The turmoil in Virginia politics grew even messier Monday when, just three days after a racist photo from the governor’s medical school yearbook was unearthed, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax suggested publicly that supporters of Gov. Ralph Northam in some way orchestrated the publication of a sexual assault allegation against him in an effort to prevent the governor from being replaced.
“Does anybody think it’s any coincidence that on the eve of potentially my being elevated that that’s when this uncorroborated smear comes out?” Fairfax, who is first in line to become governor, told reporters when asked about Northam’s potential involvement, according to the New York Times.*
The sexual assault accusation was first made public Sunday, when the right-wing site Big League Politics—which first published the racist yearbook photo—published a screenshot of a recent private Facebook post. In it, the woman accused a state-level politician of assaulting her at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Other identifying information in her post—that her assailant was a former campaign staffer who won election on the East Coast in 2017 and is now expecting a “very big promotion”—pointed directly to Fairfax.
On Monday, Fairfax confirmed in a statement that he was the target of the accusation, but he denied it. He said the woman had approached the Washington Post with the claim more than a year ago. “The Post carefully investigated the claim for several months,” his chief of staff and communications director said in the statement. He continued:
After being presented with facts consistent with the Lt. Governor’s denial of the allegation, the absence of any evidence corroborating the allegation, and significant red flags and inconsistencies within the allegation, the Post made the considered decision not to publish the story.
Tellingly, not one other reputable media outlet has seen fit to air this false claim. Only now, at a time of intense media attention surrounding Virginia politics, has this false claim been raised again.
According to the story the accuser told the Washington Post in 2017, she and Fairfax met at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. One afternoon, Fairfax, who was not married at the time, asked her to walk with him to his hotel room to retrieve some papers, and the two began kissing. Then, according to the Post, the encounter took a turn:
She said Fairfax guided her to the bed, where they continued kissing, and then at one point she realized she could not move her neck. She said Fairfax used his strength to force her to perform oral sex.
The Washington Post pushed back on Fairfax’s characterization of its research, however, in explaining why it decided not to run the story at the time:
Fairfax and the woman told different versions of what happened in the hotel room with no one else present. The Washington Post could not find anyone who could corroborate either version. The Post did not find “significant red flags and inconsistencies within the allegations,” as the Fairfax statement incorrectly said.
The Washington Post, in phone calls to people who knew Fairfax from college, law school and through political circles, found no similar complaints of sexual misconduct against him. Without that, or the ability to corroborate the woman’s account — in part because she had not told anyone what happened — The Washington Post did not run a story.
In his impromptu press conference Monday, Fairfax reiterated to reporters that the encounter had been consensual and said that the woman had called him afterward and said she wanted him to meet her mother. He said that he did not remember ever meeting up with her again and had no proof of any conversations between them.
Responding to Fairfax’s suggestion that the accusation was a politically motivated attack by Northam’s supporters, an adviser for the governor told the New York Times that Northam’s people couldn’t carry out such complicated mudslinging even if they wanted to, as they were too busy dealing with the political fallout from the yearbook photo. While Fairfax and Northam belong to the same party, Fairfax ran separately from Northam in the primaries, as the Times pointed out, and Northam did not choose Fairfax as his running mate.
Northam originally apologized for the appearance of the photo—which showed a man in blackface standing with a man in a KKK robe—on his yearbook page, but later, in a bizarre press conference, he said he was neither of those men but that he did darken his face once for a Michael Jackson costume.
Correction, Feb. 5, 2019: This post originally misstated that Fairfax is second in line to become governor. He is first in line.