Governor Rejects Whistleblowers’ Complaint: More Questions Surface About Inmate’s Death In Jail

Photo by Bob Brown, Richmond Times Dispatch. Neither June Jennings or Priscilla Smith mentioned personal ties to legislators to hospital under investigation in inmate's death

Photo by Bob Brown, Richmond Times Dispatch. Neither June Jennings nor Priscilla Smith mentioned personal ties to  hospital under investigation in inmate’s death when briefing legislators.

(8-9-16) Hours after the Virginia Governor’s office announced yesterday that it had cleared state Inspector general June W. Jennings in a whistle-blower complaint, new questions surfaced about her office’s investigation into the death of Jamycheal Mitchell, a 24-year-old African American diagnosed with schizophrenia who died in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail last August waiting to be sent to Eastern State Hospital.

Travis Fain, a reporter at The Daily Press in Hampton Roads, reported that Jennings’ husband, William D. Jennings, is a manager at Eastern State Hospital, and Priscilla Smith, who oversaw the State Office of Inspector General probe into Mitchell’s death, had previously worked there as a senior manager.

Mitchell spent 101 days in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail waiting to be transferred to the hospital in Williamsburg. After his death, it was revealed that paperwork sent to hospital requesting that Mitchell be transferred there had been tossed into a drawer by a hospital employee and forgotten until after his body was discovered.

Although neither Jennings’ husband nor OSIG Supervisor Smith were directly involved in the hospital’s mishandling of Mitchell’s transfer request, Priscilla Smith’s supervision of the Mitchell investigation placed her in a position where she was investigating her past employer (Eastern State Hospital ) where the husband of her boss (June Jennings) is currently employed.

Reporter Fain wrote:

Requests for (interviews with) Priscilla Smith and June Jennings, made through the inspector general’s press office, were not granted, but spokeswoman Julie Grimes emailed a statement, saying William Jennings has been a career state employee and that his employment at Eastern State “does not represent any conflict of interest.”

G. Douglas Bevelacqua, a former inspector general for behavioral health, who has been critical of the office’s handling of the Mitchell case, disagreed in an email to me.

The fact June Jennings’s husband was the Director of Quality Management at Eastern State Hospital during the OSIG’s investigation of Jamycheal Mitchell’s death is a clear conflict of interest. Also, the fact that Pricilla Smith was his predecessor in that position at Eastern State Hospital until a few months before the system failed and Mitchell starved to death in jail because of “clerical errors” is another clear conflict of interest.

Questions about possible conflicts of interest are the latest in a barrage of troubling revelations swirling around Mitchell’s death. 

Yesterday morning began with Paul Reagan, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s chief of staff, telling reporters that the governor had “full faith” in Jennings and that no personnel action was warranted in answer to an 18-page complaint filed July 18th by a senior member of Jennings’ staff and two contract employees.  Among other charges, Cathy Hill, Ann White and William Thomas, accused Jennings and Priscilla Smith of failing to adequately investigate Mitchell’s death.

Mitchell’s lifeless body was found in his cell. A state medical examiner ruled he had suffered a heart attack caused by the loss of 46 pounds while waiting in the jail for a hospital bed.

The three whistleblowers said Smith, who oversaw the investigation, did not immediately send investigators to visit the jail but instead performed a “desk review” of the incident, relying on reports sent to her by the jail and state mental health department. In their complaint, the whistleblowers claimed that 80 percent of the Mitchell investigation was completed from behind a desk. They also accused Jennings and her staff of misleading me when I filed an FOIA request, telling me that no documents existed. In the complaint, the whistleblowers revealed the existence of three internal documents that should have been provided to me but were not.

In a statement, a spokesman for the governor’s office said that Reagan and Carlos Hopkins, the governor’s counsel, “reviewed the (whistleblower) complaint extensively and determined that there was no need for further action.”

Reached at home, Cathy Hill said yesterday that she first heard from a reporter that her complaint had been discarded. She said neither Reagan nor Hopkins had contacted her about her complaint before dismissing it, a fact that she found disconcerting given that she had worked for the state for 28 years and felt that her charges were serious enough to merit a personal interview.

It was shortly after the governor’s office had cleared Jennings and Smith of any wrongdoing that The Daily Press reported that Jennings and Smith had not disclosed their ties to Eastern State Hospital in their final report about Mitchell’s death while the hospital was being investigated. Fain reported that William D. Jennings is currently the hospital’s director of quality management. Fain noted that Smith had been director of quality management prior to joining the OSIG and that William Jennings had replaced her at the hospital.

Julie Grimes, the OSIG spokesperson, said that Jennings had noted her husband’s employment for years in annual conflict of interest and ethics disclosure filings required of many state employees. Brian Coy, a spokesman for the governor, said that Jennings had disclosed her husband’s employment at the hospital before the whistleblower complaint was filed. He added that Jennings has agreed to recuse herself going forward from reviews involving the hospital, according to The Daily Press.

“Why is it that June Jennings announces that she will recuse herself in the future?” former IG Bevelacqua asked in an email to me. “There is temporal displacement here because she – and Pricilla should have recused themselves in the past.” 

Bevelacqua noted that the final report issued by Jennings and Smith said that it was done in compliance with the Association of Inspectors General Principles and Standards for Offices of Inspector General: Quality Standards for Inspections, Evaluations, and Reviews (May 2014).”(C.I. Report pg. 8)

That report requires an Inspector General to recuse himself/herself from conducting investigations of their former employers, especially if they held management positions, as well as disqualifying themselves from investigations that might involve “personal relationships.” Because Smith was in a position of judging her former employer and Jennings is married to a current Eastern State Hospital manager, Bevelacqua said both should have disqualified themselves.

I’ve posted several stories about the failure of state officials to explain how Mitchell, who was arrested and jailed after talking $5 of snacks from a convenience store allegedly without paying, died from “wasting away syndrome” while in jail supposedly under constant watch by guards while being checked daily by nurses.

Three of the most troubling on the state level are:

  1. According to the state’s own records, either Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and/or the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) delayed releasing information about Mitchell’s death for four months while the general assembly (state legislature) was in session. That information would have been embarrassing to the McAuliffe administration.
  2. According to The Richmond Times Dispatch, Attorney General Mark Herring’s office “intervened” in the Mitchell investigation.
  3. The governor’s office dismissed the whistleblower’s complaint without talking to the individuals making the allegations (which could have a chilling impact on future whistleblowers.”

Governor McAuliffe recently reappointed Jennings to a full four-year term ending June 30, 2020; she assumed the post in June 2014.

Politics should have no part in an investigation when an inmate dies in jail. The fact that Jennings and Smith had personal ties to Eastern State Hospital should have been acknowledged. Both should have stepped aside.

Instead, their office issued a toothless report that blamed no one and quoted liberally from a study entitled To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System that was published in November 1999 by the U.S. Institute of Medicine. The report cites passages that argue that tragedies such as Mitchell’s are not the fault of bad employees but of systems, adding that disciplining employees often ” is not an effective way to correct a system or process problem or to prevent recurrence of similar events.”

Huh, if I were investigating a “system” where my spouse was employed or where I had been a top level manager, I might have reached a similar conclusion.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.