Republican lawmakers in Virginia blame Democrats for preventing a public hearing into allegations made by two women who say Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) sexually assaulted them years ago.
In a statement Tuesday, House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said that Republicans had made several attempts to negotiate terms with Democrats over what would be an unprecedented public hearing but that the minority leader, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), “has made clear that she will not agree to a bipartisan General Assembly hearing of any nature.”
“There should be no mistake about what has happened here: the alleged victims are seeking a bipartisan hearing; Republicans are seeking a bipartisan hearing; Democrats in the House of Delegates are refusing to allow that to happen,” Cox said.
Filler-Corn, in a March 31 letter to Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle), called the allegations against Fairfax serious and noted that House Democrats have called on him to resign. But she said that the matter was best left to law enforcement professionals and that a public hearing could “easily be exploited for political purposes.”
This is an election year in Virginia, when all 140 seats in the legislature will be on the ballot. Republicans have already seized on the Fairfax allegation and two other scandals, involving Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), in arguing that voters should back Republicans.
Earlier Tuesday, Meredith Watson, one of two women who have accused Fairfax of sexual assault, urged the legislature to hold a public hearing during her first televised interview.
“I want action from the Virginia legislature,” Watson told interviewer Gayle King on “CBS This Morning.” “There is no amount of money that could ever compensate what he did to me or what I live with every day. I want the people of Virginia to know the truth, and I would like the Virginia legislature to do the right thing.”
Watson says Fairfax sexually assaulted her in 2000 when both were undergraduate students at Duke University. Her television appearance came a day after the CBS program aired an interview with Vanessa Tyson, who accused the lieutenant governor of forcing her to perform oral sex during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Fairfax says both encounters were consensual.
In a statement, Fairfax said he is a “strong proponent of the rights of women in our society — among them equal rights, reproductive rights, economic rights, the right to be heard and respected, the right to fair access to the criminal justice system, and right to be free from disrespect, harassment, and assault.”
“At the same time, I also believe that we must find a way to ensure that our justice system and even the court of public opinion provide due process and fairness both to accusers and the accused,” he said. “I, for one, stand accused of crimes that I did not commit.”
The women made their allegations public in early February when it appeared Fairfax might succeed Northam, who was considering resigning after a racist photo from his past came to light and he admitted that he wore blackface as a young man for a dance contest.
Through his aides, Fairfax, a 40-year-old lawyer, said he voluntarily took and passed two polygraph tests that prove the allegations are false.
Both women want the legislature to hold a public hearing in which they and Fairfax would testify under oath. Republican lawmakers said in late February they would invite the women to testify, but Democrats and Fairfax have resisted the idea. Cox said they tried again in March but could not reach agreement with Democrats.
Lawmakers return to Richmond on Wednesday for a one-day session to finish legislative work.
Watson, a Maryland resident, said in the interview that she went public with her story after Tyson came forward, in a show of solidarity.
“It happened to her after it happened to me,” Watson said, fighting tears. “Had I had the strength or courage to say something in 2000, maybe it never would have happened to her. . . . Nobody should have to go through this. And I feel awful. I feel awful.”
Watson said she was “very good friends” with Fairfax at Duke.
She said Fairfax invited her to hang out in his room but then locked the door and turned off the light before advancing on her while she was on a couch.
“He did things that you shouldn’t do to someone without their permission, and I tried several times to get up and leave and was pushed back down,” Watson said. “He forcibly sexually assaulted and raped me.”
Watson pushed back on Fairfax’s contention that the encounter was consensual.
“If you have to hold someone down, it’s not consensual,” she said.
Watson said she told two of her closest friends at the time that Fairfax assaulted her.
A former Duke student told The Washington Post that Watson described an assault in the spring of 2000 and named Fairfax. Watson’s attorney also provided a 2016 email exchange in which Watson declined an invitation to a Fairfax campaign fundraiser from a friend from Duke, saying he raped her in college.
There is no statute of limitations for felony sexual assault in North Carolina. The Durham district attorney, Satana Deberry, reached out to Watson’s attorney in February, but Watson’s team has said she is not interested in filing a criminal complaint.
“She has no interest in becoming a media personality or reliving the trauma that has greatly affected her life,” Nancy Erika Smith, Watson’s attorney, said in a February statement.
Fairfax has invoked race while defending against the assault allegations, likening himself to lynching victims at times. Watson and Tyson are black.
Watson said she felt some pressure to keep quiet, so as not to damage the reputation of a black public figure.
“You are seen as betraying your race. You are seen as betraying black men,” Watson said. “But there’s no recognition that a black man has betrayed you.”