Virginia GOP moves to fire watchdog over inmate death case

AP News
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Posted: Feb 08, 2017 5:52 PM

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Republicans moved Wednesday to effectively fire the state's top watchdog, citing her handing of an investigation into the 2015 death of a mentally ill inmate who was jailed for stealing $5 worth of junk food.

The GOP-controlled House of Delegates voted not to confirm state Inspector General June Jennings, whose office has been accused of not adequately investigating the death of 24-year-old Jamycheal Mitchell at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail.

Del. Rob Bell, who led the effort to remove Jennings, said lawmakers are disappointed with information she provided about Mitchell's death, and believe Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe needs to find someone more aggressive for the office.

"I don't believe she is the right person for the job," Bell said.

McAuliffe blasted Republicans' decision, calling Jennings a "qualified public servant" who's being fired for "a tragic matter for which she and her office bear absolutely zero responsibility." McAuliffe called it "particularly hypocritical" that Republicans would remove Jennings after rejecting measures he introduced aimed at addressing some of the problems highlighted by Mitchell's death.

"Jamycheal Mitchell's death was a tragedy that demonstrated the need for real mental health and criminal justice reform, and my administration is ready to move forward. Unfortunately, Republicans in the House of Delegates are more concerned with playing politics with qualified appointees than with keeping Virginians healthy and safe," McAuliffe said in a statement.

A spokesman for the inspector general's office didn't immediately respond to a message.

Mitchell, who had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was jailed in April 2015 after he was accused of stealing a Mountain Dew, Snickers bar and a Zebra Cake from a 7-Eleven. He was ordered to a mental hospital, but his paperwork was stuffed in a hospital employee's desk drawer and he was never sent there. Mitchell was found dead in his cell that August. A medical examiner said he died of heart failure accompanied by severe weight loss.

After a monthlong investigation into Mitchell's death, Jennings' office released a report last year outlining several failures at the state behavioral health agency and regional jail. But Jennings came under fire after a whistleblower complaint accused her office of not properly investigating.

The complaint, filed by a senior staff member in her office and two independent contractors, accused Jennings of deliberately misleading state lawmakers. The complaint said that the inspector general's inquiry was mostly done by workers who reviewed documents behind a desk and relied too heavily on the version of events provided by the jail and health care contractor, which have denied any wrongdoing.

The governor's office said after reviewing the watchdog complaint last August that it found that no action against Jennings was needed.

Mitchell's death prompted the U.S. Justice Department to open an investigation into the jail in December focused on whether the facility violated the rights of mentally ill inmates. His family has also filed a $60 million lawsuit against the jail.