The Office of the State Inspector General has substantiated several allegations leveled at the Virginia Parole Board after investigating complaints about how the panel reached decisions in releasing inmates on parole, but details of the findings have been stricken entirely from a copy of the government watchdog agency’s report released to the media.
Virginia law enforcement groups and state Republican leaders are calling for the immediate release of an unredacted copy of the report, and at least one senator, Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, said the members of the parole board should be immediately relieved of their duties.
The inspector general’s office began an investigation in May after some state legislators and numerous state and national law enforcement groups raised concerns about how the parole board reached its decision earlier this year to release Vincent Martin, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1980 for killing Richmond police officer Michael Connors.
After that decision became public, several other state prosecutors and family members of other victims decried the panel’s decisions in releasing several other convicted killers.
All but a few sentences of the six-page report, dated Monday and sent to Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, are concealed with blacked-out lines that cover sections titled “Allegation,” “Background” and “Findings of Fact.” The report’s conclusion is also largely expunged, leaving only the words, “The allegations ... are substantiated.”
Also left unredacted in the report signed by Inspector General Michael Westfall is a statement that says, “Potential recommendations will be outlined in a subsequent report.”
“It sure does give the impression that it relates to violations of law, policy and procedure [by the parole board],” Obenshain said Thursday in a phone interview. “I think the administration needs to release this. Victims deserve it, the families deserve it, Virginians deserve it, and law enforcement deserves it. And I think the administration needs to take prompt remedial action.”
Westfall, in an email statement included with a copy of the redacted report provided to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, said all information provided by the parole board to his office to conduct the administrative investigation is exempt under the state’s open records law. “The Virginia Parole Board maintains its FOIA exclusions and has not waived its FOIA protections,” he wrote.
Obenshain, a lawyer, said the state inspector general’s office may be prohibited from releasing the full report but the governor is under no such restriction.
Alena Yarmosky, press secretary for Gov. Ralph Northam, referred questions to parole board Chair Tonya Chapman.
In a prepared statement, Chapman said the board “is not able to comment” on information contained in the report due to its confidentiality.
“However, the Parole Board must highlight that OSIG’s conclusions are based on factual inaccuracies, a misunderstanding of the Parole Board’s procedures, and incorrect interpretations of the Virginia State Code,” she said. “Furthermore, as previously indicated, pursuant to [Virginia law that outlines the] powers and duties of the Board, the findings in OSIG’s investigation do not impact the final decisions rendered by the Board, as the final decision rests solely with the Parole Board.”
Howard Hall, president of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said the OSIG report must be released.
“It should be very easy to provide information about the nature of the allegations and the findings without including personnel information or compromising witnesses or complainants,” Hall, who serves as police chief in Roanoke County, said in an email. “The only conclusions that I can draw from the redacted report is that the Parole Board has not followed the required processes as they have released violent criminals into our communities.”
Obenshain noted that on July 10, during a joint meeting of the House Courts of Justice Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee, he asked Secretary Moran about what actions the Northam administration planned to take as a result of the alleged violations of law and procedures by the parole board in connection with the release of Martin and other inmates.
The alleged violations included reports that inmates were released without proper notification to victims’ families and the commonwealth’s attorneys who prosecuted the cases.
In the Martin case, questions also arose after former parole board Chair Adrianne Bennett, who left in April to become a judge, noted in public comments that the board conducted its own investigation of Martin’s conviction and concluded there was a “dark cloud of injustice” in his conviction. (Virginia abolished parole in 1995, but Martin was eligible because he was convicted before then.)
Obenshain said that Moran, during the courts and judiciary committees’ meeting in July, cautioned that no judgments or decisions should or would be reached until the release of the state inspector general’s report.
“Secretary Moran asked us to be patient and reserve judgement,” Obenshain said. “And now we get a six-page report that has been completed redacted — with the notable exception of the finding that the allegations, which ones we don’t know — were found to be substantiated. This is ridiculous.”
Emails sent to Moran and his spokesperson seeking comment were not returned.
Obenshain said Northam should follow the lead of former Gov. Mark Warner, now a U.S. senator, in demanding the resignations of the Virginia Parole Board.
A week before he took office in 2002 as governor, Warner demanded that parole board members at that time resign for failing to property notify the families of two victims, as well as state prosecutors, in granting the release of Joseph N. Martin, who was convicted of hiring a gunman to kill two people in Fairfax County in 1977. All five parole board members connected with that decision lost their jobs.
Former Deputy Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Stacy Garrett, who prosecuted Martin in 1980 and won a conviction by jury, called the redacted inspector general’s report a “whole lot of nothing.”
“I’m actually at a loss of words because we don’t know what [allegations] they are taking about,” Garrett said. “We can guess based on reports that were published in the newspaper and on TV about different things that the parole board didn’t do that they are supposed to have done. I assume those are among the allegations that have been substantiated. But we need to know what it says.”
Garrett added: “Somebody is trying to hide something, and the question is, what are they trying to hide and why are they trying to hide it? I think those are the two questions that need to be answered. The public has a right to know.”
Former Virginia State Police Superintendent Wayne Huggins, who now leads the Virginia State Police Association, also called for the full report to be released.
“I’m right in the middle of all the criminal justice issues that are [being discussed by lawmakers] and the various proposals that are being kicked around, and of course one of those proposals is greater transparency [in law enforcement],” Huggins said. “And I find it a bit ironic that in the wake of all of the discussion about [police] transparency, you see a six-page report and the only thing it tells us, is that the allegations are substantiated.”