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Advocates, Including Ex-Fairfax Staffer, Call for Updated Sexual Harassment Policy

Woman at podium behind sign reading, "Believe Black Women"
Julia Billingsley, a former staffer for Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, speaks at a press conference on Friday. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM)

Advocates for people who have been sexually assaulted held a press conference on Friday calling for lawmakers to strengthen the General Assembly’s sexual harassment policies.

They connected their demands to two accusations of sexual assault levied against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax last year.

The women also called on Fairfax and a vocal defender, Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond), to apologize for attacking the accusers.

Updated policies will likely wait another year.

The House of Delegates approved rules earlier this year saying that the body would come up with a comprehensive policy around “training, reporting, investigating, and resolving of issues of harassment.”

A spokesman for Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn said lawmakers were unlikely to tackle the issue in the remaining days of this session but remained committed to drafting a policy.

The Senate didn’t take up any internal rules related to harassment. The body effectively killed two House bills dealing with harassment: a bill requiring sexual harassment training for lobbyists and a broader bill creating a cause of action against employers who discriminate on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity, among other categories.

Speakers at the press conference said their calls were a direct reaction to Fairfax’s comments and conduct since the women came forward in February 2019.

They included Julia Billingsley, a former staffer for Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax who resigned after a second woman came forward accusing Fairfax of raping her.

Billingsley, who had not previously spoken publicly about her resignation last February, said the allegations had shattered her view of a man she once considered a leader and a friend.

“I mostly couldn't find any words, but I listened,” Billingsley said. “And what I heard were the attempts to silence and discredit survivors. It was gut wrenching, but all too familiar.”

Meredith Watson accused Fairfax of raping her at Duke University in 2000, while Vanessa Tyson says he assaulted her in Boston in 2004.

Fairfax says he’s the victim of a smear campaign and has vigorously denied the allegations, which emerged at a moment when he seemed poised to become governor. Gov. Ralph Northam faced widespread calls to resign over a racist yearbook photo, leaving Fairfax next in line to succeed him.

Fairfax has repeatedly called for criminal investigations into the accusations; prosecutors in Durham, North Carolina and Suffolk County, Massachusetts have declined to say whether they’re taking any action.

Tyson, Watson and House Republicans have called for legislative hearings in the allegations, but Democratic lawmakers declined to take up the issue.

Fairfax has become increasingly forceful in his denials, saying in an interview last month with VPM News that an unnamed eyewitness saw his encounter with Watson and that she was “caught in a massive lie.”

“The new rule is that anybody you've ever had a consensual relationship ever can come out at any point in your life and take something that was consensual and say it wasn't,” Fairfax said.

Sen. Morrissey reiterated those claims on talk show host John Fredrick’s call-in show on Tuesday.

“The evidence is...overwhelming that not only is Justin Fairfax innocent, but that [Vanessa Tyson] lied," Morrissey said.

Alexsis Rodgers, the state director for a domestic workers’ advocacy group called Care in Action, called on Democrats to condemn that language and for Fairfax and Morrissey to apologize.

“The silence has instilled a belief and a feeling that other women who could come forward who have come forward are not believed and are not credible,” Rodgers said. “We demand that a code of conduct with clear sanctions be adopted to bring real accountability against lawmakers who have been found to have violated this code.”

Fairfax is expected to announce a run for governor in the coming months.

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