It was only two months ago when the state of Virginia became the hotbed of political and racial scandals that briefly turned America’s attention away from the Trump White House. Within days, Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring were found to have worn blackface in yearbook and personal photos during the 1980s. Sandwiched in between those scandals, Lt. Gov.Justin Fairfax was accused of sexually assaulting two women in the early 2000s. Dr. Vanessa Tyson has alleged that an impromptu make-out session escalated to sexual assault in a Boston hotel during the 2004 Democratic convention. Days later, Meredith Watson claimed Fairfax raped her at a fraternity party in 2000 when they were both students at Duke University. Fairfax has denied sexually assaulting either woman and insists both encounters were consensual.
The accusations came and went, Fairfax (along with Northam and Herring) were all still in office and all calls for resignations seem to have died down. But all of that was supposed to change on Wednesday.
Every year the Virginia legislature, usually in early April, has a special one-day session to vote on the governor’s vetoes and handle last-minute legislation. This is usually a boring, sleepy session where everybody just wants to vote and go back home. But Tyson and Watson seemed to be looking to turn that day into a final showdown with Fairfax with a little assist from Gayle King at CBS. Riding high off of her viral interview with repeatedly accused child molester R. Kelly, King conducted highly emotional and credible interviews with both accusers on Monday and Tuesday, respectively.
Tyson and Watson likely hoped these interviews would spur legislators to take action on Wednesday.
“She [ Dr. Vanessa Tyson] definitely wants a hearing as does Ms. Watson,” attorney Lisa Banks, who represents Tyson, said Monday in an interview. “They want an opportunity to be heard and the people of Virginia need to hear from them.”
Banks has a lot of experience representing women accusing high-profile men of sexual assault. Her firm Katz, Marshall and Banks LLC represented Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford when she testified late last year in front of the Senate that then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh attempted to sexually assault her when she was in high school.
Both Tyson and Watson have made it clear that they were not only seeking to have a public hearing to share their stories but that they wanted Fairfax to resign.
Lawrence Roberts, Fairfax’s Chief of Staff, said he believes the accusers were more interested in removing Fairfax from office than seeking justice.
“This is all about politics and all about trying to force him [Fairfax] out of office,” Roberts said. “There is no inquiry into the motives or the stories of the accusers, but his career, his personal and professional life will be inalterably damaged if there is no attempt to get at the truth.”
Both sides had their reasons to spin the accusations as the Wednesday deadline loomed. Team Fairfax claimed the women haven’t been adequately questioned, but that was not entirely true. During the CBS interview Tuesday morning, King asked Watson about her past legal and financial troubles, including accusations from an ex that she kidnapped him, and damaged his car resulting in a restraining order against her in 2008.
Tyson and Watson have claimed that Fairfax wanted to bury the sexual assault allegations against him, but that wasn’t entirely true, either. On Sunday night, Fairfax released the results of a polygraph test that found his denials of sexually assaulting both women were true. His polygraph was conducted by Jeremiah Hanafin, the former FBI agent who conducted the polygraph on Blasey-Ford before last year’s Senate hearings. Of course, dueling accusations in the media won’t get to the truth, but the hope was that accusations, interviews and public pressure would push an unwilling Virginia legislature to act.
In the end, it wasn’t enough.
Fairfax went on the offensive at the legislature on Wednesday. Giving a speech once again declaring his innocence, he said he was sending his lawyers to both Durham, North Carolina, and Boston to call for an investigation into the claims, all but challenging his accusers to take a legal route over a public one. There were no representatives from either accuser in the Virginia capital of Richmond that day. But perhaps it would not have mattered since no changes were made and no hearings were established.
Republicans had a plan for public testimony from Tyson, Watson and Fairfax weeks ago but it went nowhere in the final session because Democrats continued to balk. Were they immune to the pressure by the accusers? That was unlikely since apprehension about Fairfax remained high in some quarters of the Virginia Democratic party. A more likely scenario was that Virginia Democrats don’t believe Republicans care about sexual assault or the truth, they just want to create a televised partisan circus to embarrass Democrats before the fall elections. This was a concern of Banks, Tyson’s lawyer, heading into the legislative session.
“I want to empathize this is really not a partisan issue and it really shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Banks said. “It’s an opportunity to be heard.”
When asked if there was a point at which the process would be so partisan Tyson wouldn’t participate, Banks was clear.
“Only if one party or another said they didn’t want to participate, that would be just a partisan exercise,” Banks said. “This is not a partisan issue this is something they can hold a hearing on and they can come to an agreement on a fair way to do that. I don’t think it’s too difficult.“
Fairfax’s Chief of Staff Roberts has maintained that law enforcement should have been involved the moment the accusations came forward. The problem was that it’s almost impossible for Fairfax to call for a legal investigation into himself. Team Fairfax has seemed particularly incensed about the fact that Tyson and Watson wanted the legislature to give them a public hearing under oath even though neither accuser has gone to local law enforcement agencies to file charges.
“TV hearings with the legislature will not get the truth,” Roberts said. “Those are the tactics they want. Any criminal proceeding, any court proceeding by any impartial investigators such as the one Bob Johnson suggested they scurry away from those. But they are attracted like moths to the flame for publicity.“ (BET co-Founder Bob Johnson offered $150,000.00 to pay for an independent firm to investigate the assault accusations but both sides couldn’t come to terms.)
Now that the Virginia legislative session has passed, both sides will have to sit back and regroup. Fairfax has bought himself more time and potentially avoids political or even legal embarrassment in the coming weeks. Tyson and Watson have fewer options since the Virginia legislature is unlikely to meet again and address their accusations. If interviews with King and willing accusers weren’t enough, what is their next option?
“We’ve already been in contact with [Boston] authorities. We haven’t met with them yet because our focus is on Virginia and we have a long time before the statute of limitations expires [in July],” Banks said. “Our focus is on Virginia and the immediate concerns of the hearing. The plan is Virginia but we do plan to meet with Suffolk County attorneys.”
The situation is far from over, which, in some respects, was good for both sides. The lack of action by the legislature didn’t exonerate Fairfax, nor did it provide justice for his accusers. However, when Tyson was expected to meet with Boston authorities, it might be the first time in this entire tragic affair that both her team and Fairfax’s agreed to the same course of action.
Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of politics and journalism at Morgan State University, a contributor at MSNBC, Sirius satellite radio and politics editor at TheRoot.com.