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Probe of Virginia parole case finds no outside interference

(AP) An outside probe into how Virginia’s government watchdog agency conducted an investigation of a controversial parole decision found no inappropriate political interference by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration and concluded the lead investigator was likely biased.

The findings came June 14 in a 65-page report by a law firm that was requested and funded by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly. The report was essentially an investigation of an investigation into the highest-profile part of a long-running, bitter and mostly partisan dispute over the state parole board’s work.

Law firm Nixon Peabody LLP examined how the Office of the State Inspector General handled a review it conducted last year into the parole board’s decision to release Vincent Martin, who served more than four decades for the killing of a Richmond police officer.

The firm wrote that the watchdog’s review was not of the highest quality and its most “troubling” finding was the agency’s failure to identify apparent bias in the lead investigator, Jennifer Moschetti, who has since been fired and couldn’t be reached for comment.

“Internal communications, the manner in which the investigation was conducted, the content of witness interviews, and the tone of the report, all indicate a high likelihood that the lead investigator was motivated to see Mr. Martin returned to prison and such motivation likely impacted the investigation and report,” the report said.

Another key finding backs up what Northam’s administration and the watchdog have said about the initial investigation: that there was no outside interference to cover up unflattering findings. Some Republican lawmakers began floating such allegations after news outlets obtained a longer, draft version of the watchdog’s Martin report containing more critical conclusions about errors made in the case.

The report confirmed that version was a draft, and said there was only one official report and its investigations and findings were not influenced by outside actors.

“This report clearly repudiates unsubstantiated allegations repeatedly made by some legislators. … For (the parole board) to operate as intended and maintain the public trust, it’s vital that investigators do their work in an impartial manner, without bias toward a conclusion, and that information presented in public reports is valid and verified,” Northam said in a statement.

Inspector General Michael Westfall’s office said it appreciated the review and the suggested areas for improvements. The office’s statement did not mention Moschetti.

Nixon Peabody, which was paid $250,000, was directed to evaluate only the watchdog’s “policies, process, and procedures” in the Martin case. Republicans, who are campaigning heavily on the issue in a critical election year, have criticized the limited scope.

The firm was not tasked with evaluating the actual findings of the agency, which last year concluded the board and its former chairwoman violated state law and the board’s own policies and procedures in the Martin case. Nor was the firm tasked with looking into any of the watchdog’s other investigations into the parole board’s work. Inspector general reports into other inmates’ cases obtained by news outlets showed a similar pattern of violations and painted a picture of a board that for years, or possibly decades, did not properly notify victims.

“Today’s report is merely a campaign document,” House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert said in a statement.

The firm said it interviewed 30 individuals and reviewed thousands of pages of documents, including emails and text messages, to produce the report. It found Westfall’s office “fell short” in the methods it used.

The report “confirms what we had said all along – that OSIG’s investigation surrounding the Vincent Martin case was inadequate,” parole board chair Tonya Chapman said in a statement.

The report said Moschetti, while thorough in some respects, should have interviewed more than the seven people she spoke with. It said she used pre-scripted questions with a leading nature in those interviews. It said she should have been more specific in the wording of a records request. And it said the case should have been assigned to a more “seasoned investigator.”

Moschetti, who previously worked as a bank fraud examiner and was aided by a more senior investigator, had worked at the agency less than six months when she was assigned the case. The report also said she moved some documents to her personal email account.

The report credited Westfall’s office with properly initiating its investigation and said the drafting and editing of the report were “thorough and appropriate.” The document underwent more than 30 edits, including what the report said were appropriate reviews by a lawyer in Attorney General Mark Herring’s office.

The watchdog agency would benefit from having its own general counsel and implementing mandatory “bias awareness” training, the report said.

The firm said the state agencies involved cooperated with the review. But it said that Adrianne Bennett, the former chair of the parole board in charge when most of the agency’s controversies arose, refused to be interviewed after initially signaling a willingness to do so.

-SARAH RANKIN, Associated Press

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