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Miyares: Ex-parole board chair violated law; too late for charges

Jason Miyares
Steve Helber
FILE - Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares speaks to the crowd during an inaugural celebration on Jan. 15, 2022, in Richmond, Va.

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 for falsifying documents 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, focused especially on its activities in March and April of 2020.

“What happened here was a clear abuse of power. What happened here was the epitome of putting criminals first, and victims last,” Miyares said.

An attorney for Bennett, who left the role in 2020 and is now a judge in Virginia Beach, declined comment.

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 coronavirus 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 as one of his first acts after being sworn in, authorized the investigation by Miyares.

In a 69-page report, Miyares' office said the parole board in March and April of 2020 granted release to a higher-than-normal number of inmates. In doing so, the board violated the requirement that it “endeavor diligently” to contact victims before making discretionary parole decisions 83 times, according to the report.

The board also violated the requirement that the board notify local prosecutors about its release decisions within at least 21 days of release 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.

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.

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.”

Because Virginia lawmakers abolished discretionary parole in the 1990s, only a very limited pool of inmates are eligible for consideration by the five-member board. Most either committed their crimes before then or are older than 60 and meet certain conditions making them eligible for geriatric release.

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