Allegations of Impropriety Surround the Little-Known U.S. Parole Commission

Veronza Bowers Jr. is shown in this undated photograph with his daughter and grandson. Bowers was on the verge of being paroled in 2005, but then a U.S. parole commissioner got involved, and so did the U.S. attorney general.
Veronza Bowers Jr. is shown in this undated photograph with his daughter and grandson. Bowers was on the verge of being paroled in 2005, but then a U.S. parole commissioner got involved, and so did the U.S. attorney general. (Special To The Washington Post)
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By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Like Washington's most famous tale of intrigue, this one includes the surreptitious entry of an office on a weekend.

The incident at the U.S. Parole Commission, a little-noticed corner of the federal government, was certainly no Watergate. But it was one in a string of curious events that have unfolded quietly in recent years at the small but powerful commission.

Memos, e-mails and court records spin a yarn of internal discord that threads together the unauthorized entry, an old murder outside San Francisco, a commissioner's resignation and attempts to win funding to improve a rural highway in Missouri. Players in the drama include a former special assistant to President George W. Bush, a past member of the Black Panthers and even a former Justice Department official who oversaw the politically tinged dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys.

The Parole Commission's future has been in question since 1984, when Congress voted to eliminate federal parole and establish formal sentencing guidelines. The commission still has a multimillion-dollar budget and nearly 80 employees at its headquarters in a nondescript office building in Chevy Chase. It has survived attempts by lawmakers to eliminate it because it also handles inmates convicted under D.C. law and because some convicts sent away under the old federal system still need to have their cases heard.

One such inmate is Veronza Bowers Jr. After serving 31 years on a murder conviction, Bowers was granted parole and was preparing to walk out of a U.S. penitentiary in Florida in June 2005 when he and his family in the District learned that his release was on hold and that he would remain imprisoned indefinitely.

It later turned out that one of the commissioners, former White House aide Deborah Spagnoli, had contacted the office of then-Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who made an unprecedented intervention in the case. Attorneys for Bowers argue that Spagnoli created a secret back channel in an improper effort to keep Bowers in prison, even though the commission was designed to be a quasi-judicial, impartial body.

Spagnoli, who resigned from the commission in 2007, said all of her actions were consistent with her duty to make sure the commission considered all the facts about Bowers, whom she described as an "unrepentant murderer."

"I never pre-judged the case, however, after my review of the specific facts and after applying the correct law, I made an independent judgment" that Bowers did not qualify for release, she said in a statement. She said she simply made that judgment clear in a 14-page memo to Gonzales, which she said she never intended to hide from her colleagues.

The Bowers episode preceded more trouble. In June 2006, on Father's Day, someone surreptitiously entered the office of Parole Commission Chairman Edward F. Reilly Jr. and apparently copied dozens of pages from his files, records show.

Then things got really strange. Late last year, an anonymous letter and a package of documents were sent to the Justice Department's inspector general, alleging that Reilly was using his position and official stationery to promote improvements for a Missouri highway that could benefit his family holdings back home. Spagnoli's husband, William Woodruff, now an assistant U.S. attorney in the District, confirmed to The Washington Post that he sent the package. He said he had obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request in an attempt to gather evidence of what he thought were unethical practices.

Reilly said he was not trying to personally profit from his public position. He declined to discuss the Bowers case or the unauthorized entry of his office in detail.

Spagnoli, who began her career prosecuting violent offenders in Bakersfield, Calif., said that she had nothing to do with her husband's investigation and that she had done nothing wrong.

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