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Probe of Virginia parole case finds no outside interference

Virginia parole board.jpg
Posted at 4:19 PM, Jun 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-15 13:55:44-04

RICHMOND, Va. (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 Monday in a 65-page report prepared by a law firm at the request of the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, which funded the work this spring. 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 work of the state parole board.

RELATED: Lawyer: State investigator behind parole board report fired

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 said 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 could not immediately 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 of the report 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 that contained more critical conclusions about errors made in the case.

Monday’s report confirmed that version was a draft, and said that 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 OSIG 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 in a statement that did not mention Moschetti that it appreciated the review and the suggested areas for improvements.

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 Monday's report.

It found that Westfall's office “fell short” in the methods it used, which were not of the quality to ensure a thorough review.

It 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 did have the assistance of a more senior investigator, had worked at the agency for 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 went through 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 and no employees declined interview requests.

But it said that Adrianne Bennett, the former chair of the parole board who was at the helm when most of the agency's controversies arose, refused to be interviewed after initially signaling a willingness to do so.

Gov. Ralph Northam released the following statement following the conclusion of the investigation:

I called for this independent third-party investigation, and I thank the General Assembly for supporting and funding that request. The report confirms what we have said all along: the Governor’s office had no involvement in the Office of the State Inspector General’s investigation or its reports, nor did anyone in the Administration pressure OSIG to reach a different conclusion. This report clearly repudiates unsubstantiated allegations repeatedly made by some legislators. I have consistently said we need to get to the bottom of why and how draft OSIG documents, differing from the final report received by the Governor’s office and containing unsubstantiated allegations of wrongdoing, were made public. For OSIG 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. This report shows that clearly did not happen in this case, and I expect OSIG to address its procedures and its training so that we can all trust in the truth and quality of the work it produces. Every issue deserves that—but especially parole, as it is a life-changing decision that offers hope to those who are incarcerated. We will continue to ensure that the Parole Board’s decisions are made with the best information and greatest transparency possible.

Virginia Republicans also released a statement, with Senator Mark Obenshain saying in part:

This report used 153 pages to attempt to make the Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) the scapegoat in the continuing Parole Board scandal. Rife with gratuitous and inconsequential observations, the report even fails in that mission. It doesn't even attempt to claim that any of OSIG's conclusions or findings in its investigation of the Parole Board were inaccurate or wrong.