Virginia’s inspector general, whose office is supposed to uncover waste, fraud and abuse in state government, might lose her job over what Republican lawmakers say was a failure to rigorously investigate the death of a mentally ill man in a Hampton Roads jail 18 months ago.
The Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates’ decision to reject Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s appointment of June Jennings to a full four-year term prompted an angry response Thursday from the governor, who suggested that sexism was at play.
Appearing on a Richmond-area radio talk show, the Democratic governor called the House action outrageous and suggested that it was motivated by sexism. “Why do they keep going after women here?” he asked, 15 minutes into “The John Fredericks Show.” “To take this innocent woman and toss her under the bus . . . ”
Each house in the General Assembly essentially has veto power over appointments, so unless McAuliffe (D) works out a deal and resubmits Jennings’s name, her three-year interim term could end in June.
McAuliffe said that Jennings bears “absolutely zero responsibility” for Jamycheal Mitchell’s death. He accused the Republicans of hypocrisy for failing to give Jennings the authority to investigate the death.
Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Albemarle), who led the House effort on Wednesday to unseat Jennings, said he and his colleagues are dissatisfied with her investigation of the death of Mitchell, a mentally ill man who died in jail Aug. 19, 2015. The inspector general’s office needs “a bulldog” and Jennings is simply “too nice . . . too sweet” for the job, Bell said.
It’s not unprecedented for the Virginia General Assembly to reject a governor’s appointment. The last time was a year ago, when the legislators refused to reappoint former Fairfax County Circuit Court judge Jane Roush to the state Supreme Court after she served two recess appointments on the state’s top court.
Bell agreed in an interview that it’s “disputable” if the inspector general should investigate a death in the jail but it’s “indisputable” that the office has oversight over the contracted health-care provider, NaphCare, which failed to address Mitchell’s deteriorating condition that led to his death at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail.
A bill proposed by Bell that would assign the responsibility of investigating jail deaths to the state Department of Corrections has languished in the House, he said. McAuliffe’s efforts to clarify the oversight of jails have also been stalled or defeated, he said.
Jennings declined to comment Thursday. Appointed to the position in June 2014, after serving as deputy to Michael Morehart, she previously oversaw internal audits for the Virginia Department of Corrections. She has also worked as a senior auditor at the state Auditor of Public Accounts.
Mitchell, 24, was arrested in April 2015 for stealing $5 worth of junk food from a 7-Eleven. He died that summer in jail after he wasted away, losing 40 pounds in less than four months.
Diagnosed as manic and psychotic, Mitchell had stopped taking his medications for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and was awaiting assignment to Eastern State Hospital, where he would receive mental health care. But a state audit later found that the judge’s order putting him on a waiting list for care there had not been processed — it had been stuffed into a drawer at the hospital and wasn’t found until after his death. Meanwhile, reports by other inmates to Portsmouth jailers about Mitchell’s worsening condition were ignored.
The federal Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation into the Portsmouth jail in December over inmates’ access to medical and mental health care. Mitchell’s family has also filed a $60 million lawsuit against the jail.
Some 226 people have died in Virginia’s jails, or under jail supervision, since 2012, the Department of Corrections said. Local and regional jails largely police themselves. More than 7,000 mentally troubled people have been incarcerated in Virginia jails in recent years, a state audit found.