Va. Democrats weigh launch of impeachment proceedings against Fairfax
Virginia Democratic lawmakers began circulating a draft resolution Sunday to begin impeachment proceedings against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) over allegations of sexual assault that have been leveled against him by two women.
Fairfax has fended off calls from the state Democratic Party and some state and national lawmakers to resign after Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson publicly came forward last week to accuse him of sexual assault.
Tyson accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in 2004, at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Watson on Friday accused Fairfax of assaulting her in 2000, while they were students at Duke University.
Fairfax says the encounters were consensual and has blasted the allegations as part of a smear campaign against him. He has said repeatedly that he will not step down and wants the FBI or others to investigate the accusations.
Shortly after Watson came forward Friday, Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington) said he would introduce articles of impeachment if Fairfax did not resign by the end of the weekend.
Hope emailed a draft of a resolution that would initiate impeachment proceedings to his Democratic colleagues for review Sunday afternoon. The Washing- ton Post obtained a copy of the email and resolution.
“Whereas the House of Delegates believes all allegations of sexual assault must be taken with the utmost seriousness; and whereas the House of Delegates believes the allegations made by Dr. Vanessa Tyson and Ms. Meredith Watson to be credible in nature, while also respecting the principles of due process; now, therefore, be it resolved by the House of Delegates that proceedings for the impeachment of Lieutenant Governor Justin E. Fairfax shall be initiated,” the draft resolution says.
A spokeswoman for Fairfax said he is opposed to the impeachment process and wants an independent investigation.
“The Lt. Governor is aggressively exploring options for a thorough, independent, and impartial investigation of these allegations,” spokeswoman Lauren Burke said in a statement.
“We hope, for example, that the FBI will show a willingness to investigate,” Burke said. “It is especially important in the most difficult of times that we pay attention to our fundamental Constitutional values. He believes that an inherently political process is not the most likely path for learning the truth. The Lt. Governor is confident in the truth that will emerge from an independent impartial investigation.”
A vote on the resolution, which could come as soon as Tuesday if it is introduced Monday, would direct the House Committee for Courts of Justice to hold hearings on the allegations against Fairfax, with the support of legislative staff and state agencies. Such an investigation would be the precursor to a committee recommendation for impeachment and a vote of the full House.
In his email to colleagues, Hope stressed that his proposed resolution is not an impeachment, but the start of an investigation into the allegations that could lead to impeachment.
“It is not impeachment,” Hope said in the email, underlining the words for emphasis. “It is a process to investigate whether the Courts Committee would recommend impeachment.”
Reached for comment, Hope said the timing of introducing the resolution is under discussion with legislative leaders.
It’s unclear how much support there is for an impeachment effort in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Aides to House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (DFairfax County), who have both urged Fairfax to resign, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle), who chairs the Courts Committee, also did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Committee member Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) said there are serious questions about the House’s ability to conduct an investigation into the allegations, including whether it could compel witnesses to testify and subpoena documents.
“There are process questions,” Simon said. “Whether this is the right move or not politically, we have to figure out whether we are doing this right or not.”
Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (Fairfax), leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus, which demanded Fairfax’s resignation, said he opposes attempts to impeach the lieutenant governor and does not expect them to gain traction.
“Impeachment implies high crimes and misdemeanors while you are in office, that’s what it’s for,” Saslaw said in a brief interview, noting that the accusations against Fairfax are for actions that allegedly occurred before he was elected.
The Senate Republican leadership previously called on law enforcement to investigate the allegations against Fairfax; a spokesman for Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) declined to comment Sunday on impeachment. Norment was the center of controversy himself last week when he acknowledged that he was an editor of a 1968 yearbook that featured racial slurs and photos of students in blackface. He said he was not responsible for the content.
The Virginia constitution says that “offending against the Commonwealth by malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor” is grounds for impeachment. It vests the House of Delegates with the power to impeach with a simple majority vote and the state Senate with the power to prosecute elected officials and remove them from office with a vote of two-thirds of the senators present.
A.E. Dick Howard, the University of Virginia Law School professor who led the commission that wrote the current version of the state constitution in 1971, said there is disagreement about whether conduct unrelated to an elected office can be grounds for impeachment.
“There are competing inter- pretations, but I really don’t think it’s open-ended, and I think it’s difficult to argue anything that casts disrepute on the office would be an impeachable offense,” Howard said Sunday. “That would make the impeachment process another tool of political combat.”
An attempt to impeach Fairfax appears unprecedented; there has been no attempt to impeach an elected official in the state in modern times that Howard and political observers could recall.
Tyson and Watson, who have separate legal representation, have indicated through their lawyers that they are willing to testify during impeachment proceedings.
Some high-profile Virginia Democrats, including Gov. Ralph Northam, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, say Fairfax should step down if the allegations are proven true, stopping short of an outright call for resignation.
Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) are embroiled in separate controversies after having admitted to wearing blackface in the 1980s, but neither faces the threat of impeachment. That has created another uncomfortable dynamic for Democrats as they ponder whether to force out Fairfax, a rising African American star in their party, while white men accused of racism stay in office.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax denies accusations of sexual assault.