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Senators make bipartisan call for new investigation of Parole Board following report

Senators make bipartisan call for new investigation of Parole Board following report

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Two state senators want a select committee formed to investigate “serious damaging allegations” of wrongdoing by the Virginia Parole Board following a revelation this week of new documents related to how the board handled the release of a man who killed a Richmond police officer in 1979.

WTVR-TV in Richmond reported Tuesday on the previously unreleased records from the Office of the State Inspector General, the watchdog agency that found last year that the parole board and its former chairwoman violated state law and board policies in granting release to Vincent Martin.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch on Thursday obtained a copy of those records in the form of an inspector general report.

The report last year found the board failed to give proper notification to Richmond’s top prosecutor before granting Martin parole, did not earnestly contact the victim’s family beforehand, and denied one of Martin’s alleged victims in a separate case a chance to address the board, among other issues.

The new documents, which are an extension by seven pages of the earlier six-page report released to Republican state legislators in August and then to the news media, appear to be a draft and include additional allegations and an expanded narrative. The expanded report includes the following allegations:

  • The day before Martin had a parole interview scheduled in 2020, former Chairwoman Adrianne Bennett directed the parole board administrator to tell a hearing examiner to submit a 2018 interview report as “their own” instead of doing a new interview. “Last year’s report is fine for Vincent Martin,” Bennett said. “There is nothing we don’t already know very well about his case.” Both the parole board administrator and hearing examiner “refused to falsify a report and violate their own ethics,” the report said.
  • Bennett, who left the board last April and became a judge in Virginia Beach, violated her duty under Virginia’s constitution to remain impartial while considering the case. The report says, “During interviews with VPB employees, Bennett often verbally stated that she believed Martin was innocent and employees felt that this belief was the main deciding factor of his release.” In an email dated April 2, 2020, to another board member, Bennett stated, “Martin was railroaded. I am finishing up reading his trial transcripts and the injustice that was committed on Martin is profoundly disturbing.”
  • On April 13, 2020, Bennett explained to a deputy secretary of public safety and homeland security and the current parole board chair, Tonya Chapman, “This has been in the makings for years and was decided in November by the Parole Board that would not and could not say ‘no’ to Martin again.” The report said Bennett’s statement showed that she and the board decided to vote for Martin’s release before victims were notified, before victims provided input, before the offender’s annual parole interview was conducted, and before letters of offender support were received.
  • On April 3, Bennett “falsely stated” to Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran and his deputy secretary that she had not advocated for Martin’s release on parole and that a decision had not been made, according to the report. Further, Bennett was “soliciting others to write recommendation letters of support on behalf of Martin.”
  • The parole board violated its ethical obligation to promote fair and impartial justice by advocating for Martin’s innocence after his conviction and by using information like trial transcripts and news articles for the basis of its parole decision, the report said. The board also was reluctant to reach out to the victims.
  • The inspector general’s office requested a copy of parole board minutes from Chapman, the current parole board chair, but she was reluctant to provide them for the meeting that occurred on April 28. She ultimately complied. But in comparing the board minutes that were provided to board members by email on May 12 with a copy of the minutes received by the inspector general, “it was clear that information regarding Martin had been deleted and was not the complete document that the board members received.” The report didn’t say who may have altered or deleted minutes.

State Sens. John Bell, D-Loudoun, and Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, sent a letter Wednesday to Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, calling for a select committee with full investigative and subpoena power to look into the allegations.

“We believe that a clear and transparent investigation free of influence is critical to resolving this issue that surrounds the Virginia Parole Board,” their letter said.

Bennett could not be reached for comment.

The new documents came up in questions Wednesday at a news conference by Gov. Ralph Northam, who said he does not have the new records.

“We’ll be glad to look at it and address it, but I can’t speculate on something I haven’t seen,” Northam said.

Moran, the Cabinet secretary who oversees the parole board, said he too had not seen the additional documents.

“I would have to review it to be able to discuss any specifics,” he said.

In a news release issued Thursday morning, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, who delivered a speech Wednesday on the Senate floor about the latest allegations, claimed the new documents showed “apparent attempts to cover up wrongdoings.”

“There are three main issues here: misconduct by the Parole Board, violations of the duty of OSIG to maintain independence, and a clearly coordinated effort to cover up the misconduct to avoid political damage and embarrassment.”

Obenshain questioned how what appears to be damning information was not released by OSIG, and said he wants to know if anyone from the governor’s office or attorney general’s office was involved in sanitizing the report.

Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said the governor’s office had no role in editing or requesting any edits to the report.

As a result of this week’s disclosure, Chapman wrote a complaint Wednesday to the governor against OSIG and its leader, Michael Westfall.

“The allegations reported by CBS 6 reporter, Jon Burkett, from an alleged OSIG report is reckless and irresponsible,” Chapman wrote in her complaint, which was provided to The Times-Dispatch. “The alleged report was never provided to Secretary Brian Moran or me. If these allegations were posed and included in a report, I should have been advised of the allegations and provided an opportunity to defend the allegations.”

“Furthermore, I am not aware if these allegations were even substantiated,” she added. “As such, I respectfully request a full investigation into how this entire investigation was handled and specifically who forwarded this unsubstantiated information to the media. If this incident is not resolved, it will permanently damage my reputation and career.”

Kate Hourin, the communications director for OSIG, said in a statement provided to The Times-Dispatch that the agency had previously released “accurate final reports” regarding the parole board.

“OSIG wants to emphasize that any draft OSIG report involving the Parole Board that was recently disclosed to the news media was released without the consent of OSIG. OSIG is taking appropriate action to identify the person(s) responsible for improperly disclosing such information,” she said in the statement.

This week’s revelations about the parole board and OSIG’s investigations of the panel rekindled concerns raised last year that led several state Republican leaders to demand the resignations of all five members of the board.

The board, through Chapman, dismissed those calls to resign amid questions raised by Jeffrey Breit, a longtime friend and legal adviser to Northam, who questioned the inspector general’s authority and expertise to investigate the board’s decision to grant parole to Martin, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1980 for the execution-style killing of Richmond police officer Michael Connors. Martin was released in June.

Just over a month later, the inspector general substantiated six additional allegations leveled against the parole board after investigating complaints about how the panel reached its decision in another case, which has not been identified. But the findings were stricken entirely from copies of the OSIG reports released to The Times-Dispatch and other news outlets in early October.

Seven reports related to that single case were released then. All but a few sentences were concealed with blacked-out lines. The reports’ conclusions also were largely expunged, leaving only the words, “The allegations are substantiated” in six of the seven reports.

The same thing occurred with OSIG’s Vincent Martin investigation. A heavily redacted report was released July 29 to the news media, but all but a few sentences were blacked out, leaving only a few legible sentences. The full uncensored report was first sent to Moran, the Cabinet secretary, on July 28.

Three senior state Republican leaders then demanded the release of the full, uncensored report, and OSIG made a copy available. The GOP leaders then released the unredacted version to news outlets on Aug. 6.

At that time, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said the parole board members who were part of the decision to release Martin “need to take responsibility for themselves and step aside.” If not, Northam “needs to step up and do his duty” and remove them, Gilbert said.

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Twitter: @patrickmwilson

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Staff writer Frank Green contributed to this report, which includes information from The Associated Press.

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