Four aides to Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax have resigned from their jobs, leaving Fairfax with a badly depleted staff as he tries to fight two allegations of sexual assault and resist pressure to resign.
Two of Fairfax's three government staffers and two employees of his political action committee left their posts after a second sexual assault allegation emerged Friday.
The staff departures came as Fairfax returned to the Capitol Monday to preside over the Senate and face an impeachment threat that was expected to arise in the House of Delegates. However, it became clear Monday morning that impeachment proceedings were not widely supported, creating more uncertainty about how state officials will respond to two allegations of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor.
Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, had announced late Friday that he would file a resolution Monday in the House of Delegates that would allow the General Assembly to investigate the sexual assault claims and decide later whether Fairfax should be impeached if he continues to resist calls to resign. Hope said Monday that "additional conversations" would be necessary before his impeachment resolution could move forward. He also signaled he's open to dropping the impeachment process altogether.
"We must allow the victims to be heard in the most fair and just process possible," Hope said. "Any process must be open and transparent to the public. If we can come behind another process besides impeachment that will meet these goals, I will be supportive."
Hope's reversal came after a tense phone call Sunday night with his Democratic colleagues, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the call. Other lawmakers raised concerns that Hope had announced his plan Friday without consulting them first. Some Democrats had already said publicly that they felt it would be inappropriate to begin an impeachment process based solely on allegations that Fairfax has adamantly denied.
"I believe it was well-intended," Del Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, the chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said of Hope's effort. "But we need to explore other avenues to getting that investigation."
Several lawmakers have raised questions about how a General Assembly probe would work procedurally and legally. The legislature is not set up as an investigative body, and it's not clear if lawmakers would have the ability to compel testimony and evidence about events that didn’t happen in Virginia.
Fairfax's office had voiced skepticism about a legislative investigation. A Fairfax spokeswoman said the lieutenant governor "believes that an inherently political process is not the most likely path for learning the truth."
Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson — the two women who have come forward with accusations against Fairfax — have both said they're willing to testify before the General Assembly. Tyson has accused Fairfax of assaulting her in a Boston hotel room in 2004. Watson, who came forward Friday, has alleged Fairfax raped her in 2000 at Duke University. Fairfax has said both encounters were consensual and has refused to step down in the face of what he has called a "vicious and coordinated smear campaign."
Watson is asking the legislature to hold hearings "regardless of what they are called," and to "reject a secret and delayed proceeding," her lawyer said in a statement Monday evening.
Though the impeachment threat may have dissipated, Fairfax's staff departures proved there would be immediate consequences for the accusations.
The PAC employees who left are Dave Mills, who was the executive director of We Rise Together, and Courtney McCargo, a fundraiser.
Mills is the husband of state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who is considered a strong contender to replace Fairfax as lieutenant governor should Fairfax resign.
On the government side, Adele McClure, the policy director, resigned, as did Julia Billingsley, the scheduling director.
Lauren Burke, Fairfax's communications director, remains employed by his PAC and Larry Roberts, his chief of staff, remains on as a state employee.
Roberts posted on Facebook that he continues to support and believe Fairfax.
"Women and men deserve to be heard and given safe space to tell their stories, to be understood, and to ensure that encounters are assessed fairly and with sensitivity to all concerned."
The job of lieutenant governor is part time. Fairfax is a lawyer at the firm Morrison & Foerster, which has placed him on paid leave.
If the General Assembly doesn't conduct an investigation, it's unclear who else would. Fairfax has issued multiple statements suggesting the FBI could investigate, but the claims against him don't appear to involve any federal crimes.
The Virginia State Police would not have jurisdiction to investigate crimes that occurred in other states.
Some Republican lawmakers have said the matter should be left to local law enforcement.
"Due process must be followed to ensure both parties the right of innocence until proven guilty," Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, said in a statement Monday. "As legislators, it's important for us to focus on our legislative session until we must be involved under the law.”
As Fairfax entered the Capitol, he reiterated his call for an independent investigation.
The FBI declined to comment on Fairfax's suggestions the agency could get involved in the matter.