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Northam Yearbook Photo Investigation Inconclusive

Northam's 1984 yearbook page
Northam's 1984 yearbook page

An investigation into how a racist photo ended up on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page has turned up inconclusive, even as it shed light on how the school’s top officials were aware of the photo long before it surfaced in February.

In a 32-page report released on Wednesday, investigators from the Richmond-based law firm McGuireWoods said the passage of time and a dearth of documentation made it hard to verify Northam’s claim that he did not appear in the photo.

Northam reiterated that claim in a statement on Wednesday. He also apologized for any “hurt” he caused Virginians when he walked back his initially apology the day after he made it.

“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,” Northam said.

Republican House of Delegates Majority leader Todd Gilbert called the report “entirely inconclusive” and said the onus was on Northam to proove he had no involvement in the image, which depicts one person in blackface and another in a KKK robe.  

The report says that the photo was known to both the current and former president of Eastern Virginia Medical School years before it publicly surfaced on February 1. The school hired the firm in early February to conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the creation of the 1984 yearbook as well as the campus culture at the time.

At a press conference on Wednesday at EVMS in Norfolk, Virgina, the school’s current president, Richard Homan, said he had no regrets about his decision. Homan said that in retrospect, he wished the school had moved the book to a reserve section so that it would only be available in response to public records requests.

“We are a public institution; we receive public funds,” Homan said. “I decided we did not want to enter any opportunity to have that photo enter the press or provide a political process that we’re dealing with today, frankly.”

The report said that the photo first surfaced while staff prepared for an EVMS alumni event and was brought to the attention of then-president Harry Lester, who left his post in 2013, during one of Northam's election campaigns. Northam served in the state senate from 2008 to 2014 and was elected lieutenant governor in November 2013.

Homan said at the press conference that he first learned of the photo during Northam’s 2017 run for governor.

Staff asked both presidents whether “EVMS had an obligation to or should do something about it, such as notifying Governor Northam about it,” according to the report. Both men decided against any action, worrying that any action would create the appearance of influencing the election.

Northam told former Attorney General Richard Cullen, who led the investigation, that he was under pressure from his staff to either confess or deny appearing in the photo when it surfaced in February.

“The best we can conclude is that he aired on the side of caution initially, and then immediately regretted not having denied, and then in his mind tried to recant or correct the record,” Cullen said at a press conference on Wedneday at Eastern Virginia Medical School. 

The full report is available here.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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