Watchdog agency redacts findings about Va. parole board
Prosecutors and victims' families have raised concerns about a lack of timely or sufficient notification of the release of violent offenders
By Sarah Rankin
RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia's government watchdog agency has investigated complaints about the state Parole Board and found “substantiated” allegations but is publicly withholding further details about its work, citing exemptions in the state open records law.
The Office of the State Inspector General informed Gov. Ralph Northam's administration Tuesday about the findings of its administrative investigation into the board, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request.
The version of the six-page letter provided to AP was almost entirely redacted, although it said in a section labeled “conclusion” that at least some allegations “are substantiated.” It also said potential recommendations would be outlined in the future.
State officials announced in May that the inspector general's office was investigating the parole board's handling of the case of Vincent Martin, who was convicted in the 1979 killing of Richmond police Officer Michael Connors. The decision to grant Martin parole sparked an uproar in the law enforcement community, and both Connors’ family and Richmond’s top prosecutor asked the board to rescind its decision.
In addition to Martin’s case, AP and other news outlets have reported on recent parole decisions across the state in which prosecutors and victims’ families have raised concerns about what they have said is a lack of timely or sufficient notification of the release of violent offenders. Top GOP lawmakers called for Northam to issue a moratorium on the release of certain inmates by the board, which the Democratic governor flatly rejected.
Connors' sister, Maureen Clements, has told the AP she filed a complaint with the inspector general's office about Martin's case over the way her family was treated and procedures she alleged were not followed. She has said she had multiple conversations with the office and was told it was investigating not only the board’s handling of the Martin case but several others.
The Office of the State Inspector General's letter, which was addressed to Brian Moran, the state's secretary of public safety and homeland security, said its investigation was based on “several complaints made to the State Fraud, Waste and Abuse Hotline.”
Clements said Thursday that she has received no notification from the inspector general's office or Parole Board, so she could not even be sure the report sent to Moran dealt with her complaint.
“I find the political corruption in Virginia rampant and devastating. I suspect because my family is not in that state they feel no responsibility or sense of decency to keep us informed,” Clements, who lives in New York, wrote in a text message.
The inspector general's office told AP in an email that all Parole Board information provided for the investigation was exempt under Virginia's open records law. That law largely frees the board from complying with the same disclosures as many other government agencies.
“The Virginia Parole Board maintains its FOIA exclusions and has not waived its FOIA protections,” State Inspector General Michael Westfall wrote in the email.
An assistant for Westfall said in response to questions from the AP that his office has provided the extent of what it is able to release and “we have nothing further to provide.”
Moran also declined to provide a full copy of the report.
The Parole Board declined to comment on the specifics of the report but said in a statement that the conclusions were based on “factual inaccuracies, a misunderstanding of the Parole Board’s procedures, and incorrect interpretations of the Virginia State Code.”
Republican lawmakers and the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and Foundation said Northam's administration should make the full findings public. House Minority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert sent a letter to Westfall requesting a full copy.
Republican Sen. Mark Obenshain noted that in 2002, then-Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, cleared out the parole board and installed new members in response to a failure to properly notify victims and prosecutors. AP stories from the time say Warner acted at the start of his term after the board came under criticism from outgoing GOP Gov. Jim Gilmore.
Northam’s administration should “demand the resignation of each member of the Parole Board who participated in any of these inappropriate actions if indeed that’s what this report finds,” Obenshain said.
Martin's release was delayed at the last minute. He was then freed June 10, before the investigation had concluded.
The former parole board chair, Adrianne Bennett, released a lengthy statement defending the board’s decision to release Martin. In it, she wrote that Martin “has demonstrated himself over the decades to be a trusted leader, peacemaker, mediator and mentor in the correctional community” and has been infraction-free for more than 30 years. Martin has always maintained his innocence, Bennett wrote.
She wrote that his conviction was based “primarily upon the conflicting testimony of the three cooperating co-defendants,” who were also convicted but completed lighter sentences in the 1980s and early 1990s.