Parole Board Investigation: Recording details Northam officials’ grilling of watchdog agency

gshipleyIssues, Public Safety

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They still don’t think the Parole Board did anything wrong. That’s the top takeaway from a recording of a meeting between the Office of Inspector General and Northam Administration. The meeting, recorded and given to members of the press, shows an administration far more worried about politics and optics than following the law.

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By Graham Moomaw
Virginia Mercury
April 18, 2021


When top aides to Gov. Ralph Northam sat down last summer to meet with the state inspector general, whose office had just issued a critical watchdog report on the Virginia Parole Board, Northam Chief of Staff Clark Mercer opened by saying he wanted to hear what was being done to prevent future reports from “getting forwarded to the Associated Press again.”

Republican General Assembly leaders had just given media outlets an unredacted copy of a report accusing the Parole Board of mishandling the release of Vincent Martin, who was convicted of the 1979 killing of a Richmond police officer but won praise as a model inmate. Before that, the inspector general had only released an unreadable version with virtually every sentence blacked-out, citing an interpretation of confidentiality laws disputed by open-government advocates.

Mercer said he was hoping for a “collegial” discussion of what had happened and the aspects of the report that were in dispute.

An audio recording of that meeting obtained by The Virginia Mercury sheds new light on a yearlong controversy that has roiled Virginia government heading into this year’s House of Delegates and gubernatorial elections, revealing a brass tacks back-and-forth between investigators convinced they had identified a pattern of wrongdoing by the Parole Board and Northam officials questioning the merits of the findings and determined to prevent more sensitive information from getting out to their critics and the media.

The governor’s representatives wasted little time getting to the point.

Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran, whose office oversees the Parole Board, questioned whether the inspector general even had the authority to investigate complaints the board had violated its own policies and state law requiring notification to local prosecutors and crime victims when an inmate is being paroled.

“How did you even get into this?” Moran asked.

Mercer said he had information suggesting the law enforcement community, outraged by the decision to grant Martin parole after he served 40 years of a life sentence, was flooding an anti-corruption hotline with complaints.

“Is that the proper use of the hotline?” Mercer said.

The governor’s staff said the fact that the report included background information about Martin’s crime without mentioning his clean prison record raised questions about whether the entire investigation was biased.

“This is an individual that had probably one of the most sparkling records in incarceration that we’ve ever had,” Mercer said. “And that led to the decision to parole this individual. All the background is about the negative things and the bad things that he’s done.”

Inspector General Michael Westfall, a Northam appointee, responded that his office has a duty to investigate the validity of complaints coming into a hotline that’s anonymous by design. The executive order laying out those responsibilities and his office’s broad oversight of state agencies, he noted, says explicitly that no one should try to identify the source of anonymous complaints or retaliate against them. Everything in the report substantiating the complaints against the Parole Board, he said, was “vetted” by a lawyer from Attorney General Mark Herring’s office.

That didn’t satisfy Moran.

“This was in the press,” Moran said. “And then just to write this in the way it was written knowing how it would be received and the disservice it would be on the Parole Board and us? I don’t know how you can defend that, Mike.”
‘The rules and regulations need to be followed’

The precise date of the meeting is unclear, but it appeared to occur on Aug. 14, shortly after Republicans released the full Martin report on Aug. 6.

For months, Republicans have accused the executive branch of exerting undue political pressure on the independent watchdog agency created to expose waste, fraud and abuse in state government. The meeting last summer has become a key piece of that narrative, with a state investigator who attended it, Jennifer Moschetti, claiming in an unsuccessful whistleblower lawsuit that Northam aides tried to intimidate the IG’s office amid an ongoing inquiry into a politically charged subject. The governor’s office has insisted no intimidation took place, and said the meeting confirmed its suspicions that the IG’s report was written by a biased investigator who simply didn’t like the decision to release Martin.

Moschetti was fired from her job earlier this year shortly after she revealed she had given documents to the General Assembly, and, in a lawsuit, claimed her decision to share those records was protected whistleblower activity. That lawsuit was dropped after she was fired, but her lawyer, Republican political candidate Tim Anderson, has said she intends to pursue a wrongful termination case.

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