserted that the contents of the reports could not be legally disclosed, including by members of the General Assembly, due to prohibitions. in FOIA law. The FOIA experts told me that was incorrect.

‘Laws didn’t matter’: leaked reports show parole board violations

• In February, WTVR, a Richmond television station, reported that an earlier draft of the Martin case report had been shortened from 13 pages to six pages. This happened after being sent to Attorney General Mark Herring’s office. The previous draft contained additional allegations about the conduct of Bennett and current President Tonya Chapman. This prompted Senator John Bell, D-Loudoun, one of the few Democrats to say much about the Parole Board case, to join Senator Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, in asking the Senate to form a committee for “a clear and transparent investigation without influence. “

• In late February, as questions mounted about the role his administration could have played in hushing up details of the reports, Northam said he supported an “outside investigation” into the mess.

• Last month, IG investigator Jennifer Moschetti came forward to seek whistleblower protection to share full versions of her reports with members of the General Assembly. She was suspended and then fired, but not before revealing that she had received a bonus and applause for her work on Parole Board cases, work that Mercer and Moran have publicly called “biased.” . Moschetti, who was present at the recorded meeting in August, said the real purpose of the meeting was “to intimidate the state inspector general and investigators charged with making factual findings regarding members of the parole ”.

• At the end of March, Chapman, the current chairman of the board, sued WTVR, claiming that the TV station defamed it by publishing details in the draft Martin report and claiming $ 7 million in damages.

• Earlier this month, the Democratic-led General Assembly approved a $ 250,000 budget amendment from the Northam administration for the Attorney General’s office, which advised both the Parole Board and the Inspector General’s office, to choose an external investigator to investigate the IG’s investigation. the Martin case. Republicans in the General Assembly immediately denounced him as “partisan laundering,” noting that the outside investigator will be chosen by Democrats: Herring, the governor’s office and Democratic leaders in the legislature. “This is an inquiry into the inquiry,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham. “This is an investigation into our supposedly independent watchdog. Who ever heard of such a thing?

Senator Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, denounces a paying budget amendment for a third party investigation of the Office of the Inspector General, during the Senate session inside the Science Museum where the Virginia Senate sits meets during veto session in Richmond, VA Tuesday, April 7, 2021 (pool photo by Bob Brown / Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Do you have it all? I at least agree with the governor’s office on this point: it has indeed become an “absolute circus”.

Flip the scenario around and imagine a similar sequence of events taking place between the governor’s office, the attorney general, and a state agency in a GOP administration, with allied lawmakers saying “Nothing to see here,” and you can bet. that the Democrats would have let slip the dogs of war too.

But no matter what you think about parole and who should get it, perhaps even more troubling than what has been leaked about how the Parole Board works is what the scandal revealed about the Bureau. of the Inspector General of State, created in 2011 by the General. Assembly and housed under the aegis of the governor’s office.

The Inspector General, whose role is to “maximize public confidence in state government,” is appointed by the governor, approved by the General Assembly, and reports to the governor’s chief of staff. And, as the recording clearly shows, this structure can make grilling uncomfortable for people with the power to fire the watchdog when his office issues a report that the administration really doesn’t like.

“These are the kinds of things that lead me to find a new job. Against my will, ”Westfall said in the audio recording after leaving the meeting with Mercer and Moran. “And I agree with that. I knew that when I accepted the job.

“If you let yourself go because of this, then everyone is going to fight,” replied a colleague.

“It doesn’t have to be for that,” Westfall said. “It can be something else. You know how it works.

This hierarchical structure, according to the old Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, who passed the House version of the legislation creating the office, was a compromise needed to get it off the ground.

Former Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

“We tried to thread the needle as best we could,” Landes, now a clerk of the Augusta district court, told me in an interview. “My preference would have been to have a completely independent agency. But in going through the legislative process, sometimes you have to be realistic. “

Never before had lawmakers envisioned in 2011 that the Office of the Inspector General would refuse to disclose information to the legislature that created it, confirms its leader, funds the agencies it investigates and passes laws governing the operation of these agencies, he said.

“For those of us who are sitting outside, especially those of us who were in the Legislature, it is ludicrous that we cannot share information with the Legislature,” said Landes, qualifying the arguments of the FOIA administration as “ridiculous”.

Failure to disclose completed investigative reports, fire the investigator who turned them over to lawmakers and push for questionable FOIA exemptions puts the state on a “frightening track,” he said .

“The reason the Office of Inspector General was originally created is counter-intuitive. It was never meant to be a secret body, ”he said. “The General Assembly is going to have to really review the statutes and strengthen them. … When they find something they don’t like, the idea shouldn’t be that the administration can just sweep it under the rug.

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