The Parole Board scandal raises big questions — about the state’s watchdog agency

April 22, 2021 12:01 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)

It may not be Teapot Dome or Iran-Contra, but it seems some Democrats would have you believe the nearly year-long Parole Board scandal is nothing more than those ol’ pouncing Republicans seizing on minor procedural mistakes to gin up election-year attacks — even after audio emerged of the browbeating members of Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration gave the inspector general and his underlings.

To be sure, much of the heat coming from GOP lawmakers likely rests in their conviction that some violent felons deserve to die behind bars as well as the fact that, for a party desperate to claw back some control in a state that has slipped out of their grasp, “soft on crime” offensives aimed at Democrats are a return to bread-and-butter basics.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole lot of there there, especially for people concerned about governmental transparency, the ability of watchdog agencies to do their job and whistleblower protections, all things Democrats recently professed to care very much about, at least when it came to Donald Trump’s White House.

To recap:

• The Office of the State Inspector General, acting on complaints made to the State Waste, Fraud and Abuse Hotline, conducted an investigation into the release of Vincent Martin — who was convicted of the 1979 killing of a Richmond Police officer and spent 40 years in prison, earning a reputation as a model prisoner — amid an outcry from police officers, prosecutors and conservative lawmakers.

• In July, the IG’s office was getting ready to release its findings that the board and former Chairwoman Adrianne Bennett had violated state law and its own victim-notification procedures in Martin’s case when Northam’s administration was notified the report was about to land in the hands of journalists. That email “appeared to set off a chain of events that would delay the report’s release and end with the redaction of nearly everything in it,” the Mercury’s Graham Moomaw reported in November.

• Republicans in the General Assembly demanded an unredacted copy of the report, getting it and releasing it in August. State code says the IG “shall notify the governor’s chief of staff, the speaker, majority leader, and minority Leader of the House of Delegates, and the president pro tempore, majority leader and minority leader of the Senate of problems, abuses, or deficiencies relating to the management or operation of a state agency or nonstate agency.”

• Not long after the release of the report to the General Assembly, Inspector General Michael Westfall and his staff were summoned to a meeting in which the administration officials hammered them over the release of the report by the GOP lawmakers and aggressively contested some of the IG’s findings. Westfall and his associates, who largely stuck to their guns, mentioned there were other reports coming on Parole Board wrongdoing. Northam’s representatives, including Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran and Chief of Staff Clark Mercer, seemed intent on making sure more embarrassing details weren’t publicly released.

Clark Mercer, chief of staff to Gov. Ralph Northam, discusses an investigation into the Virginia Parole Board at a news conference in August. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

• Westfall apparently took that message to heart. In October, we learned there were a half dozen more reports by the IG’s office on whether the Parole Board followed state law and its own procedures in the release of convicted killers. They were redacted almost entirely but later leaked out to the media in unredacted form, revealing that Bennett’s zeal to release inmates and ignore requirements about victim and prosecutor notification extended to other cases. Both the Northam administration and the Inspector General’s Office, ascribing amazing transitive properties to the broad Freedom of Information Act exemption the Parole Board enjoys, claimed the reports’ contents couldn’t be legally disclosed, including by members of the General Assembly, because of prohibitions in the FOIA law. FOIA experts have told me that’s incorrect.

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

• In February, WTVR, a Richmond TV station, reported that an earlier draft of the report on the Martin case was shortened from 13 pages to six pages. That happened after it got sent to Attorney General Mark Herring’s office. The earlier draft contained additional allegations about the conduct of Bennett and current Chairwoman Tonya Chapman. That prompted Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, one of the few Democrats to say much of anything about the Parole Board case, to join with Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, in asking the Senate to form a committee for “a clear and transparent investigation free of influence.”

• At the end of February, as questions mounted about the role his administration might have played in squelching the details of the reports, Northam said he supported an “outside investigation” into the mess.

• Last month, an IG investigator, Jennifer Moschetti, came forward seeking whistleblower protection for sharing full versions of her reports with members of the General Assembly. She was suspended, then fired, but not before she revealed that she had gotten a bonus and plaudits from her work on the Parole Board cases, work that Mercer and Moran have publicly blasted as “biased.” Moschetti, who was present at the recorded meeting in August, said the real purpose of the meeting was to “intimidate the state inspector general and the investigators tasked with making fact findings related to members of the Parole Board.”

• In late March, Chapman, the current board chair, sued WTVR, claiming the television station defamed her by publishing details in the draft Martin report and seeking $7 million in damages.

• Earlier this month, the Democratic-led General Assembly approved a $250,000 budget amendment from the Northam administration for the Attorney’s General’s Office, which was advising both the Parole Board and the Inspector General’s Office, to choose an outside investigator to probe the IG’s inquiry into the Martin case. Republicans in the General Assembly immediately denounced it as a “partisan whitewash,” noting that the outside investigator will be chosen by Democrats:  Herring, the governor’s office and Democratic leaders in the legislature. “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?”

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)

Got all that? I’ll agree with the governor’s office on this at least: This has indeed become an “absolute circus.”

Flip the script and picture a similar sequence of events unfolding amongst the governor’s office, the attorney general and a state agency in a GOP administration, complete with allied lawmakers saying “Nothing to see here,” and you can bet Democrats would have let slip the dogs of war also.

But regardless of what you think about parole and who should get it, maybe even more troubling than what’s leaked out about the workings of the Parole Board is what the scandal has revealed about the Office of the State Inspector General, created in 2011 by the General Assembly and housed under the umbrella of the governor’s office.

The inspector general, whose role is to “maximize the public’s confidence and trust in state government,” is appointed by the governor, approved by the General Assembly and reports to the governor’s chief of staff. And, as the recording makes clear, that structure can make for some uncomfortable grilling by people with the power to fire the watchdog when his office delivers a report the administration really doesn’t like.

“This is the type of stuff that leads to me getting a new job. Against my will,” Westfall said in the audio recording after leaving the meeting with Mercer and Moran. “And I’m fine with that. I knew that when I took the job.”

“If you get let go because of this, then everybody’s’ going to be up in arms,” a colleague replied.

“It doesn’t have to be for this,” Westfall said. “It can be something else. You know how that works.”

That reporting structure, according to former Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, who carried the House version of the legislation creating the office, was a necessary compromise to get it off the ground.

Former Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“We tried to thread the needle as best we could,” Landes, now the Augusta County Circuit Court clerk, told me in an interview. “My preference would have been to have a completely independent agency. But going through the legislative process you have to be a realist sometimes.”

Never did lawmakers contemplate back in 2011 that the Inspector General’s Office would refuse to divulge information to the legislature that created it, confirms its leader, funds the agencies it investigates and passes statutes governing how those agencies operate, he said.

“For those of us sitting on the outside, especially those of us who used to be in the legislature, it’s ridiculous that they can’t share information with the legislature,” Landes said, calling the administration’s FOIA arguments “ludicrous.”

Withholding completed investigative reports, firing the investigator who gave them to lawmakers and claiming dubious FOIA exemptions  sets the state down a “scary path,” he said.

“It’s counterintuitive to why the Inspector General’s Office was set up in the first place. It was never supposed to be a secretive body,” he said. “The General Assembly is going to have to really look at the statutes and strengthen them. … When they find something that they don’t like, the idea shouldn’t be that the administration can just sweep it under the rug.”

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]