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Parole Board Investigation, Marijuana Approved on "Veto Day"

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Virginia State Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, smiles after her remarks on a bill legalizing marijuana during the Senate reconvene session at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, April 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Lawmakers took up major amendments to bills they passed earlier this year on “veto day,” a one-day special session held on Wednesday. They approved Gov. Ralph Northam’s amendment legalizing marijuana this year, and signed off on an independent investigation into the state’s government watchdog agency.

The General Assembly approved Northam’s request to set aside $250,000 for the investigation, which concerns the agency’s inquiry into the parole board’s decision to release Vincent Martin, who was convicted for the 1979 killing of a Richmond police officer.

“Some folks might want to make this about policy, about parole and policy and who ought to be paroled. It’s not,” said Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax). “This is about process. And this independent investigation will allow professional investigators to determine whether or not the process  that we have passed into law, that’s approved by the governor has been followed.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they support a third-party investigation. But Republicans opposed Northam’s proposal, in part because of its limited focus on the Martin case.

“There were numerous other murderers, heinous murderers, who were released from prison,“ said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah). “Victims weren’t notified, commonwealth’s attorneys weren’t notified. And a whole bunch of badness may have been going on. But we don’t really know and this certainly doesn’t get to the bottom of it.” 

Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) called it a sham investigation. 

“Somebody is going to die at the hands of one of these people who has been released in violation of these laws and policies and procedures and this is going to come back and bite you,” he said. 

GOP lawmakers also opposed allowing Attorney General Mark Herring to select the investigator, citing claims from a whistleblower that his office altered the report before it was sent to state officials.

Herring’s office has denied those allegations. 

Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth) said the opposition isn’t about protecting the public, but about politics.  

“We know that the folks who speak on this issue, they are diametrically, in their soul, opposed to parole,” Scott said. “They’re opposed to second chances.”

The allegations against the current and former parole board chairs include attempts to falsify documents, alter meeting minutes and forgo impartiality in the release of Martin. The findings appeared in a draft of a report authored by Virginia Inspector General Michael Westfall obtained by media outlets and Republican lawmakers. 

The allegations were ultimately cut from the final report released last summer, leading to accusations from Republican lawmakers of a coverup. A final report on the independent investigation will be due no later than June 15 and will be made public. 

Marijuana legalization passed in a mostly party-line vote. A key Senate Democratic holdout on the plan -- Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) -- supported legalization but wanted to see it paired with an end to mandatory minimum sentences. He opted to vote for the plan after he said he secured commitments from his caucus and the governor’s office to address ending mandatory minimum sentences.

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax broke a 20-20 tie to pass the bill, which made Virginia the 16th state to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. People aged 21 and over can possess an ounce or less of marijuana beginning on July 1, 2021, rather than Jan. 1, 2024 

While the main focuses of the reconvened session were the legalization of marijuana and how to handle the state parole board, lawmakers also rejected a proposal redirecting coal tax credits, and passed changes to allow first responders and other workers to claim worker’s compensation for death or disability due to COVID-19 starting July 1.

Del. Hala Ayala (D-Prince William) used the session to give an emotional final goodbye to her colleagues. Ayala announced in December that she would not run for reelection if her bid for Lieutenant Governor is unsuccessful. 

The two-term representative was one of the first Latina women to serve in the Virginia House. 

“I remember the day I was elected to this body and took my oath of office and cast my first vote,” she said. “I cried like a baby because it was historic, and because it was a historic opportunity that I got to be a part of making lives better.”

Ayala’s term began in 2017 when she beat out then-Republican Del. Rich Anderson, and her current term ends this year. She’s already endorsed Briana Sewell, chief of staff to Prince William County Board Chair Ann Wheeler, to replace her. 

Lawmakers could return for another special session  in the coming months to decide how to divy up new federal funding for COVID-19 relief. 

VPM's Whittney Evans, Patrick Larsen, Ben Paviour and Roberto Roldan contributed to this story.