Federal investigators are probing the origin of twin allegations against then-Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, according to five sources who’ve been interviewed by the FBI.
In February 2019, Fairfax was accused of sexual assault by two women the same week that the state’s governor, Ralph Northam, was in the press for a yearbook photo possibly showing him in blackface or in a Klan outfit. The allegations against Fairfax came at a crucial and chaotic moment, when Northam was being pressured to resign, and political power looked up for grabs. Ultimately, the series of events that unfolded cleared the way for Terry McAuliffe to run for Virginia governor in 2021, a race he lost to current Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
Fairfax has vehemently disputed the allegations since the beginning, calling for a criminal investigation soon after they became public. In late 2019, he filed a defamation lawsuit against CBS News for their interviews with the two alleged victims, Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson. In it, Fairfax makes the case that the allegations against him have several inconsistencies and accuses his political rivals of trying to orchestrate the wide dissemination of the womens’ stories.
I’ve served both as a federal prosecutor & a defense attorney. I’ve passed two @FBI background checks & received a Top Secret security clearance.
— Justin Fairfax (@FairfaxJustin) April 16, 2020
The women have also stood by their stories, which have not been definitively disproved. Fairfax’s defamation suit was ultimately dismissed by a judge, but the FBI, tasked with investigating public corruption, is now investigating some of the same material.
Fairfax told The Intercept that he was interviewed in early June for nearly three hours with no attorney present. According to Fairfax and the four other sources, who requested anonymity to speak openly about an ongoing investigation, the FBI is asking questions about whether money or other benefits were offered to either of the women around the time of the allegations and whether their accounts were inconsistent. Investigators, the sources said, including Fairfax, are showing a particular interest in the role of Richmond, Virginia, Mayor Levar Stoney’s political network in the dissemination of the allegations. Stoney has close links to McAuliffe.
Stoney and Fairfax have long been political rivals, and it was widely known that both McAuliffe and Stoney were contemplating future runs for governor, with McAuliffe in particular eyeing a second run for governor in 2021. Virginia limits governors to a single term, which makes the lieutenant governor the frontrunner for the nomination the day of their swearing in. Had Fairfax ascended to governor in 2019, replacing Northam, he would have been the prohibitive favorite for the nomination in 2021, cutting out McAuliffe and Stoney.
A spokesperson for McAuliffe, Jake Rubenstein, said that McAuliffe, who was considering a presidential run at the time, was not contemplating a bid for governor. “The Governor has no knowledge of anything to do with this matter. Period,” said Rubenstein.
Asked about the FBI investigation, Stoney spokesperson Kevin Zeithaml said the mayor was not aware of the allegations against Fairfax before they were made public. “Mayor Stoney had never heard of the sexual assault allegations against Justin Fairfax until the story broke in the news in February 2019.” In response to Fairfax’s claims, Zeithaml added, “As the mayor has said repeatedly, there is absolutely no truth whatsoever to this ridiculous accusation against him.”
Adria Scharf — the wife of Thad Williamson, a former top adviser to Stoney and a longtime associate of Vanessa Tyson — reached out to Tyson after she made her allegation. “Friend,” she wrote on Facebook messenger to Tyson, “northam may be forced to resign tomorrow. Thad and I think your story should get to the local press TODAY, rather than later. Do you want me to share screen shot and your contact info (tell me what to share) with a few local respected journalists.…or alternatively give you their info? Hugs. You are pure truth love and courage.” The screenshots were turned over to Fairfax — and subsequently to the FBI — by Tyson’s attorney, Debra Katz.
Tyson wrote back, “You can share the screenshot with whomever.” An attorney representing Scharf and Williamson denied that the offer to disseminate Tyson’s allegations was politically motivated, and also stated that the couple has not been contacted by the FBI.
Screenshots: Obtained by The Intercept
In the suit, Fairfax also claims he had previously been warned in October 2018 that if Fairfax moved to run for governor, Stoney, adviser Thad Williamson, and his wife, Adria Scharf “intended to promote a supposedly damaging, uncorroborated accusation against Fairfax involving Tyson in an attempt to harm Fairfax personally and professionally and to derail his political future,” according to the filing. Fairfax said a City Hall employee relayed the warning in a phone call on October 4 and provided the corroborating phone records to The Intercept and to the FBI. The call began at 12:21 p.m., according to the phone records, and lasted for 29 minutes. (The employee, who still uses the number in the records, flatly denied speaking to Fairfax.)
