Is opacity the legacy Northam’s regime hopes to leave on state government?

August 6, 2020 12:11 am

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

A few months ago, COVID-19 was turning nursing homes in Virginia into charnel houses, including one in Henrico that had one of the highest known death counts in America at the time. Virginians were frantic to know which extended care facilities were reporting outbreaks.

Using a ridiculously contorted interpretation of state law, Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration steadfastly refused to make the data public before eventually relenting under a wave of media scorn, bipartisan political pressure and public outrage.

About the same time, The Virginia Mercury asked the administration what taxpayers were getting out of a $573,680 contract with a global consulting firm to procure personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns for Virginia’s frontline health care workers.

Initially, the state responded with redacted documents and stonewalling before eventually releasing less-redacted versions.

COVID-19 hotspots with frightful numbers of positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths showed up in localities that were home to poultry processing plants, particularly among Hispanic workers, and the press again asked for information from the state.

Again: No can do.

Now, the state is withholding a report into alleged Parole Board irregularities linked to its release of a man convicted of shooting a Richmond police officer numerous times in the head with a .357 magnum handgun – four shots at close range – in 1979. According to The Associated Press, the Office of State Inspector General found “substantiated” allegations of … something. It’s impossible to know more because nearly all of the report AP obtained under the Freedom of Information Act was redacted.

The administration also initially balked at providing the report to select leaders of the General Assembly, even though state law mandates it. On Wednesday, however, after two strongly worded demand letters and news releases from House and Senate Republican leaders, Team Northam had seen the wisdom of not defying the law and promised to share the unredacted report with senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers. (They had not been shared by suppertime Wednesday.)

How much of the report the public will ever see remains unclear. Here’s how Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran, to whom the IG’s unredacted administrative review summary was addressed, explained it at Northam’s Wednesday media briefing:

“…(W)e are working with the lawyers to see if we cannot release much of the information, certainly the allegations, certainly the parole board’s response,” Moran said. Then he pivoted to defend the Parole Board from allegations that no one outside the administration had seen.

“In working with the parole board, they are adamant that they followed their policies and procedures, and we’d like for them to have the ability to explain and defend their decision, so that is a work in progress.”

Got it? Me neither.

The Office of State Inspector General was established to be independent from the governor’s oversight even though it is an agency within the Office of the Governor. In this circumstance, the administration is inexplicably giving the agency whose alleged misconduct was investigated, the Parole Board, an extraordinary say over what a supposedly independent watchdog is allowed to release to the people of Virginia. In so doing, the governor’s office owns this abnegation of accountability, just as it does in the Health Department’s refusal to disclose information about poultry plants that have been COVID-19 hotspots.

“Talk about the foxes watching the henhouse,” fumed Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham. “It’s a pattern.”

Clark Mercer, the governor’s chief of staff who is among the few who have seen the six-page OIG report, said the report is not about whether the Parole Board should or should not have granted freedom to Vincent Martin, who served 40 years of a life term for the slaying of officer Michael Connors.

“It was not about whether to parole this individual or not, it was not about this individual’s behavior. It was a review based on a checklist of items that the Parole Board is supposed to go through when they are making this decision,” Mercer said.

Martin was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. The Virginia Supreme Court subsequently reduced it to life imprisonment. Because the crime occurred 16 years before Virginia abolished parole, Martin was eligible for consideration.

The chief problem for the Parole Board was the mind-your-own-business manner in which it did business. Connors’ family, and other relatives of victims of inmates the board has paroled, have criticized the board in recent months for releasing violent felons without adequate notification of families or prosecutors, including relatives of an elderly man who was shot to death and dumped into a well in Halifax County in 2011 after his convicted killer was granted a conditional release. 

Responses from the families, law-enforcement and prosecutors were predictably critical, as were weeks of media coverage. Police and law-enforcement organizations asked Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Collette McEachin to intervene and reverse the Parole Board’s Martin decision, but state law gives the Parole Board final say and affords her no recourse.

Far from empathizing with family members and others whom the board blindsided, its departing chair, Adrianne Bennett, took a swipe at them in a defiant April 15 letter in which she said the Martin decision would not be reversed or reconsidered.

“Ignited by the officer’s family, the Richmond Police chief, along with other law enforcement organizations, have joined a disappointing chorus of opposition to the parole board’s decision,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, quoting from the letter. “While this tactic has worked with parole boards in other states, this board does not respond to this type of pressure campaign.”

She wrote that in examining Martin’s conviction, the board found a “dark cloud of injustice” surrounding his conviction and noted inconsistencies in the testimony of two men who were in the car with Martin at the time of Connors’ shooting. She noted that Martin had been a model inmate, mentor and leader to other prisoners, stopping numerous incidents of prison violence.

None of which absolves her or the Parole Board from ignoring the common decency of alerting victims’ families to the impending release of a loved one’s killer. Perhaps a little transparency about concerns raised about Martin’s trial or his purported role in averting prison uprisings would have bought the board more public support than a sneering, dismissive response when bereaved survivors, law-enforcement and taxpayers dared demand answers.

But that’s why we elect governors and put them in charge of appointed boards and bureaucrats, hoping that perhaps they’ll promptly and decisively admonish, correct or even dismiss them. In 2003, then-Gov. Mark R. Warner demanded resignations of the entire Parole Board after it failed to alert a victim’s family.

It doesn’t take a blue-ribbon study commission or even a six-page administrative review. It takes being engaged and aware enough to know, being principled enough to care and having the grit to act when necessary.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]