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

The Virginia General Assembly voted Wednesday to tighten some Virginia Parole Board procedures at issue in a series of critical watchdog reports last year, while approving funding for an outside investigation into how one of those reports was prepared and edited.

Disagreement over the direction of that investigation led to fiery speeches from Republican legislators, who denounced it as a “sham” and said its limited scope fell far short of Gov. Ralph Northam’s calls to clear up the controversy surrounding a Parole Board run by Democratic appointees under fire for violating state law and its own procedures in releasing inmates. 

“This is the final act of a cover-up,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

Democrats said Republicans were trying to stir up an election-year controversy and wouldn’t be satisfied with any investigation that doesn’t confirm their suspicions.

“We’re giving you what you asked for. An investigation,” said Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth.

The Parole Board matter was one of the most intensely partisan issues on the agenda for Wednesday’s reconvened session, when lawmakers were taking up Northam’s proposed changes to legislation passed in the regular session.

In the end, Democrats voted to budget $250,000 for the state to hire an outside investigator, likely a law firm, to look into how the Office of the Inspector General handled its investigation into the controversial decision to grant parole to Vincent Martin, who served 40 years for the murder of a Richmond police officer in 1979. 

That decision sparked an outcry from law enforcement, and an investigative report from the IG’s office found the Parole Board did not properly notify the Richmond prosecutor’s office or the slain officer’s relatives. A series of subsequent watchdog reports found similar problems with six other parole cases involving people convicted of violent crimes.

The controversy also encompasses the circumstances of how the watchdog reports became public. Before being released to the media, the Martin report was almost entirely redacted, revealing no useful information about what problems the IG’s office had identified. Republican lawmakers ultimately released an unredacted copy to the press, but the other six reports were never officially made public in a readable form and only emerged from unauthorized leaks. The intrigue deepened when a draft version of the Martin report, which contained previously unknown and unverified accusations of wrongdoing by Parole Board leaders, was obtained by a Richmond TV station now being sued by Parole Board Chairwoman Tonya Chapman over its stories about the draft report’s contents.

An investigator in the IG’s office who was the source of at least some of the unauthorized disclosures was fired last month after unsuccessfully seeking whistleblower protections to save her job. The governor’s office has suggested the investigator, Jennifer Moschetti, was biased and raised doubts about her credibility by pointing to her decision to hire a Republican lawyer currently running for the House of Delegates.

Republicans have argued that, by focusing its investigation squarely on the IG’s office rather than the Parole Board, the Northam administration is more interested in proving its assertions that the investigation itself was unsound rather than getting to the bottom of what the Parole Board did.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, decries a budget amendment paying for a third-party investigation of the Inspector General Office, during the floor session of the Senate inside the Science Museum where the Virginia Senate is meeting during the veto session in Richmond, VA Tuesday, April 7, 2021. (Pool photo by Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch)

“It’s an investigation of the investigation,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham. “It’s an investigation of our supposedly independent watchdog. Who’s ever heard of such a thing?”

Northam’s proposal calls for Attorney General Mark Herring’s office to retain an outside investigator chosen “in consultation with” Northam’s office, House Speaker Eileen Filler Corn, D-Fairfax, and Senate President Pro Tempore Louse Lucas, D-Portsmouth. Republicans said that arrangement creates a potential conflict of interest because Herring’s office was advising both the Parole Board and the IG’s office while the report in question was being prepared.

Senate Republicans pushed unsuccessfully to change course and have an investigation run instead by a bipartisan Senate committee with subpoena powers, an idea rejected by the Democratic majority.

“I can’t think of a better way to get politics into this situation other than putting a bunch of politicians in charge of the investigation,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax.

The investigator’s report, which Northam’s office has committed to make public, will be due by June 15.

Regardless of where that investigation leads, Democrats contend they’re already addressing many of the problems flagged in the watchdog reports through legislation that updates and clarifies some Parole Board procedures. On Wednesday, both chambers overwhelmingly approved amendments Northam made to that bill that would speed up its implementation to Dec. 15 of this year rather than the original effective date of July 1, 2022.

The new law requires that the Department of Corrections set inmates’ release dates at least 30 days after a board decision to grant parole, while allowing faster releases for geriatric or terminally ill prisoners. In cases of discretionary parole, it specifies that the board must notify local prosecutors by electronic means at least 21 days prior to release, updating existing language requiring notifications via certified mail.

The bill also specifies that the board should contact local prosecutors and their affiliated crime victim coordinators if it needs help locating victims for notification purposes.

While the measure falls short of the transparency reforms Republicans pushed for to make Parole Board votes public, it calls for the board to publish more detailed monthly reports on its actions, including information about what crimes a parolee committed, how much time they’ve served and the reasons for granting or denying parole. Currently, those reports mainly include offender names and only include an explanation if parole is denied.