In audio recording, Northam officials question state watchdog agency’s role in parole board investigation

Virginia Politics

Virginia Republican leaders urged the governor on Monday to call a special session to investigate all misconduct claims against Parole Board.

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Key members of Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration met with the state inspector general last summer to discuss the watchdog agency’s ongoing investigation into the Parole Board. An audio recording of that meeting reveals how Northam’s office and the inspector general clashed over the findings in the report, with those in the administration criticizing the initial review and questioning whether the parole board was even within the inspector general’s purview.

Republicans in the General Assembly released an unreacted six-page report from the Office of the State Inspector General on Aug. 6, 2020, that substantiated allegations that the board violated policies in the handling of Vincent Martin’s parole process. A redacted version of the report was released earlier by OSIG but GOP lawmakers demanded additional details regarding the probe.

Virginia Secretary of Public Safety And Homeland Security Brian Moran, Northam’s chief of staff Clark Mercer and others in the governor’s office met with Inspector General Michael Westfall and at least two OSIG investigators a little over a week after Republicans shared the final report.

Listen: Audio recording of August 2020 meeting between Gov. Northam’s administration officials and the state inspector general

In an audio recording of that meeting, first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch and obtained by 8News, Mercer begins by addressing concerns within the administration on how the report was made public and asking about OSIG’s precautions to avoid future reports getting to the media.

“If we have folks openly bragging about violating code and law, what we’re going to take precautions against that happening, given that these reports are all about following code,” Mercer asked Westfall.

Westfall informed Moran and Mercer that OSIG had several conditional draft reports into the board at the time, with five cases where commonwealth’s attorneys were not notified of a release within 21 days, as is required under Parole Board’s policy. Moran questioned whether the inspector general had the authority to look into complaints made against the state’s Parole Board.

“What is OSIG’s role with respect to whether or not parole board has met 21 day notice to a commonwealth’s attorney? What is waste, fraud and abuse about that?” Moran asks Westfall.

Westfall explained that after getting multiple complaints against the parole board through a state fraud, waste and abuse hotline, and contacting its own council on whether they had jurisdiction, they felt it was within their power to look into those specific complaints.

Republican leaders in the General Assembly used the release of the recording to continue pushing their effort to have a bipartisan panel of lawmakers conduct an investigation into the Parole Board.

On Monday, Virginia House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) reiterated his opposition to a state-funded investigation that was approved by lawmakers earlier this month and urged Northam to call a special session in order for lawmakers to look into misconduct claims.

“If Governor Northam takes seriously his responsibility to see that the laws are faithfully executed, he will call the General Assembly back for a Special Session and ask for a legislative review of this entire fiasco,” Gilbert said in his statement. “At a minimum, a special session will give Speaker Filler-Corn yet another opportunity to do what she should have done from the beginning — task one of our standing committees with investigating just what went wrong at the Parole Board.”

Northam’s office has not responded to 8News’ request seeking comment.

Virginia Senate Republicans issued their own plea for an investigation in a joint statement Monday calling on Filler-Corn and Sen. Maime Locke (D-Hampton), the Senate Rules Committee chair, “to immediately impanel a bi-partisan joint legislative committee to investigate this matter fully and report back to the General Assembly no later than September 1.”

A budget amendment from Northam, approved without any Republican support, set aside up to $250,000 for a third-party, most likely a law firm, to look into the OSIG report that found the Parole Board had violated state law and its own procedures. The final report needs to be shared with legislative leaders by June 15.

When it came time to vote on the budget amendment, Republicans condemned limiting the scope of the investigation to only the OSIG report on Martin’s case and shared their concerns with transparency. Democrats argued third-party investigators would be allowed to interview all parties involved and additional investigations could be warranted.

“The investigatory framework passed by the House and Senate provides for a fair, thorough, and independent investigation free from partisan influence and with a definitive timeline in which Virginians will receive answers,” Kunal Atit, Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn’s director of communications, wrote in a statement to 8News. “While House Republicans want to get politicians involved and turn this into a political circus it is our belief that a serious investigation should be handled by professional investigators.”

This story is developing. Check back for updates.

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