The parole board defended its actions at the time, but since then material has continued to leak out to politicians and the news media suggesting that the inspector general’s office thinks similar alleged violations have happened in several other cases.
The circumstances have been further clouded by the firing of a member of the inspector general’s office who had sought whistleblower protection, and this week the chairwoman of the parole board — who took office after the prisoner release that caused controversy — filed a lawsuit against a Richmond television station that reported on a leaked internal document from the inspector general’s office.
Republicans have accused the Northam administration of mismanagement, and the issue threatens to become an election-year headache for Democrats hoping to keep control of the governor’s mansion and a majority of seats in the 100-member House of Delegates this fall.
The former parole board chairwoman who oversaw the prisoner release, Adrianne Bennett, is now a judge in Virginia Beach and has declined to speak publicly about it. But her lawyer, Jeffrey Breit, said the board had done nothing wrong. “I think it’s a Willie Horton attempt by Republicans to scare Virginians,” Breit said, referring to an ad from George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign that used images of a Black convict to stoke voter fears.
Asked about the situation during a coronavirus news conference in early March, Northam chief of staff Clark Mercer suggested that it was being inflamed for political purposes.
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said Wednesday that the governor “is committed to taking the politics out of this situation, which is why he is supporting an independent investigation. Parole is a critical part of criminal justice reform, and this issue is far too important for political games.”
The flap got started early last year. As the pandemic began shutting down the state’s economy and institutions, Northam ordered the parole board to consider expediting releases of older and ailing inmates to help prevent the spread of the disease.
One inmate among the dozens the board decided to release was Vincent L. Martin, 63, sentenced to life for killing Richmond police officer Michael P. Connors in 1979.
When word got out, the law enforcement community expressed outrage. Martin’s release was delayed, but it proceeded in June.
In August, the inspector general issued a six-page report saying that the board — and Bennett in particular — had failed to follow state law requiring that victims’ family members and local prosecutors be notified of a pending release at least 21 days in advance.
By then, former Portsmouth police chief Tonya Chapman had replaced Bennett as parole board chairwoman. She issued a detailed rebuttal of the inspector general’s findings.
For instance, the inspector general said Richmond prosecutors were notified on April 15 that Martin was to be released on April 30 — less than the required 21 days. But Chapman pointed out that when she saw the release date, she changed it to May to comply with the law. And when she learned of the inspector general’s investigation, Chapman wrote, she delayed the release for an additional month.
She also noted that Bennett had spoken personally with family members of the slain police officer ahead of the decision to release Martin, and that the board received comments from 25 people arguing to keep him in prison.
Early this year, a 13-page draft version of Inspector General Michael Westfall’s report was obtained by news media and Republican officials, containing potentially more serious allegations that parole board members had falsified records. Those allegations had not made it into the final report.
Then another draft report surfaced mentioning similar time and process violations in seven other cases. And yet another draft report surfaced accusing Bennett of personally intervening to curtail the post-release supervision periods of dozens of former inmates.
Many of the allegations were published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which has reported on the saga on a near-daily basis. Earlier this week, Chapman filed a $7 million defamation suit against a Richmond television station, claiming that it had aired a “reckless” description of the 13-page draft as if it were a substantiated document. The suit was first reported by Courthouse News.
As Republicans hammered Northam with demands for firing the parole board, the investigator who handled the parole board case in the inspector general’s office filed a lawsuit seeking whistleblower protection.
She was represented by Virginia Beach lawyer Tim Anderson, who has filed a series of Republican-backed lawsuits in the past year. He challenged the state Senate when it censured Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield) after she called the Jan. 6 rioters at the U.S. Capitol “patriots,” for instance, and he has filed numerous unsuccessful challenges to Northam’s coronavirus restrictions.
Anderson is also running for a House of Delegates seat, leading Democrats to charge that his pursuit of the parole board case is nakedly political. Anderson did not respond to requests for comment via email and phone message.
When the investigator was fired from her job at the inspector general’s office, she withdrew the lawsuit.
Northam administration officials have denied any role in her firing, and the inspector general’s office declined to comment on a personnel matter. In March, Westfall issued statements defending the department’s performance but cautioning “anyone purporting to have a draft document to not interpret it as being anywhere close to a final report.”
Northam’s request for an outside investigation must be voted on by the General Assembly when it convenes on Wednesday for a one-day session to consider vetoes and legislative amendments issued by the governor. Both Republican and Democratic leaders have signaled interest in an investigation.
The request limits the inquiry to the Martin case, and while it provides full access and authority to the outside investigators, it stipulates that the process will not be open to the public. The governor’s office would work with General Assembly leaders and the state attorney general to identify an impartial outside investigator.