[Ppnews] Veronza Bowers - Allegations of Impropriety Surround Parole Commission

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue May 26 10:32:50 EDT 2009


Allegations of Impropriety Surround Parole Commission
Mystery Develops At Little-Known Federal Office
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/25/AR2009052502357.html

By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Like Washington's most famous tale of intrigue, this one includes the 
surreptitious entry of an office on a weekend.

The incident at the U.S. Parole Commission, a little-noticed corner 
of the federal government, was certainly no Watergate. But it was one 
in a string of curious events that have unfolded quietly in recent 
years at the small but powerful commission.

Memos, e-mails and court records spin a yarn of internal discord that 
threads together the unauthorized entry, an old murder outside San 
Francisco, a commissioner's resignation and attempts to win funding 
to improve a rural highway in Missouri. Players in the drama include 
a former special assistant to President George W. Bush, a past member 
of the Black Panthers and even a former Justice Department official 
who oversaw the politically tinged dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys.

The Parole Commission's future has been in question since 1984, when 
Congress voted to eliminate federal parole and establish formal 
sentencing guidelines. The commission still has a multimillion-dollar 
budget and nearly 80 employees at its headquarters in a nondescript 
office building in Chevy Chase. It has survived attempts by lawmakers 
to eliminate it because it also handles inmates convicted under D.C. 
law and because some convicts sent away under the old federal system 
still need to have their cases heard.

One such inmate is Veronza Bowers Jr. After serving 31 years on a 
murder conviction, Bowers was granted parole and was preparing to 
walk out of a U.S. penitentiary in Florida in June 2005 when he and 
his family in the District learned that his release was on hold and 
that he would remain imprisoned indefinitely.

It later turned out that one of the commissioners, former White House 
aide Deborah Spagnoli, had contacted the office of then-Attorney 
General Alberto R. Gonzales, who made an unprecedented intervention 
in the case. Attorneys for Bowers argue that Spagnoli created a 
secret back channel in an improper effort to keep Bowers in prison, 
even though the commission was designed to be a quasi-judicial, 
impartial body.

Spagnoli, who resigned from the commission in 2007, said all of her 
actions were consistent with her duty to make sure the commission 
considered all the facts about Bowers, whom she described as an 
"unrepentant murderer."

"I never pre-judged the case, however, after my review of the 
specific facts and after applying the correct law, I made an 
independent judgment" that Bowers did not qualify for release, she 
said in a statement. She said she simply made that judgment clear in 
a 14-page memo to Gonzales, which she said she never intended to hide 
from her colleagues.

The Bowers episode preceded more trouble. In June 2006, on Father's 
Day, someone surreptitiously entered the office of Parole Commission 
Chairman Edward F. Reilly Jr. and apparently copied dozens of pages 
from his files, records show.

Then things got really strange. Late last year, an anonymous letter 
and a package of documents were sent to the Justice Department's 
inspector general, alleging that Reilly was using his position and 
official stationery to promote improvements for a Missouri highway 
that could benefit his family holdings back home. Spagnoli's husband, 
William Woodruff, now an assistant U.S. attorney in the District, 
confirmed to The Washington Post that he sent the package. He said he 
had obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act 
request in an attempt to gather evidence of what he thought were 
unethical practices.

Reilly said he was not trying to personally profit from his public 
position. He declined to discuss the Bowers case or the unauthorized 
entry of his office in detail.

Spagnoli, who began her career prosecuting violent offenders in 
Bakersfield, Calif., said that she had nothing to do with her 
husband's investigation and that she had done nothing wrong.

"I am a prosecutor, and I came from the White House," said Spagnoli, 
who was a special assistant to Bush and who was appointed by him to 
the Parole Commission in 2004.

"I thought what they were doing was just a disgrace. They were 
letting very bad criminals back on the street without any review. 
They didn't follow proper procedure, et cetera. I just came in and 
had a different perspective. . . . We tried to make it more victim-oriented."

Others argue that the Bowers matter alone points to serious problems 
at the commission.

"It is an outrageous case," said Alan J. Chaset, a lawyer and former 
employee of the commission who at one time represented Bowers. "They 
played fast and loose with the laws."

Reilly's tenure as head of the commission is at an end. Last Tuesday, 
President Obama designated commission member Isaac Fulwood, a former 
D.C. police chief, as the new chairman.
A Park Ranger Is Killed

Opponents of Bowers's parole say there was good reason to keep him 
behind bars. Bowers, who had been a member of the Black Panthers in 
California in the early 1970s, first came up for what is known as 
mandatory parole in 2004. Bowers had to be paroled after 30 years 
unless it was determined that he "seriously or frequently" violated 
prison rules or that there was a reasonable probability he would 
commit a crime.

