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Lt. Gov. Fairfax files $400 million defamation suit against CBS in reporting on sexual assault claims

Virginia's Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax told reporters Feb. 8 he’s “confident in the truth” after being accused of sexual assaulting a woman in 2004. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax filed a $400 million defamation lawsuit Thursday against CBS, saying the network recklessly disregarded the truth and hyped what the Democrat says are false sexual assault allegations against him.

Two women alleged in early February that Fairfax had sexually assaulted them in separate incidents in the early 2000s. One was a classmate at Duke University and the other a woman who met Fairfax at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Fairfax insisted that both encounters were consensual.

Lawyer for Virginia Lt. Gov. Fairfax says witness will corroborate that sexual encounter was consensual

Both women gave interviews to Gayle King that aired on CBS This Morning in early April. The suit, filed in federal court in Alexandria, claims that CBS failed to “follow up on leads that would demonstrate the allegations to be false.”

Vanessa Tyson, one of two women accusing Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) of sexual assault in 2004, demanded his resignation during an interview April 1. (Video: Reuters)

One of those concerns Fairfax’s claim that a witness was present at Fairfax’s sexual encounter with Meredith Watson at Duke University in 2000 and could corroborate that it was consensual.

Fairfax’s lawyer went public with that claim only in July, and a spokesman for Watson’s attorney declined to respond to it at that time.

The lawsuit contends that CBS could or should have known about the possibility of a witness before it aired Watson’s interview.

The suit says that a top CBS attorney was a Duke classmate who had dated Watson a year before the alleged assault and remains a friend of both Fairfax and the witness. It claims that the lawyer, though not present, had been told about the sexual encounter by Fairfax and the witness, and believed it to have been consensual.

Va. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax departs law firm; was on leave amid sexual assault allegations

The suit says that Fairfax and the lawyer “exchanged numerous text messages and had several conversations since Watson went public with her false accusation against Fairfax in February 2019. Most of these communications occurred before the April 2019 interviews were aired by the [lawyer’s] employer and client, CBS.”

It continues, “In all their conversations, Fairfax and the [lawyer] knew from both Fairfax and the eyewitness that the eyewitness was in the room throughout the encounter and that the encounter between Fairfax and Watson was completely consensual.”

The complaint did not identify the CBS lawyer.

The suit says the lawyer did not take steps to try to prevent airing Watson’s interview or was unable to do so, “despite this knowledge from the eyewitness and from Fairfax that Watson’s story was false and that there was an eyewitness corroborating that Watson’s story was false.”

The document includes a copy of text messages between a Fairfax spokeswoman and King, with the spokeswoman urging the broadcaster to ask Watson if she saw “anyone else on your way in or out” of the dorm room. King did not ask the question, at least in the portions of the interview aired.

CBS News released a statement: “We stand by our reporting and we will vigorously defend this lawsuit.”

In response to the suit, Watson attorney Nancy Erika Smith said, “We look forward to everyone testifying under oath, now that this matter is in court.”

The lawsuit also takes issue with how CBS handled allegations raised by the other accuser, Vanessa Tyson, who said Fairfax assaulted her after they met at the Democratic convention.

Tyson has said the alleged assault occurred after she accompanied Fairfax to his hotel room on the premise that he needed to pick up some papers. She said that they consensually kissed but that eventually he forced her perform oral sex.

The suit says that King failed to challenge Tyson on what Fairfax says are discrepancies between her written account of the alleged assault and how she described it to the journalist on TV.

Tyson’s attorneys, Debra S. Katz and Lisa J. Banks, called Fairfax’s suit “yet another desperate stunt by Mr. Fairfax to preserve his political career at the expense of survivors of sexual assault.” And they say Tyson’s written account was consistent with her televised interview.

A former federal prosecutor, Fairfax had been widely viewed as a rising Democratic star and likely contender for governor in 2021 before the allegations arose in February.

In the suit, Fairfax concedes that the scandal has taken a tremendous toll on him personally, professionally and politically. In July, Fairfax resigned as a partner at the law firm Morrison & Foerster, where he was placed on leave this year after the allegations were made public.

“CBS’ actions have exposed millions of people to lies that have done extraordinary damage to his reputation and his ability to earn a living,” the suit says. “His once-promising career — a lawyer at top firms, former federal prosecutor, Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, candidate for Governor of Virginia for 2021 — has been severely damaged.”

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