The offices of the Virginia Parole Board in Richmond. (Virginia Mercury)

Throughout Gov. Ralph Northam’s tumultuous term as Virginia’s 73rd governor, he has benefited during his lowest moments by the perception that while he might be a bit bumbling and slow on the draw, his heart was in the right place.

Hating on the amiable 61-year-old country doctor with a disarming Eastern Shore drawl just seemed sort of wrong — what Harper Lee likened to killing a mockingbird. Erring, after all, is human, and as long as his stumbles appeared unstained by malice, he got the benefit of the doubt.

It abided with him in 2020 through Virginia’s sluggish, late-to-the-game response to the coronavirus pandemic and, more recently, its Rube Goldberg vaccination strategy. It ultimately prevailed in 2019 after the discovery of racist photos on Northam’s medical school yearbook page nearly ended his tenure after just one year.

But new media reports on the extent of the parole board’s misdeeds in last year’s release of violent prisoners — including one convicted of a police officer’s execution-style murder — are becoming a game-changing election-year malignancy for Northam and his Democratic Party. 

The scandal broke last year with the Parole Board’s release of Vincent L. Martin, who served 40 years of a life term after he was convicted of killing Richmond policeman Michael Connors point-blank with a .357 magnum handgun in 1979. At the time, Martin was on parole for a robbery and weapons conviction. 

The departing chair of the board, Adrianne Bennett, now a Virginia Beach judge, lashed out at Connors’ relatives and dismayed law-enforcement advocates for their “disappointing chorus of opposition” and noting that “this board does not respond to this type of pressure campaign.”

State Inspector General Michael C. Westfall investigated after complaints, including from Connors’ family, about whether the board followed its own policies and state law in granting Martin parole. His office found that the board under Bennett and her successor as chair, Tonya Chapman, repeatedly ignored policies and the law. The report, admonishing recipients in red, boldface header and footer notations not to make the document public, went to Northam’s administration, which stonewalled its release except for a version so severely redacted that it was useless. When the Inspector General’s Office was forced by state law to provide copies to both parties’ legislative leaders, Republican lawmakers helpfully gave reporters unredacted copies of the six-page report.

According to that report, the Parole Board violated requirements in state law to provide timely notifications to victims’ relatives when their loved ones’ killers are up for parole. Its findings also allege that the board failed to keep minutes of its monthly meetings, failed to notify the commonwealth’s attorney in Richmond of Martin’s release and stood up Connors’ relatives for a scheduled conference call after the family learned of Martin’s pending release.

Last week, Richmond television station WTVR was the first to report that the six-page document made public last summer was slimmed down from a more damning 13-page draft from Westfall’s office. The full document contends that Bennett and Chapman tried to falsify or destroy documents. The Associated Press, which also obtained a copy of the full draft, reported that it reveals additional “critical conclusions and allegations about errors made” in granting Martin’s parole, including evidence that meeting minutes had been deleted and an effort to falsify an interview report.

As Northam and Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran avoided comment on the bombshell disclosures during a Wednesday news conference, The Virginia Mercury’s Graham Moomaw was unearthing IG reports onsix other cases that establish a pattern of Parole Board disregard for the legally required processes of notifying victims’ relatives before prisoners are granted parole and freed. Copies of those six reports had also been almost entirely redacted last year before being made public. At the time, the Mercury reported that the redactions came after Westfall’s office notified the Northam administration it was about to release the report. 

Redactions to watchdog report on Va. Parole Board came after governor’s office got notice of FOIA requests

As The Mercury reported, one of the six cases involved a man who was convicted of killing his estranged wife in front of their children. Irvian Cotton, 67, was granted geriatric parole in March, just two months after he was denied discretionary parole, even though inmates are typically considered for parole only once in a 12-month period.

The reaction within Northam’s administration has ranged from pleading ignorance (as late as Friday, the governor’s office claimed that it had not yet seen its own 13-page document that the media have had for days) to outrage — not at the Parole Board’s alleged abuses but that they were made public. Rather than attempting to hold the Parole Board to account, the administration seems more concerned with finding and (presumably) punishing the source of the leaks: “OSIG is taking appropriate action to identify the person(s) responsible for improperly disclosing such information,” Westfall’s office said in a statement. 

The conflict is not so much about individual criteria the board considers in granting parole and who does (and does not) deserve it. There should be room in the process to assess the inmate’s conduct in prison and progress toward rehabilitation, as Bennett asserted in Martin’s case. What this is about is doing as the law prescribes and meaningfully involving victims’ families, law-enforcement and prosecutors, not capriciously and in the shadows. Removing some of the board’s expansive public disclosure exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act would be a good start.

Northam and Moran have allowed the Parole Board to act with impunity notwithstanding written warnings that it was disregarding the law and its own policies in strong-arming the release of hand-picked violent lifers and then trying to conceal it from investigators. Seemingly with the administration’s imprimatur, the board has disregarded murder victims’ families upset at belatedly learning that inmates convicted of the killings would soon walk free among them.

This is not the first time the Parole Board’s lapses have been a political flash point, though it’s certainly among the most galling.

In 2002, Gov.-elect Mark Warner demanded — and got — the resignations of Parole Board members a week before he took office over just one instance in which relatives of a murder victim were surprised by the killer’s release. Nine years earlier, Republican George Allen, a prohibitive underdog in the 1993 governor’s race, won in a landslide and broke the Democrats’ 12-year hold on the office in large part by promising to end what he called Virginia’s “dishonest” and “lenient” parole system. He delivered on the promise as the GOP began a resurgence that, by 2001, gave it control of every statewide elective office or institution of government in Virginia, just as the Democrats enjoy today.

Already, state Sens. John Bell, D-Loudoun, and Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, are calling for a select committee with subpoena power to investigate the Inspector General’s findings on the Parole Board.

Republicans chasing the GOP nomination in this year’s gubernatorial election recognize the Parole Board allegations for the major scandal that it is and are touting it relentlessly in their bid to end their party’s nearly 12-year drought without a statewide election victory.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, demanded in a floor speech during a virtual House session Wednesday to know what Northam’s administration knew and when.

Northam has been able to defuse troublesome issues in the past by using his homespun charm and at least appearing to come clean publicly.

This is different. He has had the chance at several junctures to address the disturbing Parole Board revelations and take decisive and corrective actions as Allen and Warner did.

He did not. Now Northam owns this debacle.