Virginia

‘You’re being used as a political tool:’ Recording details Northam officials’ grilling of watchdog agency

By Graham Moomaw

(VM) – When top aides to Gov. Ralph Northam sat down last summer to meet with the state inspector general, whose office had just issued a critical watchdog report on the Virginia Parole Board, Northam Chief of Staff Clark Mercer opened by saying he wanted to hear what was being done to prevent future reports from “getting forwarded to the Associated Press again.”

Republican General Assembly leaders had just given media outlets an unredacted copy of a report accusing the Parole Board of mishandling the release of Vincent Martin, who was convicted of the 1979 killing of a Richmond police officer but won praise as a model inmate. Before that, the inspector general had only released an unreadable version with virtually every sentence blacked-out, citing an interpretation of confidentiality laws disputed by open-government advocates.

Mercer said he was hoping for a “collegial” discussion of what had happened and the aspects of the report that were in dispute.

An audio recording of that meeting obtained by The Virginia Mercury sheds new light on a yearlong controversy that has roiled Virginia government heading into this year’s House of Delegates and gubernatorial elections, revealing a brass tacks back-and-forth between investigators convinced they had identified a pattern of wrongdoing by the Parole Board and Northam officials questioning the merits of the findings and determined to prevent more sensitive information from getting out to their critics and the media.

The governor’s representatives wasted little time getting to the point.

Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran, whose office oversees the Parole Board, questioned whether the inspector general even had the authority to investigate complaints the board had violated its own policies and state law requiring notification to local prosecutors and crime victims when an inmate is being paroled.

“How did you even get into this?” Moran asked.

Clark Mercer

Mercer said he had information suggesting the law enforcement community, outraged by the decision to grant Martin parole after he served 40 years of a life sentence, was flooding an anti-corruption hotline with complaints.

“Is that the proper use of the hotline?” Mercer said.

The governor’s staff said the fact that the report included background information about Martin’s crime without mentioning his clean prison record raised questions about whether the entire investigation was biased.

“This is an individual that had probably one of the most sparkling records in incarceration that we’ve ever had,” Mercer said. “And that led to the decision to parole this individual. All the background is about the negative things and the bad things that he’s done.”

Inspector General Michael Westfall, a Northam appointee, responded that his office has a duty to investigate the validity of complaints coming into a hotline that’s anonymous by design. The executive order laying out those responsibilities and his office’s broad oversight of state agencies, he noted, says explicitly that no one should try to identify the source of anonymous complaints or retaliate against them. Everything in the report substantiating the complaints against the Parole Board, he said, was “vetted” by a lawyer from Attorney General Mark Herring’s office.

That didn’t satisfy Moran.

“This was in the press,” Moran said. “And then just to write this in the way it was written knowing how it would be received and the disservice it would be on the Parole Board and us? I don’t know how you can defend that, Mike.”

‘The rules and regulations need to be followed’

The precise date of the meeting is unclear, but it appeared to occur on Aug. 14, shortly after Republicans released the full Martin report on Aug. 6.

For months, Republicans have accused the executive branch of exerting undue political pressure on the independent watchdog agency created to expose waste, fraud and abuse in state government. The meeting last summer has become a key piece of that narrative, with a state investigator who attended it, Jennifer Moschetti, claiming in an unsuccessful whistleblower lawsuit that Northam aides tried to intimidate the IG’s office amid an ongoing inquiry into a politically charged subject. The governor’s office has insisted no intimidation took place, and said the meeting confirmed its suspicions that the IG’s report was written by a biased investigator who simply didn’t like the decision to release Martin.

Moschetti was fired from her job earlier this year shortly after she revealed she had given documents to the General Assembly, and, in a lawsuit, claimed her decision to share those records was protected whistleblower activity. That lawsuit was dropped after she was fired, but her lawyer, Republican political candidate Tim Anderson, has said she intends to pursue a wrongful termination case.

At Northam’s request, the Democratic-led General Assembly approved $250,000 earlier this month for an outside investigation of the inspector general’s probe into the Martin case.  

In a statement, Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said the governor’s office is confident the recording backs up what it “has said all along.”

“This has become an absolute circus,” Yarmosky said. “In recent months, confidential documents have been leaked for political purposes, individuals’ private information has been made public, and now a secret recording from almost a year ago is being released to the press and not the public.”

As the meeting began, Mercer reiterated the governor’s position at the time.

“Before we kind of jump in to Vincent Martin, look, the governor’s made it clear,” Mercer said. “We have a new Parole Board chair, which has gotten lost in this mix, who’s a former police chief. The rules and regulations need to be followed, kind of independent of what folks think about parole.”

The ensuing conversation went beyond a discussion of whether policies had or hadn’t been violated.

At multiple points in the hourlong meeting, the governor’s staff argued the IG’s office had been weaponized by those who disagreed with Martin’s release and generally oppose parole.

“You’re being used as a political tool is all my conclusion is,” Moran said. “And you guys walked right into it.”

“We may have walked into it,” Westfall said. “But we’re apolitical. We don’t look at the politics of it.”

After Westfall said his office hadn’t been asked to look into Parole Board cases in the past and was suddenly dealing with a burst of complaints, Grant Neely, Northam’s chief communications officer, seemed to suggest the fraud hotline itself was a problem because it was being used by people with more conservative views on parole.

“At a time when attitudes about parole have changed dramatically from when the laws were passed in 1994 to today, how do we make sure that the hotline and the inspector’s office don’t end up becoming a tool for folks that simply don’t like that policy change?” Neely said.

Mercer made clear the governor’s office was unhappy Republican legislative leaders, who by law are entitled to copies of inspector general reports, had released an unredacted version to the media, which the Northam administration and the IG’s office had refused to do.

