AG says former Va. Parole Board chair broke the law in 2020 release ‘frenzy’
Miyares: ‘Judge Bennett’s brazen abuse of her power put Virginians’ safety at risk’
Attorney General Jason Miyares, flanked by special counsel Theo Stamos (right) and Chief Deputy Attorney General Chuck Slemp (left) speaks to the media about the release of his investigative report on the Virginia Parole Board. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)
A former chair of the Virginia Parole Board broke numerous laws and policies during a “parole-granting frenzy” in early 2020 and could have been “charged criminally” if those in power at the time had taken her alleged misconduct seriously, according to Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares.
At a news conference in Richmond Wednesday announcing the release of an investigative report, Miyares said he and his team had found numerous instances of former Parole Board Chair Adrianne Bennett, who is now serving as a judge in Virginia Beach, falsifying official records. But because state law treats that as a misdemeanor offense, Miyares said, the one-year statute of limitations had already expired by the time his office’s investigation began.
Miyares also confirmed that Bennett’s 2021 suspension from the bench was related to her actions on the Parole Board, but he said it would be up to the General Assembly to decide whether she should keep her job as a judge.
“The General Assembly has to make that decision on whether they’re going to choose articles of impeachment,” Miyares said. “I think the report speaks for itself.”
The attorney general’s office was unable to inspect email accounts for Bennett and her immediate successor, former Parole Board Chair Tonya Chapman, according to the report, because both email accounts “had been deleted.”
“We are unable to determine why the email accounts for Chairs Bennett and Chapman were deleted,” the report says.
Pointing to several examples of inmates paroled in March and April of 2020 reoffending shortly after their release, Miyares stressed that the issue was a matter of public safety, not simply a partisan dispute over the fairness of the criminal justice system.
“Judge Bennett’s brazen abuse of her power put Virginians’ safety at risk,” said Miyares, who ran on a tough-on-crime message en route to defeating former Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring in 2021.
A message left for Bennett at her courthouse was not immediately returned. In a statement issued to other media outlets, an attorney for Bennett said the report “grossly targeted” her and stressed that she was one member of a five-person board.
“Judge Bennett is a dedicated public servant who has served with distinction on the bench, on the parole board, and as a respected attorney in the Virginia Beach legal community for decades. No attempt to vilify her changes that,” attorney Diane Toscano said in a prepared statement, according to the Associated Press.
In a news release Wednesday afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, said “we must demand accountability for these egregious actions and dereliction of duty.”
“I am, therefore, respectfully asking Judge Bennett to avoid legislative action regarding her status by immediately submitting her resignation from the bench,” Norment said.
Democratic General Assembly leaders had not yet weighed in as of Wednesday afternoon, and several legislators said they were still trying to review the report after a full day of work at the Capitol.
I am, therefore, respectfully asking Judge Bennett to avoid legislative action regarding her status by immediately submitting her resignation from the bench.
– Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg
“The Attorney General’s investigation revealed a staggering amount of wrongdoing from the Parole Board and Chairwoman Bennett,” Gov. Glenn Youngkin said Wednesday evening. “The clear violations led to attacks on victims, the release of 130 violent criminals and the undermining of trust in our judicial system.”
Bennett was originally appointed to the Parole Board by former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in early 2017 and remained in the job during the term of former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. The General Assembly appointed Bennett to the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in March of 2020, meaning many of her controversial actions occurred as she was about to leave her Parole Board post.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the board’s seemingly rushed parole decisions triggered a long-running scandal that centered on whether its Democratic appointees were cutting corners in their haste to release inmates, many of whom had been convicted of violent offenses like murder and rape.
In the summer of 2020, the Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG), which investigates wrongdoing in state government, concluded the Parole Board had violated the law and its own policies by failing to properly notify prosecutors and crime victims about pending parole decisions. The Northam administration and Democratic General Assembly leaders disputed those findings and claimed many of the inspector general’s conclusions were biased or incorrect.
The manner in which those findings became public was a battle in itself. The initial watchdog report — which dealt with the high-profile release of Vincent Martin, who was convicted of murdering a Richmond police officer in 1979 — was almost entirely redacted, giving the public virtually no insight into how the Parole Board had mishandled his case. An unredacted copy of the report only became public because Republican leaders released it, prompting accusations they had violated confidentiality rules.
State officials also refused to release unredacted copies of subsequent reports on Parole Board misconduct. After leaked copies of those reports began showing up in the press, the inspector general’s office fired Jennifer Moschetti, the investigator who had written them, despite her efforts to invoke a whistleblower protection law meant to shield state employees from retaliation. Moschetti has acknowledged the leaked reports were her work but has denied she gave them to reporters directly.
In 2021, the Republican Youngkin and Miyares both campaigned on holding the Parole Board accountable. Shortly after taking office, Youngkin issued an executive order asking Miyares to investigate the matter and report his findings.
‘Actually worse than we thought’
The 69-page document released Wednesday, Miyares said, shows the situation was “actually worse than we thought.” The report is based on interviews with 38 people and “full access” to government records of the Parole Board, OSIG and the Virginia Department of Corrections.
Of 134 offenders released in March and April of 2020, the report says, 130 had been convicted of violent offenses. The 95 inmates released in March of 2020 marked the highest number of releases granted in a single month since the Parole Board began keeping track of those statistics.
