RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Gov. Ralph Northam is proposing $250K for an independent review of an alleged cover-up by the state’s watchdog agency as it investigated wrong-doing by the Virginia Parole Board.
However, critics say Northam’s approach outlined in a budget amendment released on Wednesday lacks the transparency and objectivity needed to regain public trust. The General Assembly will vote on the proposal when they reconvene on April 7th.
The push traces back to claims that the Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) removed damning allegations of misconduct by current and former Parole Board leadership from its investigation last year. The leaked OSIG report detailed various problems with the controversial release of Vincent Martin, a man convicted of murdering a Richmond Police officer.
“It is one of if not the most high profile parole decisions in the history of the Commonwealth. It was a brave and bold decision made by the Parole Board and the Governor and it’s one that we stand by strongly,” said Northam’s Chief of Staff Clark Mercer at a press conference last month.
Those comments came in response to allegations that members of Northam’s Administration intimidated a lead author of OSIG’s report on the Martin case. That employee is now seeking whistle-blower status.
Mercer denied the claims, dismissed the accusations as partisan games, and called the OSIG report criticizing the Parole Board’s actions biased.
During that same press conference, Northam joined calls for an independent investigation into the policies and procedures employed by OSIG.
“The last thing that I’m going to let happen as this evolves is for this to become politicized,” Northam said.
Still, Republicans argue the process Northam has chosen for selecting an investigator is flawed. Del. Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) said only Democratic leaders will have a say in the matter.
“It’s beyond weak. It’s a Democratic scandal that’s only going to be investigated by Democrats who will be selecting the investigators,” Miyares said. “They have every political incentive in the world not to let out the truth on this.”
Miyares said a bipartisan panel should choose the third-party investigator instead. Under the current amendment, that will be done by the Attorney General’s Office in consultation with the Office of the Governor, as well as Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.
In an interview on Thursday, 8News asked Attorney General Mark Herring if he thinks this selection method is appropriate, given how partisan this issue has become.
“Well I think the important thing is that the investigation be independent and be open,” Herring said. “The lack of transparency has created a lot of speculation and that undermines public trust.”
Asked if he’s opposed to a bipartisan selection process, Herring said “I’m not sure whether that process has been complete in terms of how it is determined but again the most important thing is that an outside, independent look be done so that all the facts can come out and then people can draw their own conclusions.”
Republicans took particular issue with the involvement of Herring in securing the third-party investigator, as he is accused of sanitizing the OSIG report at the center of the controversy.
“Our office did not direct that it be cut down,” Herring said. “We had a very small role in reviewing, commenting and providing input but the decisions were with OSIG.”
Herring told 8News that he doesn’t think it’s a conflict of interest for his office to be involved.
Meanwhile, Virginia Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Megan Rhyne is criticizing Northam’s push to exempt documents related to the independent review from public record requests.
“There should not be a complete lock down on the records related to the investigation,” Rhyne said.
Rhyne said it’s normal for documents to be kept confidential while an investigation is ongoing but, after the final report is made public, she said each one should be evaluated individually for release.
“Instead of saying all of them, regardless of what any of them say, are going to be withheld from disclosure. It does nothing to help the public have confidence in the final product,” Rhyne said.
In a statement on Thursday, Northam’s Spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said, in part:
The Governor’s budget amendment aligns with current Virginia law, including the Freedom of Information Act. I would note that this amendment proposes to have leaders of the executive and legislative branches, all of whom were elected by Virginia voters, choose an outside firm to conduct an independent and thorough investigation. I’d also note that the investigators’ report will be public — that’s the whole point.Alena Yarmosky, spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam
If the General Assembly approves Northam’s amendment, the investigator would need to issue a report no later than June 15.