Watchdog investigator files lawsuit over Va. parole board case
An investigator with the Office of the State Inspector General alleges that her boss suspended her "in an effort to insulate his own position"
By Denise Lavoie and Sarah Rankin
RICHMOND, Va. — An employee of Virginia's government watchdog agency filed a lawsuit Monday seeking whistleblower status and alleging she faced retaliation after coming forward with details of perceived wrongdoing arising from an investigation of the state parole board.
Jennifer Moschetti, an investigator with the Office of the State Inspector General who was tasked with looking into complaints about the board, says in her lawsuit that she was put on “pre-disciplinary leave” Friday. The lawsuit alleges the move came days after she sought to come forward to state lawmakers as a whistleblower by providing documents related to her work on the investigation.
Moschetti alleges that her boss, Michael Westfall, suspended her “in an effort to insulate his own position as State Inspector General."
A spokeswoman for Westfall's office declined comment.
The lawsuit is the latest development in a controversy that's been simmering for nearly a year. Westfall's office has been investigating the parole board since last spring, when prosecutors and victims’ families across the state began raising concerns about the handling of a number of high-profile cases.
Recently, differences between a draft version and a much shorter final version of a report about the case of one of the inmates, Vincent Martin, sparked allegations that the watchdog's findings, at least in that matter, had been sanitized for political reasons. Parole board members are gubernatorial appointees.
Moschetti's lawsuit says that her findings in the Martin case were contained in a 10-page report submitted by Westfall to the Office of Attorney General Mark Herring, “where it was redacted and reduced to a six-page report.”
In a statement, Herring's office said it did not shorten the report. “Any decisions about what would be addressed in the report, including whether criminal allegations were proper in an administrative report, were made by the (Office of the State Inspector General)," it added.
The lawsuit also says that shortly after the six-page report was made public by news outlets that obtained it, she was summoned to the governor's office. There, she said, she was “interrogated” by various administration members regarding her reports, investigations and findings. Present at the meeting were: Clark Mercer, chief of staff for Gov. Ralph Northam; Brian Moran, secretary of public safety and homeland security; Westfall, and others, according to the lawsuit.
Moschetti said she and Westfall were forced to submit to hostile questioning for more than an hour about the six-page Martin report, which had concluded the board and its former chairwoman had violated state law and the board's own policies and procedures.
She said she then told everyone at the meeting that “a more comprehensive report” on Martin existed, but Westfall “refused to release his approved report to the administration," according to the lawsuit.
Moschetti alleges that the meeting “was intended to intimidate the State Inspector General and the investigators tasked with making fact findings related to members of the Parole Board.”
Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for Northam, said in an email that the governor's office routinely meets with Westfall's office to go over results and findings.
“I want to be clear — no one in the Governor’s Office has ever intimidated or attempted to intimidate anyone in the Office of the State Inspector General,” she said in the email.
Moschetti's lawsuit said that after the meeting, Westfall told her he “may lose his job” over the Martin investigation. She said she immediately became fearful for her job security as the primary investigator on the Parole Board matter.
Nonetheless, the investigation continued. Moschetti alleges that she submitted additional reports to Westfall about “misconduct” at the board but those reports haven’t been released to the governor’s office.
The Associated Press reported Friday that it obtained draft reports dated from December and January detailing new findings of errors made by the board. A spokeswoman for Westfall’s office declined comment about the reports or why the findings had not yet been presented.
Moschetti also says in her lawsuit that during her investigation, she was contacted by an unnamed federal law enforcement agency and asked to cooperate in a federal investigation “involving the circumstances of the Virginia Parole Board.” The lawsuit did not elaborate.
An FBI spokeswoman said she could not comment.
Moschetti's lawsuit asks a judge to order Westfall to immediately reinstate her to her job and to order him to “cease and desist in threats and harassment, publicly and privately, of retaliation” for her disclosures to federal law enforcement and leaders in the General Assembly.
The lawsuit also asks the court to declare her a “protected” whistleblower.
Moschetti is being represented by Virginia Beach attorney Tim Anderson, who is running as a Republican for a seat in the House of Delegates. Anderson recently filed a lawsuit against Northam on behalf of a wedding venue subject to the governor's pandemic-related business restrictions, and he and represented firebrand GOP state Sen. Amanda Chase in a recent, unsuccessful lawsuit against the state Republican party.