The Office of the State Inspector General almost entirely redacted reports related to an investigation into the Virginia Parole Board. (Virginia Mercury)
Two Virginia senators are asking for a “clear and transparent” General Assembly investigation into alleged wrongdoing by the Virginia Parole Board, which is under scrutiny for failing to follow state law and its own procedures by releasing violent offenders without properly notifying victims’ families or the prosecutors who represent the communities where the crimes were committed.
Sens. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, and John Bell, D-Loudoun, released a letter Wednesday calling on Senate leaders to create a select committee, armed with subpoena powers and the ability to take sworn testimony, to take another look at findings by the Office of the State Inspector General that Parole Board leaders violated state law.
“We believe that a clear and transparent investigation free of influence is critical to resolving this issue that surrounds the Virginia Parole Board,” the senators wrote in a letter that called the accusations against the board “serious” and “damaging.”
The Parole Board was investigated last year by Inspector General Michael Westfall’s office, which reports to Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration. But the watchdog agency itself has come under fire for heavily redacting reports that substantiated the board’s wrongdoing after giving the Northam administration advance notice the reports were going to be released to the media.
On Tuesday night, Richmond TV station WTVR reported that the inspector general may have also withheld information originally included in a longer report on the release of Vincent Martin, who had been serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a Richmond police officer during a traffic stop 40 years ago.
According to the TV station, the original watchdog report accused former Parole Board Chairwoman Adrianne Bennett, now a judge in Virginia Beach, and current Chairwoman Tonya Chapman, of attempting to falsify or destroy documents. The Associated Press also obtained the same version, reporting that it appeared to be a draft and that it contained “more critical conclusions and allegations about errors made” in Martin’s parole, including evidence that meeting minutes had been deleted and that there was an attempt to falsify an interview report.
At a news conference Wednesday, Northam and Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran said they could not comment on those claims because they had not seen the report in question.
Despite the initial secrecy surrounding the Parole Board findings, a fuller picture of the inspector general’s probe came into focus Wednesday.
The Mercury obtained unredacted copies of six other watchdog reports, which had not previously been released in full, detailing numerous missteps by the Parole Board last year. Like the Martin case, nearly all dealt with the board’s seeming disregard for the notification process required before inmates are granted parole and released. Redacted copies of those reports had been released to the media last year.
In one case, a man convicted of killing his estranged wife in the mid-1980s in front of their two young children was granted geriatric parole on March 31 after being denied discretionary parole just two months earlier. The inspector general’s office found that the inmate never filed a petition for geriatric release and the Parole Board didn’t conduct a new interview with him, relying instead on the interview conducted during his prior, unsuccessful bid for parole.
On Feb. 5, the victim’s mother received a notification that the Parole Board had declined to grant the inmate discretionary release. The next month, the board granted geriatric release but didn’t notify the mother until after the decision was made and the inmate’s release was imminent, a violation of a rule giving victims 60 days to provide input in geriatric release cases. The board never notified the victim’s daughter, the report says, even though she was registered in the state’s victim-notification system.
Emails obtained by the inspector general’s office show Bennett was determined to release the inmate despite his recent denial.
“He is old and has been in prison over 30 years. I had planned to grant him before I left the Board… I would like to get him in my queue and get him voted before I am gone. He will be considered for geriatric so he will not be interviewed and a decision will come quick if he makes it,” Bennett wrote in a March 22 email.
Many of the hasty releases that drew complaints coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when officials were trying to limit the risk of unnecessary deaths in prisons, and Bennett’s looming departure to become a judge.
In other cases, the Parole Board only attempted to contact victims and prosecutors after it had already decided to grant parole.
One of the watchdog reports says a murderer sentenced to 200 years who escaped from jail shortly after his 1994 conviction was granted parole without proper victim notification. The Grayson County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office told investigators it had contact information for the victim’s daughter, but the Parole Board didn’t ask for it.
In another case, a convicted murderer was released on April 1, but the Halifax County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office didn’t get the required notification letter until April 16. The letter was dated April 6. The Halifax prosecutor’s office requested a hearing to potentially rescind the parole in light of the flawed process, but when the inspector general was preparing its report last September there had been no follow-up on the case.
The Northam administration hasn’t disciplined anyone involved with the Parole Board decisions and has largely stood by the board throughout the controversy.
Democrats in the House of Delegates have also resisted efforts to require Parole Board votes to be made public by eliminating an open-meetings exemption that allows the board to deliberate in private.
The bill passed the Senate with broad bipartisan support, but House leaders have left it to languish without a hearing in the Courts of Justice Committee as the legislative session winds down.
In a floor speech Wednesday, Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Salem, the bill’s sponsor, faulted House leaders for allowing some bills to die without being taken up.
“Can’t say you’re unhappy with someone that voted to defeat it,” Suetterlein said. “’Cause there was no vote at all.”
Asked why the bill was being held up, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, who leads the courts committee, noted that the Virginia State Crime Commission is preparing to do a “comprehensive” examination of parole for the 2022 General Assembly session.
The Parole Board debate also resurfaced during the House’s virtual session, when Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said Bennett and Chapman should be removed from public office if the latest allegations against them are true.
“The people charged to be impartial adjudicators in that body have potentially committed crimes,” Gilbert said. “This will do nothing to strengthen anyone’s belief that the Parole Board is currently equipped to do its job properly.”
In response, Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, said Gilbert was jumping to conclusions based on incomplete information. He called Chapman, a former Portsmouth police chief, a “dedicated public servant” deserving of the respect Republicans often profess to have for police.
“The first thing they did was they took a news report,” Scott said, “to sully the career of this African-American woman who has worked through this all-boys, White-male club to the top of law enforcement.”
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