Independent inquiry says Parole Board investigator was biased, but not whether she had reason to be

June 21, 2021 12:01 am

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

A white-shoe law firm the Northam administration hired to examine the scandal surrounding disclosures of the state inspector general’s inquiry into controversial inmate releases last year — allegedly with little or insufficient notice by the state Parole Board — delivered its report last week.

The firm of Nixon Peabody found that the lead investigator at the Office of the State Inspector General — “OSIG” to state insiders — showed signs of bias against the Parole Board and its leadership. It found that neither the governor’s office nor Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran altered or tried to suppress the report’s release or redact its findings.

Absent any evidence to the contrary, let’s stipulate those major findings.

But here’s the question the report overlooks that remains at the root of the issue: Did the Parole Board follow state law and its own guidelines in notifying victims and law enforcement of the prisoners’ pending release?

It’s not the law firm’s fault that this seminal issue was not explored. It wasn’t within the scope of work specified by Nixon Peabody’s clients — the governor and the Democratic-ruled General Assembly — and it explicitly acknowledges as much in the 65-page report:

“We do not address whether OSIG had jurisdiction to investigate the VPB, whether OSIG’s findings were appropriate, whether the VPB violated any code or policies in its parole decisions, or whether the VPB ‘s parole decisions were appropriate, as they lie beyond the scope of our mandate.”

Talk about ignoring the elephant in the room.

OSIG investigated and raised red flags about several Parole Board decisions involving the release of inmates serving long sentences for violent crimes. The expedited paroles came amid efforts nationally to reduce prison crowding in the terrifying early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. But Nixon Peabody was tasked to examine OSIG’s actions in only to one case: that of Vincent Martin, who was serving a life term for the 1979 murder of a Richmond policeman.

The board’s decision in the spring of 2020 to release Martin angered law enforcement groups, including police and the commonwealth’s attorney in Richmond who complained that they were surprised by and got insufficient notice of Martin’s release. And that’s where the OSIG got involved.

The review of complaints about Martin’s case fell to Jennifer Moschetti, an OSIG staff investigator. The law firm wrote that Moschetti showed bias against the board and its chairwoman at the time Martin’s release was approved and sympathy toward law enforcement and the family of the slain Richmond officer. Those biases, Nixon Peabody concluded, “likely had an impact” on the six-page report critical of the Parole Board that the inspector general sent to the administration last July.

Moschetti’s attorney called Nixon Peabody’s conclusion of bias “false, defamatory, and a baseless attack” on her integrity.

OSIG’s report ignited a furor in Northam’s office. His chief of staff, Clark Mercer, called Inspector General Michael Westfall into a closed-door meeting with himself and Moran. Westfall was told his investigators had been politically manipulated and had mischaracterized the Parole Board’s actions. Moschetti sued the state last year seeking legal protection as a whistleblower but was later fired from her job at OSIG.

An almost entirely redacted version of the report was eventually provided to the press, prompting Republican legislative leaders who claimed the parole board had gone rogue, to provide the unexpurgated text to journalists. Months later, an even more damning 13-page preliminary draft of the report that contained many allegations that never made it into the final version was leaked to reporters.

Nixon Peabody said that many findings were dropped from the earlier draft because they could not be validated.

We get it. The investigator had opinions and stated them in emails and other forms of communication that the law firm examined and cited in the report. Those motivations are proper to question, and it’s also appropriate, as the report recommends, that bias training be provided to investigators at OSIG who are tasked with vetting a wide range of matters throughout the state bureaucracy.

But did her supposed biases translate into a false, misleading or incomplete report? There’s a definite possibility that it did, as the Nixon Peabody report suggests but doesn’t verify. Having personal opinions and the reporting of provable facts are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I have an angry reaction that I’ve shared publicly to the Jan. 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the lawful electoral process, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t speak the truth about the horror of that violent day.

Here’s an idea: Why not clear the air and let us know whether the Parole Board, as OSIG alleged, violated state law and its own policies in its handling of not just Martin’s case but those of other inmates who got their freedom early?

Rather than a myopic, endoscopic probe to assess whether there was undue political influence or investigative bias, why not get to the bottom of the issue? Given the surprise state budget surplus, surely we can afford another $250,000 to have an independent, outside third party show us which findings among all the Parole Board matters OSIG investigated are valid, which are not, and where bias might have distorted them.

Maybe the report could provide us with more of the context of the crisis the Parole Board was trying to address over the prospect of COVID turning prisons into charnel houses as it did in nursing homes in the early weeks of the pandemic.

But when a board that is shielded from disclosing its deliberations and processes under the Freedom of Information Act is accused of cutting corners to release people convicted of ghastly, cold-blooded killings, an honest, unfettered and public accounting of those actions is essential.

It’s owed to the victims of crimes the inmates were convicted of committing. It’s owed to those who enforce the law and prosecute the accused. It’s owed to the Parole Board itself in the form of vindication if bias distorts the facts. It’s owed to the inmates, whose decades of good behavior may have earned them consideration for release. And it’s owed to the governor whose job it is to rein in the board should it overreach the law and flaunt the public trust.

Lost in all this partisan preening and posturing is the fact that these matters have created significant pain and hardship for some of Virginia’s most vulnerable people. Maybe they were harmed by a high-handed Parole Board. Maybe they’ve been misled by a distorted investigative report. We still don’t know.

Nixon Peabody did its job, but its report answered none of the essential questions while creating unanswered new ones.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]