The woman who accused Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) of sexually assaulting her in Boston in 2004 plans to meet with law enforcement officials in Massachusetts to detail her allegations.
Debra Katz, the attorney who represents Vanessa Tyson, said she is working to schedule a meeting between Tyson and staff for Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins after she offered assistance and an opportunity to file a criminal complaint.
Katz, who said she spoke to Rollins on Wednesday afternoon, did not say whether Tyson would file a criminal complaint.
Fairfax, a former federal prosecutor, has denied Tyson’s allegations, as well as a charge made by a second woman, Meredith Watson, who said Fairfax sexually assaulted her in 2000 when they were undergraduates at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
A spokeswoman for Fairfax said that he would cooperate if the Suffolk County district attorney opened a probe but that he would also fight back.
“The Lt. Governor has stated repeatedly that he has never sexually assaulted anyone ever. He has called publicly for a fair, impartial investigation. He has nothing to hide,” spokeswoman Lauren Burke said in a statement. “In that event, the Lt. Gov. will explore all options with regard to filing his own criminal complaint in response to the filing of a false criminal complaint against him.”
Tyson’s lawyer called that “a clear effort to obstruct justice.”
“Dr. Tyson will not be bullied and she will not be deterred by such threats,” Katz said in a statement.
Fairfax has described both encounters as consensual. Both women have said they are willing to testify publicly.
A spokeswoman for the Durham district attorney, which has jurisdiction over the Duke campus, said Watson did not file a complaint as of Monday. Watson does not plan to seek criminal charges, said her lawyer, Nancy Erika Smith.
“Ms. Watson came forward to support another rape victim,” Smith said. “She believed her corroboration of Dr. Tyson would help Dr. Tyson and maybe remove Fairfax from a position of national prominence. She does not wish to relive the rape or subject herself any more than necessary to the smears and disparagement Fairfax and his team have already done.”
Both women say they want the Virginia General Assembly to hold public hearings into the allegations.
House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said Wednesday that he would not rule out some form of investigation by the legislature.
“We need to be truly slow and deliberate about anything we do, but I don’t think you can foreclose that [as] an option,” Cox said during a break in the floor proceedings Wednesday. “Now what form that takes — as far as an investigation, impeachment — you have to look at very carefully, but I think that’s something we’re going to have to look at and keep our options open.”
The comments by Cox served to revive discussions of impeachment, which had been snuffed out at the start of the week when Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington) backed off plans to introduce an impeachment bill targeting Fairfax after angry protests from within the Democratic caucus.
House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) on Wednesday questioned whether lawmakers are equipped to investigate the Fairfax case.
“We believe survivors and need to take this seriously, but we’re also here doing our job. Are we the body that should be investigating?” Filler-Corn said. “We’re having discussions about that, but I think we are here to do a job and that was not part of the job.”
Democrats who oppose impeachment proceedings acknowledge the legislature has subpoena power, but they say that power does not extend beyond the state’s borders, so they can’t compel someone in Boston or North Carolina to testify or produce documents. There is also a question about whether impeachment can be pursued over allegations of acts committed out of state and before Fairfax’s tenure as lieutenant governor.
Tyson, a college professor in California, earlier this month accused Fairfax of forcing her to perform oral sex after they had met at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.
The statute of limitations for sexual assault in Massachusetts is 15 years. Rollins told The Washington Post that prosecutors have more time to bring charges because the timeline paused when Fairfax left the state.
“Because of the unique circumstances, I felt compelled to come forward not only for this individual but for other survivors who might be following the case and wrestling with whether they should come forward about any sexual assault that may have happened in their lives,” Rollins said in an interview.
Several legal experts questioned whether Suffolk County prosecutors could build a case.
Deborah Tuerkheimer, a former prosecutor who has written about sexual violence, said the passage of nearly 15 years would make a probe difficult.
If the alleged assault had taken place more recently, investigators could at least try to gather some corroboration, Tuerkheimer said. For example, an acquaintance could testify to Tyson’s mood immediately after the encounter. But those kinds of investigations, Tuerkheimer said, don’t often take place in cases that appear to be on the surface impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury.
“It too rarely happens that police are willing and able to dig up that kind of evidence and put boots on the ground and work up the case,” said Tuerkheimer, a law professor at Northwestern University. “What presents as a ‘he said, she said’ often remains a ‘he said, she said.’ ”
Rollins noted local law enforcement’s ability to prosecute Catholic priests for sexual abuse long after the alleged incidents.
“We are well equipped to handle things whether they are recent or happened in the past,” she said.
Fairfax has repeatedly said he wants the FBI to conduct an independent investigation, in order to clear his name. But since no federal crime is alleged in either case, the agency would have no jurisdiction.
The allegations against Fairfax come at a politically fraught time and in an election year in which all 140 seats of the state legislature are on the ballot.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is fighting for his job after a photo of people in blackface and a Ku Klux Klan costume appeared on his 1984 medical school yearbook page, and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) admitted to wearing blackface as a 19-year-old college student dressing like a rapper. The revelations involving the three statewide officeholders all happened in the span of a week.
Some Democrats have been leery of targeting a rising African American star in the party while two white statewide officeholders accused of racist behavior appear likely to stay in office.
Tyson made her first public appearance since news of the scandal broke at a symposium Tuesday about the #MeToo movement at Stanford University, although she did not discuss her allegations.
“Speaking as a professor at a women’s college, sometimes you have to lead by example, no matter how hard it is,” said Tyson, 42.
Fairfax has resisted a cascade of calls for his resignation from state and national Democrats and faces other fallout from the allegations.
A partner at Morrison & Foerster, Fairfax has been placed on leave as the law firm conducts its own investigation. He was asked to step down from the Board of Visitors at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, and he lost most of his staff members when they resigned after the second woman came forward. He has also left his post leading the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association.
Matt Zapotosky, Neena Satija and Samantha Schmidt contributed to this report. An earlier version of this story misidentified the law school where Deborah Tuerkheimer teaches. This story has been corrected.