Watchdog redacts more records related to parole board probe

Capitol Connection

RICHMOND, Va. (AP/WRIC) — Virginia’s government watchdog agency has found new problems with victim and prosecutor notification in cases handled by the state parole board, according to documents obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press and 8News.

The agency is withholding many of the specifics of its findings, citing exemptions to the state’s open records law, however.

Republican legislative leaders provided AP with a brief summary report of the findings of an investigation by the Office of the State Inspector General into complaints about multiple offenders’ parole cases. AP and 8News reported earlier this year on a slew of parole decisions across the state in which prosecutors and victims’ families raised concerns about what they said was a lack of timely or sufficient notification of the release of violent offenders.

The IG’s office “substantiated” five allegations that the parole board didn’t properly notify prosecutors and seven allegations that it didn’t “endeavor diligently” as required by state law to contact victims, according to the summary report.

Read: Letter sent to the Office of the State Inspector General

It was not immediately clear which individuals’ cases were covered in the most recent investigation. AP filed a request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act in August for individual case reports and on Tuesday was provided with documents that were almost entirely redacted.

“The Virginia Parole Board maintains its FOIA exclusions and has not waived its FOIA protections,” Inspector General Michael Westfall wrote in an email sent by an agency spokeswoman that also cited other exclusions under the open records law.

The GOP lawmakers, who said they had not received the individual reports but were entitled to them, demanded their release.

“The failure of General Westfall to provide complete and unredacted copies of these reports undermines his credibility and damages the independence of his office,” Sen. Tommy Norment said in a statement.

Read: Full statement from Republican Leaders demanding release of full reports on Parole Board

The disclosures come after a similar incident over the summer in which the agency initially released a mostly redacted investigative report about the handling of a parole grant to a man convicted decades ago of killing a Richmond police officer. The findings were eventually publicly disclosed by Republican lawmakers. In that case, the IG’s office found the Virginia Parole Board and its former chairwoman violated state law and its own policies and procedures.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert said unless redacted copies of all reports were provided to legislative leaders, the IG’s office was not in compliance with state law.

“We will be making this clear to the IG, perhaps in court if necessary,” he said in a statement.

Among the documents the IG’s office provided AP was a list of recommendations based on the findings of the investigation.

The first one said the parole board “should develop and attest to a Code of Ethics that focuses on impartiality, integrity and transparency when making all parole-related decisions.”

Read: Virginia Parole Board’s reasons to the OSIG’s recommendations

All of the IG’s documents provided to AP had been addressed to Brian Moran, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s secretary of public safety and homeland security.

Moran’s spokeswoman, Jacquelyn Katuin, wrote in an email that state law prohibits anyone but the Inspector General from releasing the reports.

Katuin provided a copy of a letter dated Tuesday she said Moran had sent to the inspector general. In it, Moran wrote that the review “has highlighted a number issues, including inconsistencies in the Code of Virginia and the VPB’s internal policies and procedures.”

Moran said he had directed the parole board to develop legislation for the 2021 General Assembly session that will “create consistency.”

Republican-sponsored legislation dealing with the Parole Board has been effectively killed in the ongoing special session:

  • SB5050 – Parole; notice and certification, monthly reports, discretionary early consideration.
    • Requires the Chairman of the Virginia Parole Board to certify under oath compliance with the provisions that require notice to certain persons prior to the release or discharge of any prisoner. The bill requires that the monthly reports issued by the Board regarding actions taken on the parole of prisoners (i) be published on the last day of the month and (ii) include the offenses of which prisoners considered for parole were convicted, the jurisdictions in which such offenses were committed, the amount of time served by such prisoners, and the reasons for release or discharge. The bill also requires that when notice is sent to a victim of the victim’s right to present evidence to the Board of the impact that the release of a prisoner will have on the victim, such notice shall also be sent to the attorney for the Commonwealth and the director of the victim/witness program of the jurisdiction in which the prisoner’s offense occurred. The bills repeals the authority of the Director of the Department of Corrections to identify and recommend to the Board prisoners for early parole consideration. 
  • SB5012 – Virginia Freedom of Information Act; Virginia Parole Board member votes
    • Provides that individual votes of the members of the Virginia Parole Board shall be public records and subject to the provisions of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

Katuin also provided the Parole Board’s response to the IG’s office.

Parole Board chair Tonya Chapman wrote an eight-page letter also dated Tuesday that said since taking office in April she has added unspecified “additional practices” that “should prevent any individual from being released prior to compliance with all required notifications.”

She also wrote that the board could use more funding to hire additional staff, including a victim services assistant and an office manager.

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