His criminal case dates to 1973, when he and two friends allegedly 
packed up crossbows and headed to the Point Reyes National Seashore 
outside San Francisco to poach deer. Early on the morning of Aug. 5, 
according to trial testimony, Kenneth Patrick, a National Park 
Service ranger and father of three, approached through the fog and 
shined a flashlight into their Pontiac Grand Prix. Someone fired a 
9mm handgun, killing Patrick. One man in the car later identified the 
shooter as Bowers.

Bowers has always contended that he was asleep in his bed at the 
time. He has called himself "one of the longest-held political 
prisoners in the U.S." His supporters set up a Web site, established 
a defense fund and sold CDs of his Japanese flute performances.

By early 2005, hearing examiners had reviewed his case and deemed him 
a good candidate for release. That led to an order for his parole, 
which often results in an inmate's release without any action by the 
full commission. Instead of abiding by that order, Spagnoli called 
for a vote by all the commissioners.

The vote resulted in a 2 to 2 tie, with one abstention, in May 2005, 
which by law meant the hearing examiners' judgment would prevail. 
Bowers was told he would be freed.

Spagnoli did not give up. She e-mailed and talked to Justice 
Department officials, including Steven G. Bradbury, a former top 
lawyer in the Office of Legal Counsel, now best known for memos that 
authorized the CIA to use harsh interrogation techniques. According 
to court records, she also indicated that she had contacted D. Kyle 
Sampson, who went on to become Gonzales's chief of staff and oversaw 
the dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys, a matter that is under criminal 
investigation.

Sampson and Bradbury declined to comment.

Without the knowledge of the other commissioners, records obtained by 
The Post show, Spagnoli wrote the memo to Gonzales's office outlining 
legal arguments that he could use if he stepped into the Bowers case. 
Gonzales then made a request for a review of the case. It would be 
two years before other commissioners or Bowers's attorneys learned 
about Spagnoli's memo, records show.

Spagnoli did not specifically request that Gonzales intercede, but 
she indicated that she would vote against Bowers's parole if he did 
step in. Spagnoli also pointed out that the Fraternal Order of 
Police, which opposed Bowers's release, had more than 318,000 
members. Around the same time, the group, which had been in contact 
with the widow of the slain park ranger, sent a letter to the 
attorney general arguing that Bowers was "an unrepentant murderer and 
career criminal."

"I do not see a downside to an Appeal by the Attorney General," 
Spagnoli wrote. "By requesting that the commission review its 
decision, the AG gets credit for doing so with crime victims and law 
enforcement" and "the Attorney General gets credit for protecting the 
public from a dangerous criminal."

Although the commission's administrative affairs are handled by the 
Justice Department, Congress designated it to be "insulated from 
political pressures, particularly pressures from the 'prosecutorial 
arm' of the Department," according to the commission's reference 
manual. The commission's ethics guidebook says that members "should 
always maintain the impartiality of a judge" and should not be 
influenced by private contacts with one side in a dispute or by "any 
contact outside official channels."

In recent court filings, government lawyers acknowledged that 
Spagnoli may have given the appearance that "she was not an impartial 
decision-maker." But they also insist that her actions did not result 
in the commission's change of position on Bowers
'Victory'

Eight days after Spagnoli sent the memo, Gonzales asked the Parole 
Commission to "clarify" its "initial decision." Parole experts say it 
appeared to be the first time an attorney general had interceded in a 
parole case already decided by the full commission.

Spagnoli still did not mention her memo to other commissioners, 
according to court records. The Fraternal Order of Police issued a 
news release claiming credit for Gonzales's move.

The commissioners had no guidelines for handling such a request from 
Gonzales. They quickly decided to put a hold on Bowers's release. 
Then they worked on a procedure for taking a formal vote to 
reconsider his parole.

On Oct. 6, 2005, the commission voted 4 to 0, with one abstention, to 
keep Bowers in prison.

After the vote, Spagnoli sent a one-word e-mail to a Justice 
Department official: "Victory."

Reilly, the commission's chairman, discovered Spagnoli's memo in 2007 
and revealed it in a letter to Bowers. He told Bowers that there was 
no evidence that it was Spagnoli's memo that prompted Gonzales to 
intervene. Despite the irregularities in the case, he wrote, the 
votes he and the other commissioners gave to keep Bowers imprisoned 
were based on their individual assessments. Reilly said in a recent 
interview that he changed his vote after reviewing the details of 
Bowers's attempted escape in 1979.

Bowers's attorneys said in a statement that the commission "caved in 
to political pressure and broke the law." They declined to discuss 
the matter in detail while the case is pending in court.

A spokesman for Gonzales referred questions to the Justice 
Department, where a spokeswoman declined to comment because Bowers's 
status is pending in court.