In 83 of those releases, the report says, the Parole Board violated a state law requiring members to “endeavor diligently” to contact victims prior to making a decision to release the inmate who may have harmed them or a loved one.
Bennett had an “unwritten policy of not contacting rape victims,” the report quotes Parole Board employee Crystal Noakes as saying.
“Noakes told OAG investigators that Chair Bennett ‘would make up policies’ that were ‘convenient,’ and Bennett’s policy regarding rape victims was that ‘if it was a rape victim, don’t traumatize the victim by contacting them,’” the attorney general’s report says.
Additionally, the attorney general’s office found 66 of the cases violated a requirement that local prosecutors be notified so they can weigh in on how a returning offender might impact the community they serve. And it determined Bennett had “unilaterally discharged” 137 offenders from parole supervision, a process Miyares said is not supposed to occur without a specific request from an offender’s parole officer.
“Chair Bennett falsified three entries in her list of discharged offenders by claiming that a Parole Board employee or parole officer had ‘requested’ the offender’s discharge,” the report says. “One Board employee told us that Chair Bennett ‘lied’ when claiming that the employee had requested certain parole discharges.”
The investigation also concluded Bennett overstepped her authority by reinterpreting a “three strikes” parole law meant to make repeat violent offenders ineligible for release. According to the report, Bennett implemented a change to make more inmates eligible for release who wouldn’t have been under the prior interpretation, even though former Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran told her she could not do so without legislative approval by the General Assembly. Bennett was so determined to stick by her interpretation, the attorney general’s office said, that there were two instances in which she restored discretionary parole eligibility to inmates whom courts had explicitly deemed ineligible for parole.
One of those decisions involved David Simpkins, who was convicted of 42 felonies in Southwest Virginia in 1989 and 1990. His criminal record included forcible sodomy, aggravated sexual battery, 10 robberies, abduction and numerous firearm charges. After he was granted discretionary parole in 2019 and released in April 2020, the report says, Simpkins committed 15 new felonies, including 10 armed robberies.
“Chair Bennett’s unlawful restoration of Simpkins’ parole eligibility directly enabled Simpkins to commit these 15 new violent felonies,” the report says.
The report includes several other examples of parolees committing new crimes shortly after their release or having their parole revoked for drug use.
Cordell Reed, a man with convictions for second-degree murder, felony assault and attempted rape, was arrested 44 days after being released for “abducting and wounding a woman in Colonial Heights,” according to the report. His parole examiner had recommended denying him release, but the Parole Board granted it anyway.
The Parole Board also voted to release several inmates who had committed infractions while incarcerated, including a man convicted of sodomizing a fellow inmate and a murderer who had taken hostages in one incident and started a riot in another.
The attorney general’s report stresses the document should not be read as “an indictment of parole or a rejection of reform.”
“Parole reform and the rehabilitation of offenders is a vital societal task, and this report recommends multiple procedural and legislative changes to assist the Commonwealth in accomplishing that task,” the report says. “However, parole reform and offender rehabilitation cannot be accomplished in secret and away from public oversight.”
‘Ran interference and conducted damage control’
Miyares faulted previous executive branch officials for not doing more to investigate the Parole Board when they were in office.
“Instead of investigating the allegations of misconduct and taking remedial action as the Commonwealth’s chief legal officer, the Herring administration ran interference and conducted damage control for the Parole Board,” the report says.
Miyares was sharply critical of a report Northam and Democratic General Assembly leaders requested that mostly backed up the Northam administration’s claims that the inspector general’s office was taking a biased approach to investigating the Parole Board. The state paid the Nixon Peabody law firm $250,000 for the report, but Miyares said the firm never interviewed Bennett or Moschetti, the state investigator who was fired over the leaked copies of her reports. Of 18 people interviewed for the outside firm’s report, 11 told the firm Moschetti’s reports were “unbiased and professional,” according to the attorney general’s findings. Of the five people who felt differently, four were Northam appointees.
The attorney general’s report says Northam Chief of Staff Clark Mercer “criticized Chair Bennett in his Nixon Peabody interview, acknowledging Chair Bennett should be held accountable for her own actions and that she showed a lack of common sense and a lack of good judgment.” That information was not in the Nixon Peabody report. After its release, Northam’s office said the firm’s report confirmed its assertions the watchdog report on the Vincent Martin case was biased.
“Nixon Peabody’s concealment of important facts skewed its report by hiding information that was politically harmful to the Northam administration, and ultimately resulted in a $250,000 whitewash using taxpayer money,” the attorney general’s report says.
Nixon Peabody did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As the scandal was developing in 2020, Northam officials said their hands were somewhat tied because Bennett had already left the Parole Board. The administration called for policy changes to ensure that victims and prosecutors were being properly notified, but Republicans have repeatedly accused the Northam administration of failing to take responsibility by holding other Parole Board members accountable.
When Youngkin took office, he fired the prior Parole Board and put new appointees in place. The board’s new chairman recently issued a report calling for “over-the-top transparency” to restore public trust in the board.
The report from Miyares includes numerous recommendations to overhaul the Parole Board’s operations and procedures, including the addition of a “uniform code of ethics” for board members and more public access to parole hearings.
“As I said two years ago and I say today, the chief law enforcement officer of the Commonwealth of Virginia can never stand silently by while victims are being ignored,” Miyares said.
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