Virginia lawmaker backs off plan to impeach Lt. Gov. Fairfax

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — UPDATE (12:35 p.m.):

Virginia Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax says he has been able to focus on his official duties despite sexual assault allegations against him by two women.

Fairfax reiterated his denials of the allegations in two new interviews published Monday.

Fairfax told The Washington Post that he doesn't plan to resign. He said he attended church with his wife on Sunday in Alexandria and received an "outpouring of support."

He told The Root that he's been able to continue his duties presiding over the Virginia Senate despite the allegations. He said, in fact, that "being able to focus on my official duties has actually helped."

He also says he respects his accusers' rights to be heard, but that he deserves due process.

A Democratic lawmaker had planned to begin impeachment proceedings against Fairfax on Monday but abandoned that effort.

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A Virginia lawmaker on Monday backed off his plans to swiftly introduce an impeachment bill seeking the ouster of the state's leading black elected official as Democrats struggled to address revelations of past racist behavior and allegations of sexual assault roiling its highest levels of office.

The effort to impeach Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was prompted by the emergence of two women who accused him of sexual assault in the 2000s. Fairfax has vehemently denied the claims and called for authorities, including the FBI, to investigate.

Democratic Del. Patrick Hope tweeted early Monday that he got "an enormous amount of sincere and thoughtful feedback" from colleagues after circulating a draft of his impeachment bill, and that he sees that "additional conversations ... need to take place before anything is filed."

There's been little sign of broad appetite for impeachment, with lawmakers set to finish this year's session by the month's end. But the Legislature is swirling with questions about lines of succession and the political fallout for Democrats should their governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general leave office, willingly or not.

Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring are still trying to regain their political standing after awkwardly acknowledging that they each once wore blackface as young men in the 1980s . Calls for Northam's resignation raised the prospect of Fairfax taking over, which prompted his accusers to come forward.

All three scandals involve events that happened long before these leaders took office, but they've become a full-blown crisis for Democrats. The party counts on the support of black voters and has taken an almost zero-tolerance approach to sexual misconduct in the #MeToo era. A housecleaning could be costly: If all three resign, Republican state House Speaker Kirk Cox would become Virginia's governor.

In an interview broadcast Monday, Northam provided a more complete explanation of his statements that set off this whole crisis following the discovery of a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook. Northam initially said he was in the photo of a person wearing blackface next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe; then he denied it, while saying he did wear blackface to a dance party that same year.

Northam told "CBS This Morning" that he overreacted and mistakenly took responsibility for the picture because had never seen the image before, even though it was on his yearbook page.

"When you're in a state of shock like I was, we don't always think as clearly as we should," said Northam, who worked for years as a pediatric neurologist before entering politics.

But "when I stepped back and looked at it, I just said I know it's not me in the Klan outfit. And I started looking in the picture of the individual with blackface. I said that's not me either," he said.

His first lesson from all this, Northam said, was to understand what it means to be "born in white privilege."

"I have also learned why the use of blackface is so offensive, and yes, I knew it in the past. But reality has really set in," Northam said. "I've still got a lot to learn but this has been a week that has been very eye-opening for me."

Northam also charted a path forward, saying he would dedicate the rest of his tenure to policies aimed at helping his black constituents.

"I really believe that things happen for a reason," he said. "I will focus on race and equity. That's something that, for the next three years, is going to be my commitment to Virginia. And I really think we can make impactful changes."

Political considerations will be key to what comes next. Virginia is among a handful of states electing lawmakers this year, and Democrats had hoped to flip the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

It's possible that lawmakers will launch some sort of investigation of Fairfax, even if impeachment isn't immediately in the cards. Meredith Watson and Vanessa Tyson have accused him of sexual assault and offered to testify.

The Associated Press generally does not name people who say they are victims of sexual assault, but both women have come forward voluntarily.

Watson alleges Fairfax raped her while they were students at Duke University in 2000, her attorney said in a statement. Tyson, a California college professor, accused Fairfax of forcing her to perform oral sex on him at a Boston hotel in 2004.

Fairfax denies ever sexually assaulting anyone. He has made clear that he does not intend to immediately step down, and has urged authorities to investigate.

"Frankly, we really want any entity with comprehensive investigative power to thoroughly look into these accusations," Fairfax spokeswoman Lauren Burke said. "There needs to be verification of basic facts about these allegations. It feels like something bigger is going on here."

Some political observers noted that the threshold to start an impeachment process is remarkably high in the House of Delegates. The lawmakers are set to leave town before February ends, and have limited time and resources to immediately take on the complicated issue.

Still, "a clear sign of the depth of LG Fairfax's political crisis is the near-absence of voices in Virginia politics this weekend publicly urging him to remain in office," University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth said in an email.

If the Legislature is in session, the House would need a simple majority to vote to impeach Fairfax, said A.E. Dick Howard, a University of Virginia law professor. The Senate would then review evidence and hear testimony. That chamber would need a two-thirds vote to convict among senators who are present.

Another possibility: Fairfax simply hangs on as he disputes the allegations.

"Before Donald Trump, I would say with this kind of stuff, it's impossible for a person to just hang on, put their head down and ignore it," said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University. "Post-Donald Trump, I think what elected officials are willing to do has changed in some ways. So can he hang on? Certainly he can hang on."