Spagnoli said she acted properly within her role to make certain the 
relevant facts and applicable law were considered.

"I never campaigned to deny parole to Veronza Bowers," she said in a 
statement. "I do not believe that there was any impropriety in 
reviewing the case and the applicable law and providing a summary to 
the Attorney General who has a statutory right to appeal certain 
parole commission decisions."
Copies on a Sunday

Spagnoli complained in an interview that Reilly appeared to have 
turned the commission into his "personal little fiefdom" and strayed 
from the mission of looking after crime victims.

Reilly, a former Kansas state legislator, said there was no discord 
with Spagnoli. He said the inspector general's office asked him not 
to discuss the surreptitious entry of his office in June 2006. The 
Post obtained a letter from that time in which Reilly described the 
events to the inspector general's office.

Shortly after Reilly arrived at his office on Monday, June 19, the 
letter said, his secretary brought in a stack of his personal papers 
that had been left on the office copier. Problem was, Reilly wasn't 
the one who had left them there. The machine's log showed that 
someone copied 68 pages on Sunday afternoon.

Reilly's office is located in the commission's fifth-floor suite, 
which is protected by an alarm system on the weekend, the letter 
said. Reilly wrote that his office doors also were locked. The letter 
identified four commission employees who entered the building that 
Sunday, including Spagnoli, who also had an office on the fifth floor.

Reilly described the invasion as "deeply troubling," because the 
material copied included his notes of a conversation with a senior 
FBI official.

A spokesman for the inspector general's office declined to comment.

Ten months after the incident, in April 2007, Spagnoli announced that 
she planned to resign, citing her stress level and resistance to her 
attempts to make "positive change" at the commission.

In a recent interview, Spagnoli said she could not discuss the 
unauthorized entry because of the inspector general's investigation.
A Missouri Highway

Late last year, packets of documents arrived anonymously at The Post 
and at the inspector general's office. Inside were photocopies of 
correspondence that Reilly had mailed to local and federal officials 
in 2006 and 2007.

The letters showed that while chairman, Reilly had repeatedly pushed 
public officials to improve Missouri Highway 92, which connects his 
home town of Leavenworth, Kan., to Kansas City, Mo. Reilly owns 
property in Leavenworth and, with his family, owns the region's 
leading real estate firm.

"As you are aware, this highway serves both Ft. Leavenworth, one of 
the Nation's major military bases, and the U.S. Penitentiary at 
Leavenworth, and has long been in need of improvement." Reilly wrote 
in an April 2006 letter to 
<http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress/members/b000611/>Sen. 
Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.).

Justice Department guidelines say that an official's "position or 
title should not be used . . . to give the appearance of governmental 
sanction."

In an interview, Reilly said he never meant for anyone to conclude 
that the Justice Department endorsed his campaign. He said that, in 
hindsight, he should have written the letters on his private stationery.

"I never really thought about it until you brought it to my 
attention," Reilly said. "I'm very sorry it occurred."

A week after being questioned by The Post, Reilly said the inspector 
general's office informed him that it was investigating.

Records at the commission, released to The Post under a Freedom of 
Information Act request, show that Woodruff, Spagnoli's husband, has 
requested copies of commission correspondence on at least two 
occasions since Spagnoli's resignation.

In an interview, Woodruff confirmed that he had made the requests and 
that he mailed copies of the documents he received to the inspector 
general's office and The Post. He said he did so anonymously because 
he did not "care to be a hero."

He said he had no connection to the surreptitious entry at Reilly's office.

Woodruff said his goal in sending the documents was to protect 
taxpayers and expose what he considered illegal activity. He showed 
The Post additional letters that appeared to have been written by 
Reilly and a photocopy of a credit card bearing Reilly's name and 
that of his family's real estate firm. Woodruff said that the letters 
indicated Reilly conducted other personal business on official 
stationary and that the credit card raised questions about whether 
the chairman was receiving benefits from the firm.

Woodruff said those documents did not come from his formal records 
request to the commission. "In some cases, I am literally not sure 
what the source is," he said.

Reilly's attorney, Joseph diGenova, said his client's family owns no 
land along the Missouri highway. He said Reilly pays the credit card 
bill himself and receives no compensation from the real estate firm. 
Reilly estimates he has written about 200 personal letters on his 
official stationary over 17 years and now "understands that that was 
a mistake," diGenova said.

For her part, Spagnoli said: "This was my husband's thing. . . . He's 
being a good husband. I'm not interested in being a whistleblower."

No work has begun on improving Highway 92. No suspect has been 
publicly identified in connection with the entry of Reilly's office. 
And Bowers, now 63, remains in prison in Atlanta.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.




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