NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – A law firm tasked with investigating a racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School page says it cannot conclusively determine whether he is in the photo.
EVMS President Richard Homan in February called for a third-party investigation by McGuireWoods after the photo surfaced online. The findings of the McGuireWoods investigation were announced in a news conference held Wednesday morning at the school.
READ: Full McGuireWoods Report
The photo on Northam’s yearbook page shows someone in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Homan called the photo “shockingly abhorrent” in a statement issued after the photo became public.
In its report, McGuireWoods said no one who was interviewed in the investigation could say whether Northam is in the photo and could not determine the origin of the photo. The firm also found no information that the photo was put on Northam’s page in error.
Richard Cullen, the lead attorney for McGuireWoods in the investigation, also interviewed Northam and his staffers on what was going on as the scandal was unfolding February 1.
Northam was given two options: deny it or apologize. And according to the report, staffers were shocked when Northam decided to apologize without seeing the picture he was apologizing for.
“The best we can conclude, he erred on the side of caution, and immediately regretted not denying it, then tried to recant or correct the record the next day,” Cullen said.
According to the final report on page 15 of the 55 page report, Cullen writes, “When asked whether he was surprised when he received the statement admitting he was in the photograph, Northam responded, “I wouldn’t say I was surprised. I said ‘what do you need me to do and I’ll do it.’ That’s the mode I was in. There was urgency to get the statement out If I had to do over again I’d do it differently. I always rely on my communications people. You see these statements … I don’t know why the statement went in the direction it did.”
Cullen also said the photo’s publication in 1984 was a failure of administrative oversight on the part of EVMS.
Both Cullen and Homan stand by the report.
“We wanted the investigation to be independent, objective, not limited in scope and transparent with its results,” Cullen said.
Homan said during the news conference he was made aware of the photo on Northam’s yearbook page during the gubernatorial campaign and chose not to disclose it to the public.
“I decided that we did not enter any opportunity to have that photo enter the press or provide a political process that we’re dealing with today, frankly,” Homan said.
Homan added, “We’re apolitical. And I did not feel that that was a necessary disclosure I needed to make.”
Nine former and current students said they experienced “instances of racial insensitivity” from other classmates and faculty. Several people expressed that these instances were “not indicative of the EVMS culture”, the firm said in its report.
McGuireWoods said it found “a number of photos” depicting blackface in the school’s yearbooks. The yearbooks contained other content “that could be offensive to women, minorities, certain ethnic groups and others.”
Cullen said they could find no classmates who recall anyone dressing up like the picture in question on Northam’s page.
The yearbooks were almost entirely student-run between 1976 to 2013, with little to no oversight by EVMS administrators. McGuireWoods said it found no indication that any faculty or administrators edited or censored the contents in the yearbooks.
During the news conference, the NAACP’s James Boyd pointed out Cullen’s report was paid for by EVMS, and McGuireWoods has been a strong financial contributor to Governor Ralph Northam to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars over the course of years.
“We wanted an independent investigation … this was not it,” Boyd said. “If they were worried about getting to the bottom of what happened they would have given it to an independent body.”
Cullen said: “We are trained to be skeptical. We ask probing questions, and I think it is fair to say we took their statements at face value and had no reason not to believe it.”
Homan also took time telling those gathered that they are concerned about an inclusive culture, how EVMS has doubled the number of minority medical students over the last six years, and how EVMS was recently recognized with a national award for expanding inclusion efforts, which has been a focus since 2013, long before this black face picture scandal surfaced on the governor’s yearbook page, Cullen added.
Reporter Delaney Hall with WAVY sister station WFXR in Roanoke said Northam told members of the media he had not read the results of the McGuireWoods report, but was flying back to Richmond where he would read it.
Northam later released a statement that said in part, “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. 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.”
I have cooperated with Richard Cullen and his team over the course of their investigation, both by making myself available for interviews and by turning over the findings of my private inquiry into the matter. I am not in the racist and offensive photo that appears under my name in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook.
That being said, 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. 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.
In visits with local leaders across the Commonwealth, I have engaged in frank and necessary dialogue on how I can best utilize the power of the governor’s office to enact meaningful progress on issues of equity and better focus our administration’s efforts for the remainder of my term. That conversation will continue, with ensuing action, and I am committed to working to build a better and more equitable Virginia for all who call it home.”
-Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam
Virginia politics was turned upside down in a matter of hours in early February after a conservative website posted a picture of Northam’s medical school yearbook page. The Democratic governor issued two apologies within hours, initially indicating that he was one of the people in the picture.
By midnight it appeared his entire political base was gone, with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, other key Democratic groups and top allies calling on him to resign.
Northam reversed course at a news conference the next day, saying he was convinced it was not him in the picture, while revealing that he did in fact wear blackface once decades ago, to look like Michael Jackson for a dance contest. Defying calls to resign, he said he wanted to focus his remaining three years in office on addressing longstanding racial inequities.
While he was all but invisible in February and much of March, the governor is making routine public appearances again.
And he’s won praise from black lawmakers and others for several recent policy moves. Those include ending the suspension of driver’s licenses for motorists with unpaid court fines and costs, and a review into how public schools teach the nation’s racial history.
The heat for Northam to resign significantly lessened after scandal enveloped his potential successors. Two women publicly accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, which he denies. And Attorney General Mark Herring announced he’d also worn blackface in college, just days after he too called on Northam to resign. Both Fairfax and Herring also resisted calls to resign. And other politicians around the South soon had their own explaining to do over yearbook images taken long ago.
But the incident will forever mark Northam’s time in office, and opponents still use it against him. House Majority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert recently said Northam had chosen to “repair his own racist legacy,” rather than protect victims of domestic abuse after the governor vetoed a bill requiring a mandatory jail term for repeat domestic abusers.
-Reporting from the Associated Press was included in this story.