Yeah, the Parole Board Scandal Really Is a Scandal

The good guy: Virginia Inspector General Michael C. Wesfall

by James A. Bacon

Bacon’s Rebellion has not given the biggest scandal of the Northam administration (since Blackface) the attention it deserves. In fact, we have given the matter little attention at all. Sorry, folks, we don’t have the resources to do it all. And there’s no need when the mainstream media is doing a perfectly good job. But at some point, we have to acknowledge that the scandal is ongoing.

I’m talking about the parole board scandal, in which Adrianne Bennett, chairwoman of the Virginia Parole Board, allegedly violated state law and the board’s own victim-notification procedures for releasing murderers from prison. After receiving complaints on the state’s waste-fraud-and-abuse hotline, the State Inspector General conducted an investigation and documented the allegations. Senior members of the Northam administration got wind of the report and heavily redacted it for release to the public. Republicans got wind and raised a stink. Team Northam berated IG Michael Westfall and his staff, one of the staff resigned in protest, and Governor Ralph Northam called for an investigation of the investigators.

The heavy: Northam Chief of Staff Clark Mercer

For once, the mainstream media has been doing its job and covering the scandal, which shows how the Northam administration does business. (If you think this is the only time Team Northam has thrown its weight around, you’re deluding yourself.)

One outlet I give credit to is the Virginia Mercury. I have taken the independent online publication to task for some of its environmental and social-justice reporting, but it has been in the forefront of covering the parole-board scandal. 

Naturally, Democrats have rallied around the Governor. Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, accused Republicans of dusting off “the old racist Willie Horton playbook” and responding with “the politics of vengeance.” Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon called Republicans’ push for mandatory minimum sentencing the GOP’s “Alamo against criminal justice reform.”

While Mercury Editor Robert Zullo acknowledges Republican’s political motives, he writes “that doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole lot of there there, especially for people concerned about governmental transparency, the ability of watchdog agencies to do their job, and whistleblower protections, all things Democrats recently professed to care about very much about, at least when it came to Donald Trump’s White House.”

Regardless of what you think about parole and who should get it, maybe even more troubling than what’s leaked out about the workings of the Parole Board is what the scandal has revealed about the Office of the State Inspector General, created in 2011 by the General Assembly and housed under the umbrella of the governor’s office.

The inspector general, whose role is to “maximize the public’s confidence and trust in state government,” is appointed by the governor, approved by the General Assembly and reports to the governor’s chief of staff. And, as the recording makes clear, that structure can make for some uncomfortable grilling by people with the power to fire the watchdog when his office delivers a report the administration really doesn’t like.

“This is the type of stuff that leads to me getting a new job. Against my will,” Westfall said in the audio recording after leaving the meeting with Mercer and Moran. “And I’m fine with that. I knew that when I took the job.”

If you haven’t been following the scandal closely, the Zullo piece I linked to provides an excellent summary of key developments.

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5 responses to “Yeah, the Parole Board Scandal Really Is a Scandal”

  1. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Yeah, yea, or yahoo. It could be clearer.

  2. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    The Parole Board was following orders, doing what the Northam Administration wanted done for political reasons. Do not let the Parole Board become the focus — there is a stated policy from the top to empty the prisons to curry favor with those who believe the criminal justice system is racist and too harsh. If the rules got bent to accomplish the goal, so be it.

    The RTD has been all over this, as well. But everybody, including the Republican candidates, are shooting at the wrong target.

    1. dick dyas Avatar
      dick dyas

      Oh, that makes it okay.

      1. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        No, it doesn’t, but the Parole Board is just a distraction. The question is the pro-parole policy, whether you want it or not. The way the Northam administration ran roughshod over the process just called everyone’s attention to what was going on.

  3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I disagree with Steve. I don’t think the Parole Board was trying to “empty” the prisons. If so, it could have granted parole to a lot more inmates than it did. For example, the parole decision list for December, 2019, runs for 45 pages. Two offenders were granted parole. In January, 2020, the list is 38 pages long; 15 offenders were granted parole. The extraordinary month was March, 2020, the month before Ardienne Bennett resigned from the board. About 100 offenders were granted parole. Even then, however, the entire list of decisions takes up 77 pages.

    I met with, and worked with, Bennett in my role at DPB before I retired. She definitely took a different approach toward parole than her predecessors. But she was not alone. The tone in corrections, including the Virginia DOC, has shifted from an emphasis on punishment toward preparing offenders for re-entry and giving folks second chances.

    I think there were a lot of offenders for whom Bennett had been leaning toward granting parole and she wanted to get that accomplished before she left the board. So, as time began to run out, she cut corners. For example, prosecutors were not given the required advance notice of an offender being granted parole. Even worse, victims were not given notice. (It is important to note that the law says that the Board must “endeavor diligently” to contact a victim. It does not say that an offender cannot be released unless the victim is notified.) I was surprised and disappointed at this behavior on Bennett’s part. It should not have happened, especially for someone who had just been elected to a judgeship.

    I fault the Northam administration on its handling of the whole affair. It was obvious that Board procedures had not been followed and prosecutors had not been notified within the time frame required by statute. The administration should have admitted that these administrative procedures had not been followed, expressed chagrin, and announced that steps had been taken to ensure that such things would not occur in the future. The whole thing would have quickly blown over. Instead, they fought it, issued heavily redacted reports from the Inspector General, and then stonewalled. And, they top it off by firing the analyst at the Inspector General’s office who brought all this to light. So, instead of an embarrassing incident being put behind them, there is now a full-blown crisis with the administration looking as if it is trying to cover up something nefarious. (Why can’t these people learn from political crises in other situations?)

    The fact that someone on the Inspector General’s staff felt he/she had to secretly record the meeting between folks from that office and people from the Governor’s staff is a sad commentary on the state of trust in the administration these days. Shades of Doug Wilder and Chuck Robb!

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