Watchdog Redacts More Records Related to Parole Board Probe

Heavily redacted documents from Virginia's Office of the State Inspector General, addressed to Brian Moran, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam's secretary of public safety and homeland security, and provided to The Associated Press in response to an open records request are displayed, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Richmond, Va. The OSIG has found new problems with victim and prosecutor notification in cases handled by the state parole board, according to other documents provided Tuesday to lawmakers. (AP Photo/Sarah Rankin)

By Associated Press

October 7, 2020

Virginia’s government watchdog agency found new problems with victim and prosecutor notification

RICHMOND — Virginia’s government watchdog agency 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. But the agency is withholding many of the specifics of its findings, citing exemptions to the state’s open records law.

Republican legislative leaders provided AP with a brief report of an investigation into complaints about multiple offenders’ parole cases. AP and other news outlets reported earlier this year on a slew of parole decisions across the state. In each case, prosecutors and victims’ families raised concerns about a lack of timely or sufficient notification of the release of violent offenders.

The State Inspector General’s office “substantiated” five allegations the parole board didn’t properly notify prosecutors. The watchdog agency also acknowledged seven allegations the board didn’t “endeavor diligently” as required by state law to contact victims.

It was not immediately clear which individuals’ cases the investigation covered. AP filed a request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act in August for individual case reports. On Tuesday, the office turned over almost entirely redacted documents.

“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, 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.

A similar incident

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. Republican lawmakers publicly disclosed the findings. 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.”

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 watchdog agency. In it, Moran wrote that the review “highlighted a number of 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.

Board asks for more funding

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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