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.
"I am a prosecutor, and I came from the White House," said Spagnoli, who was a special assistant to Bush and who was appointed by him to the Parole Commission in 2004.
"I thought what they were doing was just a disgrace. They were letting very bad criminals back on the street without any review. They didn't follow proper procedure, et cetera. I just came in and had a different perspective. . . . We tried to make it more victim-oriented."
Others argue that the Bowers matter alone points to serious problems at the commission.
"It is an outrageous case," said Alan J. Chaset, a lawyer and former employee of the commission who at one time represented Bowers. "They played fast and loose with the laws."
Reilly's tenure as head of the commission is at an end. Last Tuesday, President Obama designated commission member Isaac Fulwood, a former D.C. police chief, as the new chairman.A Park Ranger Is Killed
Opponents of Bowers's parole say there was good reason to keep him behind bars. Bowers, who had been a member of the Black Panthers in California in the early 1970s, first came up for what is known as mandatory parole in 2004. Bowers had to be paroled after 30 years unless it was determined that he "seriously or frequently" violated prison rules or that there was a reasonable probability he would commit a crime.
His criminal case dates to 1973, when he and two friends allegedly packed up crossbows and headed to the Point Reyes National Seashore outside San Francisco to poach deer. Early on the morning of Aug. 5, according to trial testimony, Kenneth Patrick, a National Park Service ranger and father of three, approached through the fog and shined a flashlight into their Pontiac Grand Prix. Someone fired a 9mm handgun, killing Patrick. One man in the car later identified the shooter as Bowers.
Bowers has always contended that he was asleep in his bed at the time. He has called himself "one of the longest-held political prisoners in the U.S." His supporters set up a Web site, established a defense fund and sold CDs of his Japanese flute performances.
By early 2005, hearing examiners had reviewed his case and deemed him a good candidate for release. That led to an order for his parole, which often results in an inmate's release without any action by the full commission. Instead of abiding by that order, Spagnoli called for a vote by all the commissioners.
The vote resulted in a 2 to 2 tie, with one abstention, in May 2005, which by law meant the hearing examiners' judgment would prevail. Bowers was told he would be freed.
Spagnoli did not give up. She e-mailed and talked to Justice Department officials, including Steven G. Bradbury, a former top lawyer in the Office of Legal Counsel, now best known for memos that authorized the CIA to use harsh interrogation techniques. According to court records, she also indicated that she had contacted D. Kyle Sampson, who went on to become Gonzales's chief of staff and oversaw the dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys, a matter that is under criminal investigation.
Sampson and Bradbury declined to comment.
Without the knowledge of the other commissioners, records obtained by The Post show, Spagnoli wrote the memo to Gonzales's office outlining legal arguments that he could use if he stepped into the Bowers case. Gonzales then made a request for a review of the case. It would be two years before other commissioners or Bowers's attorneys learned about Spagnoli's memo, records show.
Spagnoli did not specifically request that Gonzales intercede, but she indicated that she would vote against Bowers's parole if he did step in. Spagnoli also pointed out that the Fraternal Order of Police, which opposed Bowers's release, had more than 318,000 members. Around the same time, the group, which had been in contact with the widow of the slain park ranger, sent a letter to the attorney general arguing that Bowers was "an unrepentant murderer and career criminal."
"I do not see a downside to an Appeal by the Attorney General," Spagnoli wrote. "By requesting that the commission review its decision, the AG gets credit for doing so with crime victims and law enforcement" and "the Attorney General gets credit for protecting the public from a dangerous criminal."
Although the commission's administrative affairs are handled by the Justice Department, Congress designated it to be "insulated from political pressures, particularly pressures from the 'prosecutorial arm' of the Department," according to the commission's reference manual. The commission's ethics guidebook says that members "should always maintain the impartiality of a judge" and should not be influenced by private contacts with one side in a dispute or by "any contact outside official channels."
In recent court filings, government lawyers acknowledged that Spagnoli may have given the appearance that "she was not an impartial decision-maker." But they also insist that her actions did not result in the commission's change of position on Bowers'Victory'
Eight days after Spagnoli sent the memo, Gonzales asked the Parole Commission to "clarify" its "initial decision." Parole experts say it appeared to be the first time an attorney general had interceded in a parole case already decided by the full commission.
Spagnoli still did not mention her memo to other commissioners, according to court records. The Fraternal Order of Police issued a news release claiming credit for Gonzales's move.
The commissioners had no guidelines for handling such a request from Gonzales. They quickly decided to put a hold on Bowers's release. Then they worked on a procedure for taking a formal vote to reconsider his parole.
On Oct. 6, 2005, the commission voted 4 to 0, with one abstention, to keep Bowers in prison.
After the vote, Spagnoli sent a one-word e-mail to a Justice Department official: "Victory."
