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Rachael Rollins prepared to investigate Boston-based assault allegations against Va. lieutenant governor

District Attorney Rachael Rollins said, “We will help in any way we can if she chooses to come forward,” speaking of Vanessa Tyson’s allegations about being assaulted by Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax of Virginia in Boston in 2004.
District Attorney Rachael Rollins said, “We will help in any way we can if she chooses to come forward,” speaking of Vanessa Tyson’s allegations about being assaulted by Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax of Virginia in Boston in 2004.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File)

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said Tuesday that she is ready to investigate allegations that Virginia’s lieutenant governor sexually assaulted a woman at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, raising the prospect of a criminal probe that could deepen the extraordinary political turmoil engulfing Virginia.

Rollins, a Democrat who took office in January, said she e-mailed a letter to lawyers for Vanessa Tyson last Thursday informing them that if Tyson wants to file a criminal complaint against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, prosecutors in Rollins’s office will investigate.

“We will help in any way we can if she chooses to come forward,” Rollins said in an interview. “We would offer any number of services starting from getting them in touch with counselors all the way, if they were so inclined, to seek prosecution.”

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Rollins, who emphasized that she would provide help to any assault victim who came forward, declined to say whether Tyson’s attorneys have responded. She also declined to provide a copy of the letter, citing the confidential nature of sexual assault investigations. Rollins said she made clear in her letter that her office offers “safe, confidential, and survivor-centered” services to victims of sexual assault.

Vanessa Tyson
Vanessa Tyson(Scripps via Associated Press)

A person close to Tyson’s legal team said the letter did not require a response but emphasized Tyson has said she will cooperate with any investigation.

Lauren Burke, a Fairfax spokeswoman, said the lieutenant governor has never sexually assaulted anyone and would cooperate fully with an investigation by the Suffolk district attorney, if a criminal complaint is filed. But Burke also said, “In that event, the lieutenant governor will explore all options with regard to filing his own criminal complaint in response to the filing of a false criminal complaint against him.”

Burke said Fairfax has previously asked the FBI to investigate the allegations against him. “He has called publicly for a fair, impartial investigation,” Burke said. “He has nothing to hide.”

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Tyson would have nearly six months to file a criminal complaint against Fairfax because of the 15-year statute of limitations for sexual assaults in Massachusetts. Prosecutors could also argue that Fairfax stopped the clock on the statute of limitations when he left the state.

Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax
Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax(Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Fairfax has denied assaulting Tyson and another woman, Meredith Watson, who has accused Fairfax of raping her in 2000, when they were both undergraduates at Duke University. Fairfax, a Democrat, has refused calls from members of his own party to resign, adding to the political crisis gripping the state’s top leadership.

Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has also rejected calls to step down after photos from his 1984 medical school yearbook were published showing people dressed in a KKK robe and in blackface. Northam has denied he is in the photos but acknowledged wearing blackface at a dance contest in 1984.

Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat and the state’s third-ranking elected official, has acknowledged that he also wore blackface at a party at the University of Virginia in 1980.

Tyson, a 42-year-old political science professor, has accused Fairfax of assaulting her on the third day of the Democratic convention, July 28, 2004, when she accompanied Fairfax to his hotel room and the two started kissing. At the time, Tyson was a graduate student at Harvard working at the convention, and Fairfax was an aide to John Edwards, then a North Carolina senator who would become the vice presidential nominee.

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Tyson alleges that Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex.

“What began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault,” Tyson said in a statement detailing the allegations that was released last week by Katz, Marshall, & Banks, the same Washington law firm that represented Christine Blasey Ford, the California psychology professor who accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were both teenagers.

In a letter to Virginia’s state legislative leaders on Tuesday, Tyson’s lawyers reiterated that she is “fully prepared to cooperate with any effort to investigate Lieutenant Governor Fairfax’s sexual assault of her.”

“Whether the Virginia legislature pursues impeachment or some alternative process for investigation, Dr. Tyson hopes that it creates an environment in which the victims, their witnesses, and any other individuals harmed by Lieutenant Governor Fairfax can come forward to provide information vital to any credible assessment of his character and fitness for office,” the letter states.

Fairfax, 39, has said the encounter was entirely consensual and has questioned why Tyson took so long to come forward.

“He continues to welcome a comprehensive investigation by the FBI, as a follow up to his two previous comprehensive FBI background checks, and is confident that all fair and impartial investigations would clear his name,” Burke, Fairfax’s spokeswoman, said Tuesday.

Tyson said she told friends about the assault beginning in October 2017 when she saw a picture of Fairfax in a news story about his campaign for lieutenant governor. She said she came forward publicly when Northam’s yearbook page was publicized earlier this month, raising the possibility Northam might resign and Fairfax would replace him as governor.

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“My only motive in speaking now is to refute Mr. Fairfax’s falsehoods and aspersions of my character, and to provide what I believe is important information for Virginians to have as they make critical decisions that involve Mr. Fairfax,” Tyson said in her statement last week.

Rollins said she felt it was important to contact Tyson’s attorneys after Tyson stepped forward to identify herself and detail the allegations.

“These are unique circumstances. We can all agree with that, and we normally wouldn’t discuss a matter like this publicly,” Rollins said. “But because a decision was made to self-identify, I would be remiss if I didn’t make our services known to her and, frankly, other survivors who are wrestling with whether to come forward to law enforcement.”

Tyson, an associate professor at Scripps College, is on a fellowship at Stanford, where she is writing a book about sexual violence against women and children. She has spoken out as an activist and survivor of sexual abuse long before she entered the national spotlight.

As a Harvard graduate student from 2002 to 2005, she was a founding member of the Survivor Speakers Bureau at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, according to her LinkedIn page. She spoke at colleges, high schools, juvenile detention centers, and the Boston Public Health Commission about sexual abuse and incest.

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The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center declined to comment on Tyson’s work, saying it doesn’t discuss its volunteers or donors. But the center confirmed that the Survivor Speakers Bureau is a volunteer program in which survivors of sexual violence share their stories.

In March 2005, Tyson spoke at the Massachusetts State House alongside Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey and other advocates lobbying for survivors of sexual assault. At the event, Tyson recalled being sexual abused by her father.

“It took a long time for me to trust men and to learn to trust the world around me,” Tyson said at the State House, according to the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune. “No child should have to suffer in silence the way I did.”

At Harvard, Tyson also taught self-esteem to girls at a juvenile detention center in Framingham and served as the faculty adviser to the Association of Black Harvard Women, according to her LinkedIn page.


Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer. Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.