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Lawmakers say latest parole board documents raise questions

(AP) Virginia lawmakers demanded answers from Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration and the state’s government watchdog agency following a Feb. 23 news report that raised new questions about the state parole board’s handling of the case of a man convicted of killing a Richmond police officer.

Richmond station WTVR-TV reported that it had obtained a previously unreleased version of an investigative report produced by the Office of the State Inspector General into the case of Vincent Martin. Martin was released last year after serving four decades in prison for the 1979 killing of Officer Michael Connors.

A different report into Martin’s case by the inspector general’s office was made public late last year. That six-page report found that the Virginia Parole Board and its former chairwoman, Adrianne Bennett, violated state law and its own policies and procedures in handling Martin’s case. The report said the board did not notify Connors’ family or the Richmond commonwealth’s attorney’s office of Martin’s release within a required timeframe. It also said Bennett was “reluctant” to contact Connors’ family at all.

But the version of the report obtained by WTVR, and later obtained by The Associated Press, contained more critical conclusions and allegations about errors made in the case. The reasons for the substantial differences in the content were not immediately clear.

The 13-page version obtained by AP, which appears to be a draft, says:

— The day before Martin had a parole interview scheduled in 2020, Bennett directed the parole board administrator to tell a hearing examiner to submit a 2018 interview report as “their own” instead of doing a new interview. Both the administrator and hearing examiner “refused to falsify a report and violate their own ethics,” the report said.

— Bennett, who left the board last April and became a judge, violated her duty to remain impartial while considering the case. The report says, “During interviews with VPB employees, Bennett often verbally stated that she believed Martin was innocent and employees felt that this belief was the main deciding factor of his release.”

— Current Parole Board Chair Tonya Chapman was initially “reluctant” to provide board meeting minutes to the IG’s office and that when she later did “it was clear that information regarding Martin had been deleted and was not the complete document” other board members had received. The report doesn’t say who allegedly altered or deleted the minutes.

Lawmakers said the discrepancies raised questions Northam’s administration and Inspector General Michael Westfall must answer.

Democratic Sen. John Bell and Republican Sen. Bryce Reeves sent a joint letter requesting a special panel of lawmakers be convened to investigate what they called “serious” and “damaging allegations.”

“We believe that a clear and transparent investigation free of influence is critical to resolving this issue that surrounds the Virginia Parole Board,” the lawmakers wrote.

Bell said later in an interview that the issue was not a partisan one.

“It’s fair to say everyone is disturbed by this and wants to see this come to a resolution,” he said.

GOP Minority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert said in a speech during a virtual meeting of the House of Delegates that if the allegations in the new report are true, Bennett should resign from her position as a judge or be removed by the legislature if she doesn’t. And he said the same should apply to Chapman.

“We must demand to know what the administration, Gov. Northam’s administration, knew about this, whether they were involved in any way in coordinating turning this 13-page report into a six-page report,” Gilbert said.

Brian Moran, Northam’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, said he had no knowledge of a longer report.

Rita Davis, counsel for Northam, sent a letter to Westfall requesting a copy.

Bennett, who didn’t respond to calls and text messages seeking comment Feb. 24, released a statement in April defending Martin’s release. She said Martin had “demonstrated himself over the decades to be a trusted leader, peacemaker, mediator and mentor in the correctional community.”

Connors’ family has previously expressed outrage over how they were treated and the fact that Martin, whose release was delayed amid controversy in May, was ultimately paroled. Both they and Richmond’s top prosecutor asked that the board reconsider its decision.

On Feb. 24, Chapman sent a letter to Northam requesting an investigation into how the matter was handled and seeking to file a complaint against the IG’s office and Westfall specifically. She wrote that she had not been provided a copy of the report or given the chance to defend herself.

“If this incident is not resolved, it will permanently damage my reputation and career,” she wrote in the letter, which she provided to AP.

Kate Hourin, the communications director for the IG’s office, said in a statement that the agency had previously released “accurate final reports” regarding the parole board.

“OSIG wants to emphasize that any draft OSIG report involving the Parole Board that was recently disclosed to the news media was released without the consent of OSIG. OSIG is taking appropriate action to identify the person(s) responsible for improperly disclosing such information,” she said in a statement. She declined to discuss the matter further.

-SARAH RANKIN and DENISE LAVOIE, Associated Press

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