Northam supports ‘outside investigation’ into watchdog report on Parole Board

By: - March 1, 2021 5:28 pm

Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam’s office said it would welcome an “outside investigation” into questions surrounding the preparation and release of a watchdog report about the Virginia Parole Board’s mishandling of a controversial parole case last year.

The Northam administration has insisted it was unaware of a longer, more accusatory version of a report dealing with the parole of Vincent Martin, a man who had been serving a life sentence for the killing of a Richmond police officer in 1979. After investigating the matter last year, the Office of the Inspector General found the Parole Board didn’t try hard enough to notify the murdered officer’s family and failed to notify the Richmond prosecutor’s office within the required 21-day window before Martin’s scheduled release.

At Northam’s urging, Inspector General Michael Westfall signed an affidavit Friday insisting he did not share a draft copy of the watchdog report with the governor’s office last year before it was edited down and some allegations against Parole Board leaders were removed.

An apparent leak of that report last week renewed accusations from Republican lawmakers that the Democratic-led Executive Branch sought to cover up unflattering information on how the Parole Board violated its own policies or state law in the Martin case and at least six others last year.

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

Though the draft report accused former Parole Board Chairwoman Adrianne Bennett, now a judge in Virginia Beach, of instructing staff to “falsify a report” and accused current Chairwoman Tonya Chapman of giving investigators altered minutes of a Parole Board meeting, the final version of the report didn’t include those allegations.

“After reviewing the preliminary findings, it is clear the public needs to better understand why and how the OSIG determined that these initial allegations were insufficient to include in their final report,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in an email. “Individuals named in this document also deserve the opportunity to defend their reputations against assertions that were never included in the final report. The governor welcomes further outside investigation.”

Yarmosky said the administration believes the investigation should not be done by the Executive Branch. But the General Assembly has also taken no action yet to initiate its own probe.

“We will discuss next steps with legislators,” Yarmosky said.

The inspector general’s office had largely refused to explain the differences between the two reports until Monday, when Westfall said there were no official findings that required referral to a prosecutor.

“Any preliminary allegations that were not included in a final report were not supported by a further review of law and facts necessary to be included in a final report,” Westfall said in a written statement.

Westfall’s office declined to answer follow-up questions on whether the allegations were dropped because his office decided they didn’t amount to a potential crime or because they were factually inaccurate.

The attorney general’s office, which gives legal advice to both the Parole Board and the inspector general, declined to comment on whether it played a role in decisions about what to include in the report.

The inspector general’s office redacted almost the entire report last year before releasing it to the media. Emails obtained by the Mercury last year showed the watchdog agency notified the governor’s office before releasing the report in redacted form. The full report was made public by Republican legislators.

In response to a public-records request the Mercury filed last year, the Northam administration refused to disclose 37 documents dealing with its own response to the Parole Board investigation.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.