Nancy Erika Smith, an attorney for Meredith Watson, said that she had not heard from the FBI.
“If it is true that the FBI is actually investigating two victims of Justin Fairfax, shame on the FBI,” she said in a statement. “This latest abuse is obviously at the urging of Fairfax and his political benefactors and PR team. I remind them all that Martha Stewart went to prison for lying to the FBI. It is a federal crime. Anyone who says my client concocted a story about Fairfax in 2019, or got paid to reveal her statement that she was raped by Justin Fairfax when they were students at Duke, is a liar. Fairfax’s defamation suit against CBS over the Gayle King interview of my client was dismissed. His constant harassment of my client is disgusting. Numerous people have corroborated Ms. Watson’s fresh complaints of rape immediately afterward and over the years. In fact, several newspapers printed an email she sent to Duke alumni before Fairfax was Lt. Governor. Enough is enough.”
The Accusations and the Aftermath
On February 1, 2019 — the first day of Black History Month — a conservative news outlet published a page from Northam’s medical school yearbook dedicated to him; it showed a few photos of Northam and one of a man wearing a Klan outfit standing next to another man in blackface. The men in the photos aren’t identifiable, but one of them was purported to be Northam. The governor quickly apologized for the photo, and party figures at both the national and local level called for his resignation, which was widely expected.
That night, Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor of politics at Scripps College, posted an allegation on Facebook that Fairfax — the state’s lieutenant governor, now in line to become governor — had forced her to perform oral sex in his hotel room at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Some reporters, it turned out, were already aware of the allegation, as she had made a version of it to the Washington Post in fall 2017.
The next day, a Saturday, Northam backtracked, saying that he didn’t remember being in the photo and suggesting instead that it may have been added to his yearbook page by mistake. He remained under intense pressure after a bizarre press conference that included an apparent aborted attempt at a moonwalk and an admission to having worn blackface in order to impersonate Michael Jackson.
It was during this weekend that Scharf, Williamson’s wife, told Tyson that she and Williamson wanted to circulate her allegation to local journalists. On Sunday night, the same conservative outlet that published the blackface and Klan photo ran an item on Tyson’s allegation, citing the Facebook post. On Monday morning, Fairfax issued a public denial of Tyson’s allegation as pressure on Northam to step down continued.
The Post used the denial as a hook to run their own story, leading with Fairfax’s statement, laying out Tyson’s allegation, and explaining why the paper hadn’t published previously. “The 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 Post did not run a story,” the paper reported. “She said she never told anyone about what happened at the time or in the years that followed until shortly before she approached The Post.”
That Wednesday, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who had called on Northam to resign, admitted he had worn blackface in college. The same day, Tyson issued an official statement, saying she and Fairfax had met at the convention on July 26, 2004, and that two days later he had assaulted her. Fairfax says in the complaint he was not at the convention on July 26, as he was traveling with the vice presidential nominee, John Edwards, and that their encounter two days later was consensual.
With both Fairfax and Herring facing trouble, Northam’s own prospects improved; because the second and third-ranking statewide officials were damaged, it was easier for him to stay on.
On Friday, a second Fairfax accuser, Meredith Watson, came forward to say that Fairfax had raped her while they were students together at Duke University in 2000. Fairfax first learned of the allegation in an email from her attorney, Nancy Erika Smith, shortly before 1 p.m. “My client would like to avoid media attention about this tragic event,” Smith wrote. The way to spare her client that attention, Smith suggested, was for Fairfax to resign. “She is motivated by her strong sense of civic duty to ensure that those seeking or serving in public office are of high character,” Smith explained. “Mr. Fairfax’s past behavior is obviously disqualifying for any public office. We hope that he reaches the same conclusion.”
He didn’t, and the news was circulating on social media after 4:30 p.m., with Fairfax’s spokesperson getting her first call at 4:39 p.m. At 5:00, her phone blew up as a statement went out from Watson’s attorney. McAuliffe’s response came out quicker than even Fairfax’s, calling for Fairfax’s immediate resignation at 5:03.
The allegations against Justin Fairfax are serious and credible. It is clear to me that he can no longer effectively serve the people of Virginia as Lieutenant Governor. I call for his immediate resignation.
— Terry McAuliffe (@TerryMcAuliffe) February 8, 2019
Fairfax responded forcefully, saying the charge was “demonstrably false.”
