By Mark D. Obenshain
Obenshain is a Republican who represents the 26th District in the Senate of Virginia. The 26th District is comprised of Page, Rappahannock, Shenandoah, and Warren Counties, the City of Harrisonburg, and portions of Rockingham County.
There’s something rotten going on with Gov. Ralph Northam’s Parole Board. Don’t take my word for it: The governor’s handpicked watchdog, the State Inspector General, says so.
After Virginia abolished most parole in 1995, violent crime rates dropped and the Parole Board seldom received much attention. That changed after it granted parole to Vincent Martin, who was convicted of capital murder for his cold-blooded execution of 23-year-old Richmond Police Officer Michael Connors.
In May, reports surfaced about the Parole Board’s frenetic pace in releasing violent felons from prison. In one thirty-day period, they granted parole to 95 violent felons, including 35 convicted murderers — a 735% increase in the rate at which inmates were released in 2019.
Most prisoners eligible for release were sentenced before Virginia abolished parole in 1995. Some were rapists and murderers serving life sentences, who had been consistently denied parole because of the horrific nature of their crimes and/or the danger they would pose if released.
Customarily, victims and their families, along with prosecutors, would have strenuously objected to releasing these predators. It was different this year for a reason. According to the Inspector General, the Parole Board broke the law by not giving them a chance to object.
When Martin’s impending release became known, members of Officer Connor’s family and law enforcement complained they never received the statutorily required notice he was being considered for parole. When his release date was announced, it was clear the law requiring prosecutors be notified 21 days before the actual release also had been violated. Complaints then triggered what was supposed to be an “independent investigation” by the Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG).
Instead of waiting for the OSIG’s report, the Parole Board only delayed releasing Martin until the media lost interest. This decision was hasty and wrong. Yet, Gov. Northam has consistently defended his Parole Board’s actions, indicating his lack of concern for crime victims or whether the board follows the law. Worse, his administration appears to have attempted to conceal the Inspector General’s report from Virginians.
When the extensive, six-page report was completed, copies released to the media and the public were almost completely blacked out. One of the report’s only unredacted sentences indicated the complaints about the Parole Board were “substantiated.”
When asked for copies of an unredacted report, the governor’s office said it would check with “the lawyers,” referring all questions to the Parole Board, which, predictably, wouldn’t answer any. Only after pointing out the law requires the report be given to House and Senate Minority Leaders did anyone provide copies to the Republican leaders, who then made the full report public.
What the governor, “the lawyers,” and the Parole Board were hiding was a scathing report detailing multiple violations of law and policy. The report makes clear that the board’s then-chairwoman, Adrienne Bennett, was determined to release Martin. And she was not going to let his victims, law enforcement, or even the law stop her.
This arrogance is outrageous. When elected officials and their appointees go to great lengths to avoid public scrutiny, it invariably means they are hiding something. The OSIG reports indicates the Parole Board conducted secret proceedings, without minutes or notes, for months, with its chairwoman actively discouraging the notification of victims’ families.
It gets worse. Evidently, Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran received a preview of the OSIG report days before its issuance and immediately gave a copy to the Parole Board — the very agency under investigation. What did that initial version of the report say? Were there other drafts before that? What changes did the governor’s office request? What changes were made? What was the Attorney General’s role in all of this? Why didn’t his office intervene to stop to the Parole Board’s illegal actions? Since the Parole Board acted illegally in connection with Vincent Martin’s release, why haven’t proceedings been initiated to recommit him to prison?
The Parole Board’s determined efforts to release violent felons from prison are making Virginia less safe. Law enforcement and the victims of crime are legally entitled to participate in these decisions. The board cannot willfully disregard those rights. And, cover-ups invariably indicate there’s more to the story.
Gov. Northam needs to stop fiddling while Richmond and other cities literally burn. He should fire the Parole Board, replacing them with members who will follow the law and respect victims’ rights. And since the Parole Board acted illegally, the Attorney General must begin proceedings to return Vincent Martin to custody.