Lawmakers call for new investigation of Virginia Parole Board as more misconduct claims surface

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Two Virginia lawmakers are calling for another investigation into the state’s Parole Board, citing “serious” and “damaging allegations” of misconduct surrounding the release of Vincent Martin.

Martin was sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty in the death of Richmond patrolman Michael P. Connors over four decades ago.

This week, new questions have emerged over the board’s vote to grant Martin parole and whether the state’s watchdog agency removed damning findings from its investigation into the decision before releasing it last year.

A 6-page report from the Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) into Martin’s case found the board and its Former Chair, Adrianne Bennett, violated state law and its own procedures before Martin was paroled in June 2020.

An unredacted version of that report, shared by Republican lawmakers in August 2020, specifically said the board failed to reach out to Connors’ family or the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney as required. GOP legislators called on the entire Parole Board to resign in the aftermath. They did not and Gov. Ralph Northam’s Administration deflected pressure to replace them.

Now, a previously unseen 13-page report–first obtained by WTVR and later by 8News–suggests additional claims of wrongdoing by the board in Martin’s case may have been withheld by the OSIG.

The longer version includes allegations that Bennett directed employees to falsify a report and violate their own ethics. “On March 30, 2020, Former Chair Bennett requesting that a Hearing Examiner falsify a report as their own within Martin’s file,” the report said.

It goes on to allege that Bennett violated her duty in the Virginia Constitution to remain impartial.

“Per an interview with the Victim Services Coordinator, during the victims’ Board Appointment, Bennett continually advocated on behalf of Martin, explaining that he was a very respected and well-behaved inmate and stated she would never let a cop killer out,” the report said. “During interviews with VPB employees, Bennett often verbally stated that she believed Martin was innocent and employees felt that this belief was the main deciding factor of his release.”

“Former Chair Bennett told at least one VPB employee that she was purposely going to release certain inmates, including Martin, at the end of her term to avoid the backlash that she knew these releases would cause,” the report continued.  

Bennett, who left the board in April and now serves as a Virginia Beach Circuit Court Judge, did not respond to 8News’ request seeking comment on Thursday.

The report also accused current Parole Board Chair Tonya Chapman of violating a state law prohibiting false entries or destruction of records–a Class One misdemeanor.

In another section, the report says Chapman was initially “reluctant” to hand over board meeting minutes to OSIG. When she did, it says “it was clear that information regarding Martin had been deleted” when compared to documents other board members had received.

In a letter Wednesday to state Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, state Sens. John Bell (D-Loudoun) and Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) requested that a special select committee be established to look into the claims in the 13-page report.

“We believe that a clear and transparent investigation free of influence is critical to resolving this issue that surrounds the Virginia Parole Board,” the senators wrote.

The bipartisan push from Bell and Reeves calls for the panel to have subpoena and investigative powers.

“How are the citizens of the commonwealth supposed to have any type of belief in our Parole Board when this cloud hangs over them about breaking the laws,” Reeves told 8News’ Jackie DeFusco in an interview Thursday.

On Wednesday, Chapman informed Gov. Ralph Northam in her own letter that she would file a complaint against Inspector General Michael Westfall and his office. She requested her own investigation into OSIG’s probe and how the “unsubstantiated” report made its way to the media.

“The alleged report was never provided to Secretary Brian Moran or me,” Chapman wrote. “If these allegations were posed and included in a report, I should have been advised of the allegations and provided an opportunity to defend the allegations.”

Chapman told 8News on Thursday that she could not comment as she has yet to see the allegations in the 13-page report.

Virginia’s Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran also said he had not seen the report when asked at a press conference on Wednesday.

Rita Davis, the governor’s legal counsel, requested a copy from Westfall in a letter sent Wednesday. An amended request in a second letter sent Thursday asks for all OSIG investigations and reports into the Parole Board.

A spokeswoman for OSIG provided a statement on behalf of Westfall on Thursday identifying the 13-page report as a draft.

“OSIG has previously released accurate final reports regarding actions of the Virginia Parole Board to the Governor, General Assembly, news media and the public during the past eight months,” the statement read. “Recently, news media has presented purported draft OSIG reports regarding its investigation of the actions of the Virginia Parole Board. OSIG wants to emphasize that any draft OSIG report involving the Parole Board that was recently disclosed to the news media was released without the consent of OSIG. OSIG is taking appropriate action to identify the person(s) responsible for improperly disclosing such information.”

The controversy comes as 8News is learning exactly what went wrong with six other Parole Board decisions for the first time. These details were previously hidden from the public in an almost entirely redacted OSIG report last year, despite protest from leading Republicans.

In one case involving the parole of an inmate sentenced for capital murder, the IG’s report said the board “did not perform any due diligence” to notify the victims. OSIG later confirmed with the Suffolk Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office that they had contact information for one of the victim’s sisters readily available.

“OSIG determined that one of the victim’s sisters was first notified by a news reporter that DMR [the inmate] had been granted parole and that VPB had not reached out to her for victim input, despite her living locally,” the report said.

In several of the cases, the board did reach out to victims but failed to give them enough time to respond. At times, the requests for input came after board members had already voted in favor of release, according to OSIG.

The report detailed the parole of an inmate originally sentenced to three life sentences for his role in a 1986 crime spree that included homicide and multiple robberies in Roanoke, Virginia. It said the board sent their first and only written notification to victims in February 2020, even though all members had already voted for the inmate’s release between November 2019 and January 2020. OSIG also found that the Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney didn’t receive any notification from the Parole Board.

In another case, a man convicted of killing his estranged wife in the 1980’s in front of their two children was granted geriatric parole without filing a petition as required. The decision came just two months after the same inmate was denied discretionary parole.

OSIG concluded the victim’s mother didn’t receive a notification until after the decision was made and the victim’s daughter was never contacted, despite being registered in the state’s notification system.

In a separate geriatric parole case, the Halifax County Commonweath’s Attorney apparently first received written notification on April 16, 2020, about two weeks after the offender had been released.

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