RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A federal judge ruled that a former state investigator who looked into misconduct claims against the Virginia Parole Board and later sued over her firing can move forward with her lawsuit against the state’s inspector general and two officials from former Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration.
Jennifer Moschetti, a former senior investigator in the Office of the State Inspector General, was fired last March after she filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the state’s inspector general, Michael Westfall, claiming misconduct in the state’s parole board investigation.
In response, Moschetti filed a civil lawsuit against Virginia, the inspector general’s office and state officials seeking $11.3 million. Moschetti brought forward six claims in the suit, including allegations of retaliation, defamation and wrongful termination.
On Aug. 11, U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson agreed to dismiss three claims from Moschetti’s lawsuit and removed the state, the IG’s office and its spokesperson from the suit. But he ruled claims against Westfall, Northam’s public safety secretary Brian Moran and chief of staff Clark Mercer could continue.
Moschetti claims Westfall fired her in retaliation for sharing her report into the parole of Vincent Martin, who was convicted of killing a Richmond police officer in 1979, with the FBI, the Virginia General Assembly and a Richmond police officer.
The suit alleges the firing violated the state’s whistleblower protection law and her rights to free speech. Defense attorneys for the state officials argue the firing was justified and came after Moschetti mishandled sensitive materials.
In the lawsuit, Moschetti claims Moran defamed her after he said her report on Martin’s parole wouldn’t “hold up under cross-examination.” She sued Mercer over his statement that he knew “there was bias and a lack of objectivity” in the Martin report after a meeting between the state inspector general’s office and Northam’s administration.
Judge Hudson ruled that, at this stage, a reasonable person could have interpreted these statements “as asserting facts” with the statements and context available.
“Perhaps some, if not all, of these statements are the type of loose rhetoric that, in context, is protected by the First Amendment,” Hudson wrote in his ruling. “Yet, the Court does not know the full context or general tenor of the statements because discovery has not been completed.”
The parole board drew heavy criticism and was at the center of a political firestorm after the report on Martin’s case was leaked. Republicans, including Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Attorney General Jason Miyares, expressed outrage over Martin’s parole during the campaign and the governor replaced the entire board after taking office.
Moschetti denied sharing any of her work on the investigation with the media or lawmakers, but the lawsuit said her fears of being “used as a scapegoat” compelled her to seek protections under the Virginia Whistle Blower Act.
An outside law firm concluded in a 2021 report that Northam’s office did not interfere with the state inspector general’s report that substantiated allegations of wrongdoing in how the Virginia Parole Board approached Martin’s case. The report described Moschetti as “most likely biased.”
Despite the judge’s order, the case may not go to trial. A settlement conference is set for Dec. 7 and the attorneys representing Moran, Mercer and Westfall could still file additional motions seeking to have the case thrown out.