In a March 31 RTD news article, “Va. attorney general told jail death investigators they could exclude state auditors from observing,” Patrick Wilson reported that Attorney General Mark Herring’s office has informed a state board investigating jail deaths in the commonwealth that it was not obligated to allow auditors from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) access to closed meetings.

The nonpartisan watchdog commission, JLARC, is responsible for conducting program evaluations, policy analysis and oversight of state agencies at the request of the General Assembly. Its duties are authorized by and outlined in the Code of Virginia. At the assembly’s request, JLARC has been conducting a review of the Office of the State Inspector General, specifically the IG’s role in inspecting jails. State law requires state agencies to provide any requested information to JLARC.

Hal Greer, executive director of JLARC, says that Herring told the state Board of Corrections it wasn’t required to let JLARC staff attend its closed discussions. Herring’s press secretary, Charlotte Gomer, declined to answer an email from Wilson as to how the attorney general reached that decision.

But Herring’s relationship with JLARC has been thorny. In January, an Associated Press news story says he “denounced a wide-ranging review of his office by the legislature’s watchdog agency as a politically motivated witch hunt.”

Not surprisingly, JLARC disagrees with Herring’s decision. The commission is seeking an amendment to the state budget that will give its staff access “to all information and operations of the Board of Corrections, including observing closed sessions.” Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, has taken action to ensure the assembly considers the budget change when it reconvenes on Wednesday.

“I took strong exception to the position of the AG, and I was pleased to be able to work with the administration to fashion a solution that takes care of the immediate concern. And we agreed to work in the interim to further clarify JLARC’s authority,” Jones said. “Given the seriousness of the topic, it needed to be addressed immediately.”

We agree with Jones. The Office of the State Inspector General has already been criticized for its less-than-thorough report after the 2015 death of Jamycheal Mitchell, who died in Hampton Roads Regional Jail. In 2016, former Inspector General June Jennings claimed her office had “lacked authority to interview jail employees and request certain documents.” Others with the Inspector General’s Office dispute that.

Hopefully, the General Assembly wastes no time amending the budget to allow JLARC the access it needs. After the shameful death of Mitchell and several others in Virginia jails, discussions should be as transparent as possible. Yes, under the Freedom of Information Act, government agencies do have the discretion to hold closed meetings — but why? And why would Herring encourage any agency to do so?

— Robin Beres