Investigation unable to confirm if Virginia governor is depicted in racist yearbook photo

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Virginia Governor Ralph Northam speaks with reporters at a press conference at the Governor’s mansion on February 2, 2019 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Alex Edelman/Getty Images)

An independent investigation conducted into a racist photograph on Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page could not “conclusively determine the identity of either individual depicted in the photograph.”

“No individual that we interviewed has told us from personal knowledge that the Governor is in the photograph, and no individual with knowledge has come forward to us to report that the Governor is in the photograph,” said a report released Wednesday by the law firm that conducted the investigation, McGuireWoods.

The investigation also did not “conclusively determine the origin of the photograph,” which surfaced earlier this year, depicting one person in blackface and another dressed in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robes.

Wednesday’s report is the latest chapter in a controversy that at times threatened to end Northam’s governorship.

When the photo first surfaced in early February, Northam, a former pediatric neurosurgeon and Army doctor, initially confirmed he was one of the people in the yearbook photo and apologized. He reversed course the following day, saying he did not believe he was pictured after all, but revealing he once darken his face to resemble Michael Jackson during a 1984 dance competition. He also vowed to stay in office and help the state heal, despite calls for his resignation.

In a statement after the report’s release, Northam reiterated his position that he’s not in the photograph.

“I know and understand the events of early February and my response to them have caused hurt for many Virginians and for that, I am sorry,” Northam said. “I felt it was important to take accountability for the photo’s presence on my page, but rather than providing clarity, I instead deepened pain and confusion.”

Asked about Northam’s walkback, Richard Cullen, a partner at McGuireWoods, told reporters on Wednesday that “the best we can conclude is that (Northam) erred on the side of caution initially, and immediately regretted not having denied, and then, in his mind, tried to recant or correct the record the next day.”

Speaking at a press conference Wednesday along with representatives from McGuireWoods, Eastern Virginia Medical School President Richard V. Homan called the photo’s publication in 1984 a “failure of the administrative oversight on the part of EVMS.”

“Its publication was particularly hurtful to African-American community and our academic community,” Homan said, apologizing for the photo. “It should have never happened.”

As part of the investigation, McGuireWoods said it interviewed over 50 individuals, including the governor, the governor’s wife, the governor’s staff and alumni.

Northam was interviewed twice, on March 27 and May 8, and was described as being cooperative. Northam consistently denied he was in the photo, according to the investigation.

The governor’s counsel was notified Tuesday afternoon of the investigation’s summaries, and received a copy of the report Wednesday morning, the same time it was available to the press.

Investigators learned that Homan and a former EVMS president knew of the photograph’s existence prior to it surfacing online in February and at times when Northam was running for public office. Neither president disclosed the photo in the media.

Homan told reporters Wednesday that he felt it was not a necessary disclosure for him to make and stressed that EVMS is “apolitical.”

At one point in the press conference, a member of the NAACP questioned whether the investigation was independently conducted, given that Cullen was the former attorney general of Virginia.

“This was an independent investigation, objective in every respect, and that we had the full support of the university in terms of their commitment to being transparent,” said George Martin, a McGuireWoods partner.

According to the report, the investigation found that the school’s yearbooks from 1976 to 2013 contained at least 10 photographs depicting individuals in blackface and “repeatedly contained other content offensive to women, minorities, certain ethnic groups, and others.” The school discontinued its yearbooks in 2013.

In the days following the yearbook photo discovery, Virginia was gripped by further scandal.

Two women, Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson, came forward with allegations of sexual assault against Virginia Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, which he has repeatedly denied. Around the same time, Virginia Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that he had word blackface as a 19-year-old while dressing up as a rapper at a party. Herring had previously called on Northam to resign.

Fairfax and Herring have remained in their positions in the wake of the scandals.

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