Wed, Jan 25, 2023 6:42 PM
By SARAH RANKIN, Associated Press
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A former Virginia Parole Board chair violated state policy and law in her handling of cases at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and could have faced criminal charges if not for the statute of limitations, the state's attorney general said Wednesday.
Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares laid out his allegations against Adrianne Bennett as he outlined the findings of a yearlong investigation by his office into the practices of the board. The probe focused especially on the board's activities in March and April of 2020, when it granted release to a higher-than-normal number of inmates in what Miyares called a “parole-granting frenzy” carried out with “disregard” for victims.
“What happened here was a clear abuse of power. What happened here was the epitome of putting criminals first, and victims last,” Miyares said.
Attorney Diane Toscano said in an emailed statement that the report “grossly targeted” Bennett, who left the parole board in 2020 and is now a judge in Virginia Beach.
The report cherry-picked a time period for scrutiny that took place during a “once-in-a-lifetime pandemic,” Toscano said, also noting that in all parole cases, Bennett was one vote of the five-member board.
“Judge Bennett is a dedicated public servant who has served with distinction on the bench, on the parole board, and as a respected attorney in the Virginia Beach legal community for decades. No attempt to vilify her changes that,” the statement said.
The long-running controversy over the board — the membership of which has since been entirely overhauled — began with complaints from prosecutors and victims' families about how parole decisions and notifications were handled at the start of the pandemic during the tenure of former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. The matter escalated into a bitter dispute that has so far split mostly along partisan lines.
Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin campaigned on a pledge to reform the board, and in one of his first acts after being sworn in last January, he authorized the investigation by Miyares.
“The Attorney General’s investigation revealed a staggering amount of wrongdoing from the Parole Board and Chairwoman Bennett,” Youngkin said in a statement Wednesday. “The clear violations led to attacks on victims, the release of 130 violent criminals and the undermining of trust in our judicial system.”
In a 69-page report, Miyares' office said the parole board in March and April of 2020 acted with “systematic disregard for the statutory right of victims and prosecutors to receive notice” as it started releasing more inmates.
It violated a requirement that it “endeavor diligently” to contact victims before making discretionary parole decisions 83 times, and it violated prosecutor-notification requirements 66 times, the report said.
Those findings are in line with reporting by The Associated Press and other news outlets at the time. Family members of victims reporting being astonished and horrified to learn of parole grants after they had occurred. State officials said then that a push to accelerate the review of eligible inmates was made because of the threat of the coronavirus.
Bennett also “unilaterally discharged 137 violent offenders from parole supervision in her final days with the Board — most of whom were convicted of capital or first-degree murder,” according to the report.
In doing so, “Chair Bennett falsified three entries in her list of discharged offenders by claiming that a Parole Board employee or parole officer had ‘requested’ the offender’s discharge,” the report said.
Such a charge, a class one misdemeanor, has a one-year statute of limitations, Miyares said.
There is also probable cause to believe that Bennett violated eight court orders finding that two inmates were ineligible for discretionary parole, the report said. Those offenses also cannot be prosecuted because the applicable statute of limitations has lapsed, it said.
Bennett has not granted previous AP requests for comment. Miyares said she agreed to an interview for the report but declined to answer questions about some matters. Miyares also alleged that her parole board emails “were all deleted.”
Miyares said the General Assembly should decide whether to pursue articles of impeachment against Bennett.
Spokespeople for the leadership of the GOP-controlled House of Delegates and Democrat-led Senate said their members had only begun to review the report Wednesday afternoon.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment called on Bennett to “immediately” resign “to avoid legislative action.”
The report alleges that Bennett presided over a board with a “culture” of ignoring the law, policies and procedures.
One board employee interviewed for the investigation, Crystal Noakes, told Miyares' office that Bennett would “make up” policies and that Bennett's policy regarding rape victims was that “if it was a rape victim, don’t traumatize the victim by contacting, by contacting them,” the report said.
The report further alleges Bennett wrongfully implemented a change to Virginia's “three strikes” policy that's meant to keep violent repeat offenders locked up. That led to the release of at least five inmates who went on to commit new violent felonies, it said.
Brian Moran, who under Northam served as the secretary of public safety and homeland security and who was interviewed for the report, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Miyares' report also offered a series of policy and legislative recommendations, including a suggestion that the size and transparency of the board be expanded.