Virginia Politics

FILE—In this Dec. 18, 2017 file photo, from left, Lt. Governor-elect Justin Fairfax, Attorney General-elect Mark Herring and Governor-elect Ralph Northam listen as Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe addresses a joint meeting of the House and Senate money committees at the Pocahontas Building in Richmond, Va. With Virginia’s top three elected officials engulfed in scandal, fellow Democrats were rendered practically speechless, uncertain of how to thread their way through the racial and sexual allegations and their tangled political implications. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

A second woman came forward Friday to accuse Virginia Lt. Gov Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, alleging Fairfax attacked her in 2000 while at Duke University, a claim Fairfax called “demonstrably false.”

An attorney for Meredith Watson, a former Duke student, released a statement accusing Fairfax of a “premeditated and aggressive” rape that Watson told her friends about in emails and Facebook messages. The attorney said Watson came forward after learning of the similar allegation leveled against Fairfax by Vanessa Tyson, a California professor who has accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in 2004 in a Boston hotel room.

Watson’s statement said the “details of Ms. Watson’s attack are similar to those described by Dr. Vanessa Tyson.”

“At this time, Ms. Watson is reluctantly coming forward out of a strong sense of civic duty and her belief that those seeking or serving in public office should be of the highest character,” said Nancy Erika Smith, Watson’s attorney.

Fairfax has adamantly denied Tyson’s accusation. In a statement Friday evening, Fairfax said Watson’s accusation is false and said he would not resign. He called for “a full investigation into these unsubstantiated and false allegations.”

“I will clear my good name and I have nothing to hide. I have passed two full field background checks by the FBI and run for office in two highly contested elections with nothing like this being raised before,” said Fairfax, a 39-year-old former federal prosecutor who was considered a rising star in Democratic politics. “It is obvious that a vicious and coordinated smear campaign is being orchestrated against me.”

Virginia Democrats had refrained from calling for Fairfax’s resignation after the first accusation, but the emergence of a second accuser pushed some Democrats to change course and call for Fairfax to step down.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe called for Fairfax to resign in a statement posted to Twitter on Friday evening.

“The allegations against Justin Fairfax are serious and credible,” McAuliffe said. “It is clear to me that he can no longer effectively serve the people of Virginia as Lieutenant Governor. I call for his immediate resignation.”

U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D–10th, who had previously said she believed Tyson but stopped short on calling for Fairfax to resign, said she believes both Tyson and Watson. “And I believe Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax must resign,” Wexton said.

In quick succession Friday evening, six of the seven Democrats in Virginia’s U.S. House delegation—all but Rep. Bobby Scott, D–3rd—called on Fairfax to resign. Joining Wexton urging Fairfax to step down were Reps. Don McEachin, D–4th; Abigail Spanberger, D–7th; Elaine Luria, D–2nd; Don Beyer, D–8th; and Gerry Connolly, D–11th.

Two Democratic presidential hopefuls Sens. Cory Booker, D–N.J., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D–N.Y., also called on Fairfax to resign.

Del. Patrick Hope, a Democrat in the Virginia House, tweeted Friday that he would introduce articles of impeachment for Fairfax on Monday “if he has not resigned before then.”

If Fairfax were to resign, Northam could appoint a temporary lieutenant governor who would serve until a special election could be held in November, according to experts who have studied the unprecedented constitutional scenario. Sen. Steve Newman, R–Lynchburg, the president pro tempore of the state Senate, would preside over the chamber temporarily if a vacancy occurs.

If Northam were to resign after appointing a new lieutenant governor, that appointee would become governor.

A week ago, it appeared Fairfax would be elevated to governor as Gov. Ralph Northam was engulfed in a shocking scandal over a racist yearbook photo that appeared in his 1984 medical school yearbook and his admission that he appeared in blackface for a Michael Jackson dance contest that same year.

Attorney General Mark Herring, who is second in line to become governor, called for Northam to resign and signaled his strong support for Fairfax. On Wednesday morning, Herring became embroiled in a scandal of his own after he acknowledged he wore blackface to dress as a rapper while at the University of Virginia. The attorney general said he would think over his future and whether he can remain in office, but no elected Democrats have gone so far as to call for his resignation.

With Northam and Herring showing no signs of stepping down, Fairfax, the lone African-American elected to statewide office, finds himself in a worsening situation that has created an uneasy situation for Democrats who have adopted “believe survivors” as a mantra for the #MeToo movement.

A source close to Tyson’s legal team said Friday that Tyson is willing to cooperate with an investigation into her accusation against Fairfax.

Tyson’s initial statement indicated she would not be speaking further about her allegation and did not want to be dragged further into a “highly charged political environment.” But her willingness to cooperate with an investigation initiated by a third party could push Virginia officials to try to find a way to hear her out.

Tyson has said the encounter with Fairfax began with consensual kissing but progressed to forced oral sex that left her feeling “deep humiliation and shame.” Fairfax, who was unmarried in 2004, has insisted the encounter was fully consensual, saying he has “never done anything like what she suggests.”

Unlike the controversy surrounding the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, there is no clear mechanism in Virginia for trying to get the bottom of a sexual assault allegation emerging long after the events in question. The FBI had already performed a background check into Kavanaugh after he was nominated for the court. The FBI reopened that investigation for a narrow examination of Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her as a teenager.

On Thursday night, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus said Tyson’s allegation against Fairfax should be “fully and thoroughly investigated by the appropriate agencies.” Asked Friday morning who might perform such an investigation, Del. Lamont Bagby, D–Henrico, the head of the black caucus, said he didn’t know.

Under state law, the Virginia State Police can investigate “any matter” referred to the agency by the governor. But the agency’s powers are typically limited to potential criminal acts within Virginia’s borders.

In Massachusetts, the statute of limitations for alleged sexual assaults is 15 years. Tyson’s statement said the encounter occurred on July 28, 2004, during the Democratic National Convention, falling just inside that window. Tyson did not file a police report in 2004, and it’s not clear if Boston authorities will pursue the matter.

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