Reilly, the commission's chairman, discovered Spagnoli's memo in 2007 and revealed it in a letter to Bowers. He told Bowers that there was no evidence that it was Spagnoli's memo that prompted Gonzales to intervene. Despite the irregularities in the case, he wrote, the votes he and the other commissioners gave to keep Bowers imprisoned were based on their individual assessments. Reilly said in a recent interview that he changed his vote after reviewing the details of Bowers's attempted escape in 1979.
Bowers's attorneys said in a statement that the commission "caved in to political pressure and broke the law." They declined to discuss the matter in detail while the case is pending in court.
A spokesman for Gonzales referred questions to the Justice Department, where a spokeswoman declined to comment because Bowers's status is pending in court.
Spagnoli said she acted properly within her role to make certain the relevant facts and applicable law were considered.
"I never campaigned to deny parole to Veronza Bowers," she said in a statement. "I do not believe that there was any impropriety in reviewing the case and the applicable law and providing a summary to the Attorney General who has a statutory right to appeal certain parole commission decisions."Copies on a Sunday
Spagnoli complained in an interview that Reilly appeared to have turned the commission into his "personal little fiefdom" and strayed from the mission of looking after crime victims.
Reilly, a former Kansas state legislator, said there was no discord with Spagnoli. He said the inspector general's office asked him not to discuss the surreptitious entry of his office in June 2006. The Post obtained a letter from that time in which Reilly described the events to the inspector general's office.
Shortly after Reilly arrived at his office on Monday, June 19, the letter said, his secretary brought in a stack of his personal papers that had been left on the office copier. Problem was, Reilly wasn't the one who had left them there. The machine's log showed that someone copied 68 pages on Sunday afternoon.
Reilly's office is located in the commission's fifth-floor suite, which is protected by an alarm system on the weekend, the letter said. Reilly wrote that his office doors also were locked. The letter identified four commission employees who entered the building that Sunday, including Spagnoli, who also had an office on the fifth floor.
Reilly described the invasion as "deeply troubling," because the material copied included his notes of a conversation with a senior FBI official.
A spokesman for the inspector general's office declined to comment.
Ten months after the incident, in April 2007, Spagnoli announced that she planned to resign, citing her stress level and resistance to her attempts to make "positive change" at the commission.
In a recent interview, Spagnoli said she could not discuss the unauthorized entry because of the inspector general's investigation.A Missouri Highway
Late last year, packets of documents arrived anonymously at The Post and at the inspector general's office. Inside were photocopies of correspondence that Reilly had mailed to local and federal officials in 2006 and 2007.
The letters showed that while chairman, Reilly had repeatedly pushed public officials to improve Missouri Highway 92, which connects his home town of Leavenworth, Kan., to Kansas City, Mo. Reilly owns property in Leavenworth and, with his family, owns the region's leading real estate firm.
"As you are aware, this highway serves both Ft. Leavenworth, one of the Nation's major military bases, and the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, and has long been in need of improvement." Reilly wrote in an April 2006 letter to Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.).
Justice Department guidelines say that an official's "position or title should not be used . . . to give the appearance of governmental sanction."
In an interview, Reilly said he never meant for anyone to conclude that the Justice Department endorsed his campaign. He said that, in hindsight, he should have written the letters on his private stationery.
"I never really thought about it until you brought it to my attention," Reilly said. "I'm very sorry it occurred."
A week after being questioned by The Post, Reilly said the inspector general's office informed him that it was investigating.
Records at the commission, released to The Post under a Freedom of Information Act request, show that Woodruff, Spagnoli's husband, has requested copies of commission correspondence on at least two occasions since Spagnoli's resignation.
In an interview, Woodruff confirmed that he had made the requests and that he mailed copies of the documents he received to the inspector general's office and The Post. He said he did so anonymously because he did not "care to be a hero."
He said he had no connection to the surreptitious entry at Reilly's office.
Woodruff said his goal in sending the documents was to protect taxpayers and expose what he considered illegal activity. He showed The Post additional letters that appeared to have been written by Reilly and a photocopy of a credit card bearing Reilly's name and that of his family's real estate firm. Woodruff said that the letters indicated Reilly conducted other personal business on official stationary and that the credit card raised questions about whether the chairman was receiving benefits from the firm.
Woodruff said those documents did not come from his formal records request to the commission. "In some cases, I am literally not sure what the source is," he said.
Reilly's attorney, Joseph diGenova, said his client's family owns no land along the Missouri highway. He said Reilly pays the credit card bill himself and receives no compensation from the real estate firm. Reilly estimates he has written about 200 personal letters on his official stationary over 17 years and now "understands that that was a mistake," diGenova said.
For her part, Spagnoli said: "This was my husband's thing. . . . He's being a good husband. I'm not interested in being a whistleblower."
No work has begun on improving Highway 92. No suspect has been publicly identified in connection with the entry of Reilly's office. And Bowers, now 63, remains in prison in Atlanta.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.