The Office of the State Inspector General will provide to state legislative leaders an unredacted copy its recently released report that substantiated several allegations against the Virginia Parole Board, after top Republican lawmakers repeatedly demanded that it be made available to them.
During Gov. Ralph Northam’s press briefing Wednesday on COVID-19, Chief of Staff Clark Mercer announced that the parole board and the Inspector General’s Office have been working with Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring to have the full report released to House and Senate majority and minority leaders.
“So that’s good news, and we’ve certainly told the Inspector General that we would like this report shared with as many as possible,” said Mercer, who didn’t say when it may be released.
Several senior Republican legislators have been calling for the report to be released since a heavily redacted copy of the administrative investigation was released July 29 to members of the media who sought it.
All but a few sentences of the six-page report, dated July 27 and sent to Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, are concealed with blacked-out lines. The report’s conclusion is also largely expunged, leaving only the words, “The allegations ... are substantiated.”
A few hours before Wednesday’s announcement, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, and Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, released a joint statement and a letter addressed to State Inspector Michael Westfall that requested the report be immediately released “without further delay.”
The lawmakers cited a section of state code that says the Inspector General “shall” notify the governor’s chief of staff, along with House and Senate majority and minority leaders, “of problems, abuses, or deficiencies relating to the management or operation of a state agency or nonstate agency.”
“The independence of the Office of State Inspector General is essential to ensuring public confidence in the quality of its oversight and the integrity of its report,” the lawmakers wrote. “But in the dissemination of the report [of the Parole Board], the distribution has been limited in direct contradiction to the Code.”
Although the specific allegations that the Inspector General’s Office substantiated have been kept secret, Mercer, at Wednesday’s press briefing, noted that the investigation did not examine the substance of the parole board’s decisions to grant parole to specific individuals. “It was an administrative review based on a checklist of items the Parole Board is supposed to go through when they’re making these decisions,” he said.
The government watchdog agency began its 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.
Since receiving a redacted copy of the report last week, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, citing its interpretation of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, has sought a complete and uncensored copy of the report through email requests to the Inspector General.
Westfall, in an email statement included with a copy of the redacted report provided to the newspaper last week, said all information provided by the parole board to his office to conduct the investigation is exempt under the state’s open records law. He further advised that the parole board “maintains its FOIA exclusions and has not waived its FOIA protections.”
But Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, an expert on the state’s open records law, said the Inspector General’s Office misinterpreted the exemptions it cited in denying an uncensored copy of the report.
“If you would ask the parole board for this report, they could have legitimately said you can’t FOIA us,” Rhyne said. “But if records related to the parole board are in another public body’s custody [the inspector general], it has always been my understanding that that agency could not invoke an exemption on behalf of another one. So just because an exemption exists, that doesn’t mean other people can use exemptions that don’t apply to them.”
Rhyne said one of the code sections cited by the inspector general in declining to release an unredacted copy of the report applies to the underlying, source material of an investigation for various entities, but it requires the release of the final report.
“The final report may exclude names of people who made complaints and it may withhold the name of the person investigated if no corrective action is recommended (unless they consent),” Rhyne said. “That’s certainly not the case here.”
When presented with a summary Rhyne’s opinion by email, along with a request to promptly reconsider its decision and release a full copy of the report, an OSIG spokeswoman replied, “The Office of the State Inspector General has no further comment on this matter.”
Last week, Parole Board Chair Tonya Chapman said the board could not comment on the inspector general’s report because information contained within it was confidential.
However, she said the parole board disputed the inspector general’s conclusions, saying they were based on “factual inaccuracies, a misunderstanding of the parole board’s procedures, and incorrect interpretations of the Virginia State Code.”
On Monday, in response to calls for the redacted report to be made public, Chapman said: “Although the Parole Board has not waived its FOIA exclusion, the Parole Board has no objection to otherwise non-exempt information being released.”