RICHMOND — Virginia’s top public safety official said Thursday that leaders in Charlottesville are hindering the state’s review of the deadly Aug. 12 white nationalist rally by refusing to provide basic records and make city officials available for interviews.
“Unfortunately we have been denied access repeatedly,” said Brian J. Moran, the state’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, at a meeting of a public safety task force assembled by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the aftermath of the rally. “It is my sincere hope that the city of Charlottesville will choose to cooperate with our review.”
The complaint comes a week after city officials leveled a similar charge against the state, saying the lawyer they’ve hired to conduct their own local review of the rally response has been denied access to necessary records by state officials.
A Charlottesville spokeswoman, Miriam Dickler, confirmed in a statement that the city is declining to provide records to the state. She said the city would change its position if the state provides the city with the records it has requested.
While the state deployed more than 600 Virginia State Police personnel and over 100 members of the National Guard to the city, local officials directed, planned and oversaw the overall response to the rally.
“The city of Charlottesville has conveyed its willingness to provide the information requested by the governor’s task force, if the commonwealth simply agrees to provide the city with similar information that is crucial to our evaluation,” Dickler wrote in an email. “It is our understanding that they have declined to do so, but we hope they will reconsider and see the mutual benefits of sharing information that will benefit both the city’s and the commonwealth’s evaluations.”
Timothy Heaphy, the former federal prosecutor hired by the city to conduct its review, said state officials have so far not agreed to provide any information he has requested.
“To date, the commonwealth has not agreed to share anything — document, recording or individual employee,” he wrote in an email. “If the state provides what we’ve requested, we will similarly accommodate their request for information from the city of Charlottesville. In sum, the ball really is in their court.”
In response, Moran characterized the city’s requests as complex and said state law prohibits its release in some cases.
“We are happy to provide them information,” Moran said. “We have told them that all along. We have requested a handful of interviews and some simple documents — interviews with the chief, deputy, incident coordinator, and the after-action review, some very simple information.”
In contrast, he said, Charlottesville asked for “information that we can’t by law provide, and we’ve handed it over to the Attorney General’s Office to give them whatever we can.”
Neither side has provided a detailed list of the documents it is seeking. The governor’s office denied a Freedom of Information Act request for communications with Heaphy. Meanwhile, Heaphy said he initially asked for access to a wide range of documents and people, but that as the review progressed, he submitted a narrower request, to which he has not received a response.
The chaotic rally, which saw nearly an hour of sporadic street fighting between white nationalists and anti-racism protesters, ended in a car attack that left one dead and dozens injured and was indirectly linked to a state police helicopter crash that killed two troopers.
At the end of Thursday’s task force meeting, the consultant the state hired to conduct its review provided what he described as a progress report and draft recommendations, though he said the review can’t be completed until Charlottesville responds.
The preliminary findings describe a fractured command structure that included multiple command posts and action plans, leading to communication delays between command posts and officials on the ground.
The findings also noted that Charlottesville authorities placed “minimal” or no restrictions on the demonstrators and that “many recommendations communicated by the state to the city of Charlottesville were not accepted, including industry best practices for handling violent events.”
It’s a concern Moran and other officials have repeatedly voiced since the rally, citing the city’s decision not to restrict weapons, require attendees to meet at one location to be bused in for the event, or shorten the duration of the permit.
But recommendations for improvement aside, the consultant, James W. Baker, the former leader of the Vermont State Police, said authorities handled the rally well. He stressed, however, that he’s not conducting an investigation aimed at finding fault. Instead, the end product will be an analysis of what worked well, what didn’t and what improvements can be made going forward, he said.
“These recommendations are very early,” Baker said. “If the loss of life hadn’t occurred, I think the way the resources were applied were very effective from what we see.”
The task force is scheduled to meet again Nov. 12.