“I demand a full investigation into these unsubstantiated and false allegations,” Fairfax said in a statement at the time. “Such an investigation will confirm my account because I am telling the truth.” Watson had claimed the assault happened in the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity house and that she left afterward. Fairfax would later say publicly that another student, Dhamian Blue, was also present for the encounter, that it was consensual among the three of them, and that Fairfax left the two of them in the room together. Additionally, Fairfax did not live in that house, and said that the encounter happened in the room of Blue, who did live in the house. In a 2019 interview with CBS News’s Gayle King, Watson said she left the room after the encounter with Fairfax, and did not mention a third person being present. Watson did not respond to a request for comment, and has not commented on Fairfax’s claim of an additional witness since he first made it years ago.
In dismissing Fairfax’s lawsuit, the court argued that Fairfax had not provided the court with enough facts to demonstrate “actual malice” in their coverage.
Fairfax told The Intercept he provided the name of the alleged witness, Blue, to the FBI. He has also shared the name publicly, in a letter to Duke University, included it in court documents, and provided it to multiple media outlets, starting during the first week of the allegations. Blue, a North Carolina attorney, did not respond to a request for comment, and has remained silent in the years since the allegation has become public.
On February 8, Watson also alleged that a Duke University basketball star had raped her, and that she had told an unnamed dean about the assault, and the dean had discouraged her from reporting the alleged crime. The dean has yet to be named. R. Stanton Jones, a partner at the law firm Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C., grew up with Watson and said that she told him in the summer of 2001 that she had been raped twice at Duke. Kaneedreck Adams, a classmate of Watson and Fairfax, told media outlets Watson told her she was raped the day after it allegedly happened, and named Fairfax.
Fairfax also disputed Tyson’s allegations, publicly and in the eventual defamation suit, claiming the encounter was consensual and pointing out inconsistencies. She said that they had met two days earlier and that he suggested they swing by his nearby hotel room for “fresh air” and to pick up documents. Fairfax’s travel records show he wasn’t in Boston the day she claims they met, according to his defamation suit and backed up by contemporaneous reporting on the travel schedule of John Edwards, and in fact met the second evening of the convention, and then again the next afternoon in the lobby of his hotel. He said they flirted in the lobby, held hands, and collectively agreed to go up to his hotel room for privacy — not to a nearby hotel and not to pick up documents. He said that her claim that they began kissing consensually in the room is accurate, and that the encounter lasted 15 minutes and was entirely consensual. And while Tyson said she never reached out to Fairfax after the encounter, Fairfax disputes this.
The FBI Investigation
Fairfax, whose political career has taken a hit since the allegations were made public, has been vocal in his pursuit of a criminal investigation. He told The Intercept that he began sending information to the FBI “on an ongoing basis” starting in February 2019, when the allegations first became public. He said he was not aware of the full scope of the investigation or whether the FBI had spoken with anyone else prior to his interview. “They did not tell me whether they had interviewed anyone else and they did not tell me the full scope of their investigation,” Fairfax told The Intercept.
Another source, who asked for anonymity to speak about his interaction with the FBI, said that a federal investigator called him in early July with a question about whether they had any knowledge of a $16,000 payment allegedly made by Stoney’s political operation to one of the two accusers. The source had no firsthand knowledge of it, and told the FBI as much. Three other sources who spoke with the FBI on June 22 said that the agents inquired about money from Stoney’s operation being directed toward one or both of the women, but the sources also had no firsthand knowledge.
The FBI is also probing what role Stoney’s political operation played in the scandal, according to Fairfax, and the others interviewed by the FBI who spoke to The Intercept on the condition of anonymity. Stoney is close to McAuliffe, serving in his cabinet during McAuliffe’s term as governor, from 2014 to 2016. Stoney was the deputy campaign manager for McAuliffe’s 2013 gubernatorial campaign and was previously executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party. In 2016, the Virginia Pilot observed, “Politicos who want to solve a problem or get Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s attention go to [Stoney].” Stoney was McAuliffe’s campaign co-chair in 2021.
An FBI agent involved in discussions with Fairfax did not respond to a request for comment.
Fairfax told The Intercept that there was nothing in either encounter with Watson or Tyson that could have been interpreted by the other party as nonconsensual. Tyson did not respond to a request for comment.
Update: July 25, 2022, 4:00 p.m ET
The story has been updated to include a response from McAuliffe’s spokesperson.