If Fairfax were to leave, it's unclear who could replace him. Northam may try to appoint a Democrat, while Republicans could mount a legal challenge with the goal of getting Senate Pro Tem Steve Newman to serve as both a voting senator and temporary lieutenant governor.

The attorney general's future also remains in question. Herring, who would become governor if both Northam and Fairfax leave office, initially made a forceful call for Northam to step down, but then he too acknowledged wearing blackface at a party in 1980. Herring has apologized but has not indicated he would resign.

Asked for his opinion on his subordinates, Northam told CBS it's up to them to decide whether they want to stay. He said he supports Fairfax's call for an investigation into the sexual assault allegations. Of Herring, he said that "just like me, he has grown."

Read the lieutenant governor’s full statement below:

“I deny this latest unsubstantiated allegation. It is demonstrably false. I have never forced myself on anyone ever.

I demand a full investigation into these unsubstantiated and false allegations. Such an investigation will confirm my account because I am telling the truth.

I will clear my good name and I have nothing to hide. I have passed two full field background checks by the FBI and run for office in two highly contested elections with nothing like this being raised before.

It is obvious that a vicious and coordinated smear campaign is being orchestrated against me.

I will not resign.”

Read full statement from Meredith Watson below:

"We serve as counsel for Meredith Watson, who was raped by Justin Fairfax in 2000, while they were both students at Duke University. Mr. Fairfax’s attack was premeditated and aggressive. The two were friends but never dated or had any romantic relationship.

Ms. Watson shared her account of the rape with friends in a series of emails and Facebook messages that are now in our possession. Additionally, we have statements from former classmates corroborating that Ms. Watson immediately told friends that Mr. Fairfax had raped her.

Ms. Watson was upset to learn that Mr. Fairfax raped at least one other woman after he attacked her. The details of Ms. Watson’s attack are similar to those described by Dr. Vanessa Tyson.

At this time, Ms. Watson is reluctantly coming forward out of a strong sense of civic duty and her belief that those seeking or serving in public office should be of the highest character. She has no interest in becoming a media personality or reliving the trauma that has greatly affected her life. Similarly, she is not seeking any financial damages.

On behalf of our client, we have notified Justin Fairfax through his attorneys that Ms. Watson hopes he will resign from public office."

Read the lieutenant governor’s second full statement below:

"This has been a devastating week for my family. It has been an especially devastating time for the great Commonwealth of Virginia.

I say again without reservation: I did not sexually assault or rape Meredith Watson, Vanessa Tyson or anyone else.

Our American values don’t just work when it’s convenient — they must be applied at the most difficult of times.

As an officer of the court and a former federal prosecutor, I have dedicated my life to the law and due process.

Consequently, I call on all appropriate and impartial investigatory authorities, including the FBI, to investigate fully and thoroughly the allegations against me by Ms. Watson and Dr. Tyson.

I ask that all three of us be respected during this process. The one thing I want to make abundantly clear is that in both situations I knew at the time, and I know today, that the interactions were consensual.

I heard from Dr. Tyson after the 2004 Convention, and she never said or otherwise indicated that our interaction was not consensual or caused her any discomfort.

Regarding Ms. Watson, I knew Ms. Watson in college both before and after the encounter, and she never said to me that our interaction was not consensual or caused her any discomfort.

What I have just expressed is the truth. I want to stand here in that truth and restate that my truth, as well as the truth of Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson, should be fully investigated and thoroughly assessed.

I believe and trust that due process will provide the fairness, justice and honesty that is necessary.

I am asking that no one rush to judgment and I am asking for there to be space in this moment for due process."

Read full statement from Meredith Watson’s attorney below:

"Justin Fairfax’s latest statement re-victimizes Ms. Watson and Dr. Tyson. He claims that two women, who never spoke or met each other, but who describe very similar sexual assaults, are lying. Fairfax says both women’s claims are “unsubstantiated.” False - they corroborate each other.

Fairfax, now, for the first time admits sexual contact with Ms. Watson, but now claims that it was “consensual.” There was nothing consensual about the rape of Ms. Watson and the only post rape interaction between them consisted of Ms. Watson confronting Mr. Fairfax about the assault. We will provide at least two witnesses whom Ms. Watson told of the assault the day after Fairfax raped her. We will also produce documentary evidence of Ms. Watson revealing to others the fact that Fairfax raped her. Fairfax says he “passed” two FBI background checks. Ms. Watson was never interviewed by the FBI, so he was “cleared” of nothing related to his rape of Ms. Watson.

Mr. Fairfax claims to want due process, saying he seeks an FBI investigation. But he knows as a former Prosecutor, that the FBI has no jurisdiction over this matter. Indeed, my client may contact North Carolina authorities about a possible criminal prosecution.

For real due process, not hidden from the public, we invite Mr. Fairfax to join Ms. Watson and her witnesses in testifying at an impeachment hearing. Ms. Watson stands ready, although it will be painful, to tell the Virginia Legislature what Mr. Fairfax did to her when she was 20 years old."

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Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia. Contributing to this report were Associated Press reporters Steve Helber in Chilhowie, Virginia; David McFadden in Baltimore; and Julie Pace and Michael Biesecker in Washington.