’Tis the season of investigations. We recently had the investigation the state ordered into Virginia Military Institute. Now we have the investigation ordered into the investigation of the Virginia Parole Board.
That report is now out and amounts to an “investigation of an investigation.” What to make of it? Let’s break this down.
1. This investigation was never going to tell us very much. Republicans wanted a wide-ranging inquiry into why the Virginia Parole Board has been releasing so many prisoners and whether law and policies have followed. Remember that this all started when the state’s Office of the State Inspector General found that the parole board violated state law and internal procedures last year when it released Vincent Martin, convicted of murder in connection with the death of a Richmond police officer in 1979. Instead, what they got was a much narrower inquiry into the “policies, process and procedures” that the inspector general employed. That’s a very different thing. Further, Republicans complained that a) the law firm doing the investigation was picked by a Democrat (Attorney General Mark Herring) and that the lead investigator previously worked for several Democratic attorneys general in New York. They called this a “whitewash” before it even got underway and repeated that charge after the report came in this week. We’d prefer to say that this was a narrowly crafted inquiry that doesn’t pretend to address any of the big questions about the parole board, all of which are still on the table.
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2. The report’s main allegation isn’t well-supported. The report concluded that the inspector general’s lead investigator — who was fired in March — “was most likely biased.” That’s certainly possible. It doesn’t look good that Jennifer Moschetti has hired as her attorney Tim Anderson, who is now a Republican nominee for the House of Delegates in Virginia Beach. To the extent that this is a political issue — with Republicans accusing Democrats of being so soft on crime that they’re letting convicted killers walk out of prison — that’s not a helpful look. In modern parlance, the optics aren’t good.
However, we don’t find the supporting evidence of Moschetti’s alleged bias very persuasive. For instance, the report finds that “the tone of the OSIG Parole Board report indicates bias and a certain disdain for the fact that Mr. Martin had been granted parole, based on the nature of his conviction. OSIG included unnecessary background information on Mr. Martin’s conviction, stating that he was ‘originally sentenced to death’ and was resentenced to life in prison ‘for the murder of a police officer.’” Really? Where’s the tone in that? That all seems pretty straightforward and factual to us — and devoid of any tone. “Cold-blooded murder,” “gruesome murder,” all those adjectives have tone, but that’s not what was used. If that’s bias, it’s not in the tone of Moschetti’s report.
The only evidence we saw presented was an email Moschetti sent in which she said that the parole board chair “lashing out” at police unhappy with Martin’s release “doesn’t sit well with me.” And then, when she pointed out that the parole board isn’t subject to state Freedom of Information Act laws, “the only way we know if policies and procedures and laws were followed would be to investigate/audit. Or do we just have to assume they all were? UGGHHHH.” Call us jaded, but that hardly seems the proverbial smoking gun.
3. Nothing in this report contradicts the original inspector general’s report. That original report listed four ways the parole board violated state law and procedures in releasing Martin. None of those are repudiated here — so even if Moschetti was biased (which we’re not sold on), not even a hand-picked Democratic investigator found anything to overturn the original findings. That seems a pretty important point.
4. The report shows how the parole board chair worked to get Martin released. There’s a fascinating account of how Martin came to be paroled. It depicts him as a model prisoner, who was “infraction-free” for 32 of his 41 years in prison. As such, he was named a mentor to incoming prisoners and was selected by the Department of Corrections to meet with visiting students from Longwood University. It was at that encounter in April 2018 that Adrienne Bennett, then the chair of the parole board, first met Martin. During a brief conversation, he asserted his innocence. By that point, his prison counselor had also become convinced of Martin’s innocence. After that, Bennett started reviewing his case, including reading the trial transcripts. The report says that emails showed that Bennett “ultimately reached the conclusion that Mr. Martin had not received a fair trial and likely did not commit the crime for which he was incarcerated.”
When Martin came up for his annual parole review in October 2019, Martin’s counselor asked to be present for an interview. The examiner objected to a third party being present — at which point Bennett assigned a different examiner to the case. The interview was canceled. When objections to Martin’s possible release came in, Bennett emailed a staffer to say: “I was just going to vote him and not interview.” The report says “staff advised against taking such action” so an interview was finally scheduled. Bennett then directed a staffer that “last year’s report is fine” and that staffer told the examiner “please copy and paste last year’s report.” The examiner refused, proceeded with the interview and wrote a new report, with a recommendation that parole not be granted.
We are surprised that Republicans haven’t seized on all this, because this account cries out for more inquiry. How many other times did the parole board chair reassign examiners because she didn’t think she’d get the results she wanted? How many times did she tell staffers there was no need for a new report? Of course, for all we know, Bennett was right — maybe Martin was wrongfully convicted. All we know for sure is that he was convicted and Bennett manipulated the system to try to get him released — although the report also says other parole board members (who include Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea) said they didn’t feel any untoward pressure when it came time to vote. So was Bennett heroically fighting her own bureaucracy to right a wrong? Or was she, not the investigator, the one who was biased?
Ultimately, this Democratic-backed inquiry underscores a Republican point: It reveals just enough questionable behavior to merit a full investigation.