Va. Democrats weigh launch of im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings against Fair­fax

The Washington Post - - CAPITAL BUSINESS - BY FENIT NIRAPPIL [email protected]­post.com

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.

KATHERINE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Lt. Gov. Justin Fair­fax de­nies ac­cu­sa­tions of sex­ual as­sault.

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