The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Justin Fairfax keeps talking about the sex assault claims against him

Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) presides over the state Senate in July. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — The world was crashing down around Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. One woman had accused him of sexual assault, and five days later a second sent a letter suggesting she'd go public with her own allegation unless he resigned.

Fairfax’s first move, just minutes after his lawyers alerted him to the letter, was to call a friend in another state. They exchanged six phone calls that day before the allegation became public, according to phone records Fairfax provided recently to The Washington Post.

Fairfax (D) may have been looking for moral support from the friend, who had been a fraternity brother at Duke University and a groomsman at Fairfax’s wedding. But he says he was seeking something else: a witness who could clear him.

In the year since, the friend has never come forward, despite Fairfax’s increasingly vociferous efforts to draw him out. And Fairfax has been stuck in an excruciating state of limbo, neither convicted nor cleared of an offense that, while disqualifying in any era, would be especially toxic in the time of #MeToo.

As lieutenant governor, a part-time job that pays $36,000 a year, Fairfax still broke ties in the state Senate during the recent legislative session. He made public appearances throughout Virginia until the coronavirus pandemic hit, then shifted to conference calls with faith leaders and others struggling with the crisis. He plans to run for governor next year. But he lost his job as a partner at the law firm Morrison & Foerster and has not found new work in the private sector.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) have largely recovered from their own scandals, which involved the long-ago use of blackface and erupted the same week that claims against Fairfax became public. Only Fairfax keeps urging Virginia not to move on.

Even as the pandemic descended on the state, he stayed focused on the allegations against him, using his personal Twitter account to urge his friend to come forward and clear his name. Fairfax has also tweeted pointedly and repeatedly at lawyers for his accusers, pressed law enforcement in two states to investigate, taken a lie-detector test and brought a lawsuit against CBS over its reporting on the allegations. The lawsuit has since been thrown out.

“Everyone’s saying, ‘Why is he still talking about it?’ ” Fairfax, a 41-year-old former federal prosecutor, said in a recent interview. “People are exonerated all the time in our justice system. They’re not exonerated because they’ve been quiet.”

Lawyer for Fairfax says witness will corroborate that sexual encounter was consensual

Duke classmate Meredith Watson accused Fairfax of raping her on campus in 2000. Her lawyer, Nancy Erika Smith, has never directly answered questions about whether someone else was in the room during the alleged assault. She declined to do so for this report. “Ms. Watson continues to call for a public hearing in which all parties testify under oath about Fairfax’s rape,” Smith said, referring to a legislative hearing that Republicans pitched last year but Democrats rebuffed as political theater. “Fairfax prefers to do whatever possible to avoid that and would rather continue these despicable distractions.”

Watson and Vanessa Tyson say Fairfax sexually assaulted them in separate incidents in the early 2000s. They came forward in February 2019, at a moment when Fairfax seemed poised to take over for Northam because of the governor’s blackface scandal.

Tyson said Fairfax assaulted her at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. The claim was largely greeted with silence. But when Watson came forward days later, calls for his resignation were deafening.

Fairfax insists both encounters were consensual. He has personal and political motives for wanting to clear his name, with the June 2021 Democratic gubernatorial primary just 15 months away. But Fairfax says he is largely driven to prove a fundamental point: that allegation is not conviction.

“It’s really outrageous, the lack of due process, the lack of investigation,” he said.

Before the scandal, Fairfax was widely viewed as a front-runner to succeed Northam, who is barred by law from serving back-to-back terms. His decision to press ahead in what could be an unusually crowded primary gives some Democrats heartburn.

“Let’s say it’s five people. All you need is 21 percent,” said one Democratic lawmaker who spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss the risk posed to the party. “I always think about the headline: ‘Democrats nominate alleged rapist for governor.’ ”

Relaxed and reflective, Northam considers scandal-charged year

As he’s disputed Tyson’s claims, Fairfax has alleged that Thad Williamson — a former adviser to Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D), a potential gubernatorial rival — encouraged Tyson to come forward. Stoney denies any involvement. Williamson, through his lawyer, said he only wanted to “support a friend in crisis.”

In Watson’s case, Fairfax’s defense has largely focused on the friend who the lieutenant governor says was in the room.

Fairfax recently shared his personal cellphone records with The Post, showing a flurry of calls between him and the friend on Feb. 8, 2019, and for weeks after.

A Fairfax adviser referred to the friend by name in an email to Fairfax and others that was sent just minutes after Watson went public with her allegation, according to a copy obtained by The Post.

“Justin, will [the friend] go on the record?” it said. “. . . if he will go on the record and deny the allegation it may be worth it.”

Fairfax put out a statement that day saying Watson’s claim was “demonstrably false” — a reference to the friend he says could be a witness, he later explained, although he would not elaborate at the time.

The Post is not identifying the friend, because he did not return repeated calls and emails and The Post could not independently confirm he is a witness.

Watson made no mention of a third person in her only detailed account of the alleged assault, an interview with CBS’s Gayle King in April 2019. It was months later that Fairfax publicly claimed there was a witness, in a letter urging the district attorney in Durham, N.C., to investigate. Smith has declined to comment on that claim or to make Watson available for an interview — a point that Fairfax says is telling.

“This is not a ‘no comment’ moment,” he said.

Having failed to coax his friend to come forward, Fairfax has tried to force him out. He sought to have him questioned in a criminal investigation, but the district attorney has given no indication such a probe is underway. Fairfax also tried to have his friend subpoenaed in his unsuccessful lawsuit against CBS. Fairfax’s habit of publicly invoking and disputing the allegations has critics accusing him of “bullying” his alleged victims. Even some allies think he should move on. But some analysts say he has little choice but to keep doing what he is doing.

“There’s no easy way out of this for him,” said Richmond political analyst Bob Holsworth. “It’s going to be extraordinarily difficult for him to prove he’s innocent and wipe away all of the doubts that many people certainly have in their minds about this. Because it’s going to be in the back of everybody’s mind, his decision to speak about it, to bring it up, to explain why he thinks he’s innocent, is probably the best approach to a very challenging situation.”

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Judge dismisses Fairfax’s defamation suit over CBS interviews on sexual assault claims

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