“You have Tommy Norment and Mark Obenshain bragging online that they’ve shared it with the press,” Mercer said, referring to two Republican senators. “And the governor’s response was well what are we doing to investigate them? Are they gonna get dinged?… It’s not like they hid the fact that they did it.”

Before giving the Martin report to General Assembly leaders, the IG’s office added a red-letter warning instructing recipients: “Please do not further disseminate this report to preserve the integrity of the investigation.” Republican leaders disregarded that plea, insisting it was legally baseless and that, as elected representatives, they had every right to share information with the public.

When the inspector general issued a half-dozen other reports substantiating additional allegations against the Parole Board later last year, his office refused to give unredacted copies to Republicans or the media. It’s not clear they ever would have become public if not for unauthorized leaks.

In the meeting, Westfall said his office has no authority to investigate the legislative branch and never intended for the full Martin report to go public.

“If it was up to us it wouldn’t be in the press,” Westfall said.

Nothing in the recording backs up Republican claims that the governor’s office may have been involved in editing down a 13-page, draft version of the Vincent Martin report into the six-page report that eventually became public. As Northam’s team questioned the conclusions in the shorter report during the meeting, the IG’s office at times raised information that didn’t make the final cut in order to defend its findings. Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, mischaracterized the timeline of events in a floor speech earlier this month, incorrectly suggesting the report was edited down after the meeting between the IG’s office and the Northam administration.

Though Westfall at one point conceded the report could’ve been “written differently,” he didn’t back down from its basic conclusions: that the Parole Board initially didn’t notify Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin of Martin’s parole within 21 days of his scheduled release and didn’t “endeavor diligently” to seek meaningful input from the slain officer’s family.

“I stand by the work that our folks did,” Westfall said. “My name’s on it.”

Moran also didn’t budge, saying near the end of the meeting that his team and the Parole Board “don’t concede they did anything wrong.”

Mercer seemed to be acting as a middleman, occasionally agreeing with Moran that aspects of the report seemed unfair while also acknowledging the inspector general may have found issues that needed fixing.

After hearing that former Parole Board Chairwoman Adrianne Bennett, who oversaw Martin’s parole just before she left the job to become a judge in Virginia Beach, didn’t cooperate with the investigation, Mercer said he wasn’t happy she was “absent in this conversation.”

“If these are seriously decisions made under her watch, I think she needs to be accountable to speak to them,” Mercer said.

‘We quoted what they told us’

Bennett left the position in April 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was disrupting ordinary procedures and state officials were under pressure to release inmates to avoid outbreaks and deaths in prisons. That left current Parole Board Chairwoman Tonya Chapman, a former Portsmouth police chief, handling watchdog investigations into cases that occurred under her predecessor’s tenure.

Much of the meeting focused on the two sides’ differing opinions about the report’s findings.

Northam officials repeatedly insisted that because the Parole Board moved back Martin’s release date after realizing it had been set too early for the Richmond prosecutor to receive the 21-day notice required by law, investigators couldn’t justify a finding that the 21-day rule had been violated. The IG’s office pointed out the report said the Parole Board hadn’t “initially” met the requirement per the original release date. That led Northam’s team to question why the report didn’t include a fuller timeline making it clear that the 21-day rule had been satisfied if measured against the actual date of Martin’s release.

Moran also pointed out the 21-day rule is usually easily met by parolees going through a six-month re-entry program prior to their release, a step that had been suspended due to COVID-19.

The administration also took issue with the report’s finding the Parole Board hadn’t tried hard enough to allow the slain officer’s family to give input early in the process, noting that the family did in fact have an opportunity to offer input into the decision. The IG’s office noted Bennett had said in an email to an official in Moran’s office that the decision to grant Martin parole had been “decided in November,” months before the family was contacted. In that same email, Bennett said the board “had no choice” but to contact the family.

Moran criticized the report’s conclusion that the Parole Board, which operates largely in secret due to a broad exemption from the state’s Freedom of Information Act, had not kept minutes of meetings during Bennett’s tenure. He asked how investigators could be sure any meetings were taking place to begin with.

“This presupposes there were meetings,” Moran said. “Show me where the meetings were.”

The IG’s office said Chapman had reported that under her predecessor the board didn’t always stick to a set meeting schedule and minutes weren’t taken.

“That’s not what this says though Mike, come on,” Moran said.

“I say come on to you, sir,” Westfall replied. “I don’t have any problem with this one at all. We quoted what they told us.”

Westfall said multiple times that his office’s subsequent reports on the Parole Board were more clear-cut, many of them showing prosecutors and victims weren’t notified at all. At the time, the Northam administration hadn’t seen those reports, and the conversation repeatedly returned to the controversy surrounding Martin’s release.

“The thing I feel horrible for is Mr. Martin,” Mercer said. “I mean, obviously the first person I feel horrible for is the victim and the families. Wretched for them. But Mr. Martin didn’t do anything. And he has a sterling record while he was incarcerated which is not mentioned. And he’s out there now under a cloud for the rest of his life that there was a bunch of shenanigans to let him out of prison.”

The recording also captures some of the IG’s office staffers comments shortly after they left the meeting, with one seeming mystified that some in the Northam administration still felt the Parole Board had done nothing wrong.

Westfall seemed to suggest the situation could cost him his job.

“This is the type of stuff that leads to me getting a new job. Against my will,” he said, prompting laughter from a colleague. “And I’m fine with that. I knew that when I took the job.”

“Nah. Hey. If you get let go because of this, then everybody’s’ going to be up in arms,” the colleague replied.

“It doesn’t have to be for this,” Westfall said. “It can be something else. You know how that works.”

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