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

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares says a former state parole board chair violated state policy and law in her handling of cases at the start of the pandemic.

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.

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 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.

"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. These soft-on-crime policies endangered Virginia communities and citizens in the past."

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 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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