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Va. Democrat backs off plan for impeachment proceedings against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax

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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A Virginia Democrat on Monday backed off plans to introduce an impeachment bill targeting Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), saying “additional conversations” are needed.

Virginia Democratic lawmakers began circulating a draft resolution Sunday to begin impeachment proceedings against Fairfax over allegations of sexual assault that have been leveled against him by two ­women.

Fairfax has fended off calls from the state Democratic Party and some state and national lawmakers to resign after Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson publicly came forward last week to accuse him of sexual assault.

Shortly after Watson came forward Friday, Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington) said he would introduce articles of impeachment if Fairfax did not resign by the end of the weekend. Hope tweeted Monday that he believes the allegations from Tyson and Watson, but said he’s backing away from a draft of a resolution that would initiate impeachment proceedings.

Plagued by scandals, Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring – all Democrats – are facing calls to resign. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

“There has been an enormous amount of sincere and thoughtful feedback which has led to additional conversations that need to take place before anything is filed,” Hope tweeted Monday.

“We owe it to all parties involved — especially the victims — to make sure that we have thought through every option the General Assembly has. That’s what these conversations are for — so we can build more consensus on a path forward.”

Hope backed down from the impeachment resolution during a late Sunday conference call of House Democrats, according to two lawmakers who were on the call who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. They said legislators raised concerns, including whether the House could conduct an investigation, whether offenses predating public service in different states are grounds for impeachment and whether it was unfair to target Fairfax for impeachment without doing so for Northam and Herring.

Tyson accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in 2004, at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Watson on Friday accused Fairfax of assaulting her in 2000, while they were students at Duke University.

Fairfax says the encounters were consensual and has blasted the allegations as part of a smear campaign against him. He has said repeatedly that he will not step down and wants the FBI or others to investigate the accusations.

Hope emailed a draft of the resolution to his Democratic colleagues for review Sunday afternoon. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the email and resolution.

“Whereas the House of Delegates believes all allegations of sexual assault must be taken with the utmost seriousness; and whereas the House of Delegates believes the allegations made by Dr. Vanessa Tyson and Ms. Meredith Watson to be credible in nature, while also respecting the principles of due process; now, therefore, be it resolved by the House of Delegates that proceedings for the impeachment of Lieutenant Governor Justin E. Fairfax shall be initiated,” the draft resolution says.

Democrats grapple with Fairfax allegations in #MeToo era

A spokeswoman for Fairfax said Sunday he was opposed to the impeachment process and wants an independent investigation.

“The Lt. Governor is aggressively exploring options for a thorough, independent, and impartial investigation of these allegations,” spokeswoman Lauren Burke said in a statement.

“We hope, for example, that the FBI will show a willingness to investigate,” Burke said. “It is especially important in the most difficult of times that we pay attention to our fundamental Constitutional values. He believes that an inherently political process is not the most likely path for learning the truth. The Lt. Governor is confident in the truth that will emerge from an independent impartial investigation.”

It was unclear how much support there was for an impeachment effort in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Aides to House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax County), who have both urged Fairfax to resign, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle), who chairs the Courts Committee, also did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Committee member Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) said there are serious questions about the House’s ability to conduct an investigation into the allegations, including whether it could compel witnesses to testify and subpoena documents.

“There are process questions,” Simon said. “Whether this is the right move or not politically, we have to figure out whether we are doing this right or not.”

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (Fairfax), leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus, which demanded Fairfax’s resignation, said he opposes attempts to impeach the lieutenant governor and does not expect them to gain traction.

“Impeachment implies high crimes and misdemeanors while you are in office, that’s what it’s for,” Saslaw said in a brief interview, noting that the accusations against Fairfax are for actions that allegedly occurred before he was elected.

The Senate Republican leadership previously called on law enforcement to investigate the allegations against Fairfax; a spokesman for Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) declined to comment Sunday on impeachment. Norment was the center of controversy himself last week when he acknowledged that he was an editor of a 1968 yearbook that featured racial slurs and photos of students in blackface. He said he was not responsible for the content.

[Vanessa Tyson spoke out on sexual assault long before she accused Fairfax]

The Virginia constitution says that “offending against the Commonwealth by malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor” is grounds for impeachment. It vests the House of Delegates with the power to impeach with a simple majority vote and the state Senate with the power to prosecute elected officials and remove them from office with a vote of two-thirds of the senators ­present.

A.E. Dick Howard, the University of Virginia Law School professor who led the commission that wrote the current version of the state constitution in 1971, said there is disagreement about whether conduct unrelated to an elected office can be grounds for impeachment.

“There are competing interpretations, but I really don’t think it’s open-ended, and I think it’s difficult to argue anything that casts disrepute on the office would be an impeachable offense,” Howard said Sunday. “That would make the impeachment process another tool of political combat.”

An attempt to impeach Fairfax appears unprecedented; there has been no attempt to impeach an elected official in the state in modern times that Howard and political observers could recall.

Tyson and Watson, who have separate legal representation, have indicated through their lawyers that they are willing to testify during impeachment proceedings.

Tyson, a California professor, says Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him after they met at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Watson, who lives in Maryland, says Fairfax sexually assaulted her when they were both undergraduate students at Duke University. Neither reported the alleged assaults to law enforcement.

Some high-profile Virginia Democrats, including Gov. Ralph Northam, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, say Fairfax should step down if the allegations are proven true, stopping short of an outright call for resignation.

Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) are embroiled in separate controversies after having admitted to wearing blackface in the 1980s, but neither faces the threat of impeachment. That has created another uncomfortable dynamic for Democrats as they ponder whether to force out Fairfax, a rising African American star in their party, while white men accused of racism stay in office.

As the part-time lieutenant governor, Fairfax presides over the state Senate during the legislative session and can cast tie-breaking votes.

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