Republicans threaten to sue state watchdog agency over redacted parole board report

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Leading Republicans are threatening to sue the state’s watchdog agency to force the release of a heavily redacted report detailing misconduct against the Virginia Parole Board.

The Office of State Inspector General (OSIG) conducted an investigation based on complaints made to the State Fraud, Waste and Abuse Hotline. The OSIG found that the parole board violated state law and its own policies in several instances.

The OSIG substantiated seven allegations that the board failed to properly notify victims before an inmate was granted release. The office also found evidence to support five complaints that commonwealth’s attorneys weren’t contacted 21 business days in advance.

On Tuesday, the OSIG provided Republican leadership with a summary of its findings and recommendations for improvement. Lawmakers have yet to obtain unredacted copies of six individual case reports containing key details about the allegations–items they say they’re entitled to under state law.

Watchdog redacts more records related to parole board probe

“It is really, really simple. Just release the letters,” said Senate Republican Leader Tommy Norment. “That is clearly something that the public should be concerned about and there should be a bright spotlight put on it.”

“The Office of State Inspector General must provide legislative leaders with unredacted copies of these reports,” said House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert in a statement. “Until they do so, they are not in compliance with the law. We will be making this clear to the Inspector General, in court if necessary.”

Inspector General Michael Westfall declined an interview request on Wednesday.

Virginia Parole Board Chair Tonya Chapman refused to answer questions about Westfall’s findings, citing public record law exemptions.

“I cannot speak to anything that has not been made public by OSIG,” Chapman said in an interview with 8News on Wednesday.

In a written response to General Westfall’s recommendations, Chapman admitted that there were some instances when commonwealth’s attorneys were not properly notified. She said this lapse in procedure largely happened during the early months of the pandemic, when the board expedited the release of some inmates to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

“There are no systemic problems with the 21-day notification process,” Chapman wrote.

Chapman said some complaints are stemming from confusion over what state law requires when it comes to contacting victims. “Some of OSIG’s findings are based on a misunderstanding of our policies and procedures as well as the state code,” Chapman said.

“Very candidly, I find that a camouflaged excuse,” Norment countered, arguing that previous parole boards have followed this protocol properly.

In his recommendations, General Westfall said victims should have the opportunity to give input before an inmate is reviewed for release to reduce concerns over fairness.

Chapman said that’s the goal but it’s not always possible. She said they need more staff to manage victim services. Plus, if victims aren’t registered in their electronic notification system, Chapman said regulations bar them from using social media or law enforcement databases to track people down.

“It is impractical and unmanageable for us to wait to start the voting process to allow for victim input,” Chapman said.  “The board has to vote on cases in a timely manner and cannot keep a case open indefinitely.”

The latest controversy over parole board transparency comes after weeks of debate in the General Assembly. The House of Delegates killed two bills that passed in the Senate with bipartisan support, including one that would’ve made the votes of parole board members public. Lawmakers are expected to revisit this issue in the 2021 session.

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