NORFOLK — A months-long investigation into a racist photo that appeared on Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page could not “conclusively” determine who is in the photo or how it ended up there.
The report also says the current and previous presidents of Eastern Virginia Medical School had known about the photo for years, but chose not to publicly disclose the information. Both leaders declined to release the photo or alert Northam about it, arguing that they did not want to influence the political process, according to the report.
During a news conference Wednesday at EVMS, President Richard V. Homan expressed no regrets, saying, “I would make the same decision now.” He added: “We are a public institution. We receive public funds.”
A team hired by EVMS released its much-anticipated, 55-page report Wednesday, shedding some light into the culture at EVMS at the time, but delivering little about the photo, which depicts a person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe.
“We weighed all the evidence and based on that, we can’t conclusively identify either person in the picture, and that includes Governor Northam,” former Attorney General Richard Cullen, a partner at McGuireWoods, said during the news conference at the medical school.
Investigators added that they found “no information that the photograph was placed on [Northam’s] personal page in error” and that they could not “conclusively determine the origin of the photograph.”
McGuireWoods contacted more than 80 people connected to EVMS and interviewed 30 people connected to the school as part of its investigation, including five members of the yearbook staff — none of whom were identified in the report. Investigators also interviewed Northam and members of his staff.
Investigators interviewed one witness of the Class of 1985 who rebutted Northam’s statement that he had not seen the photo, describing an encounter outside the campus library around graduation time.
“One witness has reported to us that he recalls reviewing the governor’s personal yearbook page with the governor in 1984,” the report says, adding that the witness “did not think the governor was personally depicted in the photograph.”
Northam denied that the meeting ever happened and said that he did not recognize the name when it was shared by investigators.
Beyond that, investigators said that five people close to Northam at the time, including a former girlfriend, said in interviews they did not believe it was Northam in the photo.
Northam told investigators that he felt compelled to address the photograph quickly, and feared saying that he did not appear in the photo out of concern that someone would come forward and say, “I was there and remember and it is you.”
Northam said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that he had cooperated with Cullen and his team 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.”
On Feb. 1, the day it became public, Northam apologized for being in the photo. He backtracked the next day, saying he is not in the photo and doesn’t know how it ended up on his yearbook page. Northam has said he did appear in blackface during a 1984 dance contest in San Antonio.
Alston & Bird, an Atlanta-based law firm, conducted the governor’s inquiry. The governor’s PAC, The Way Ahead, paid the law firm $25,000 in February, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
The unearthing of the photo and its publication on Feb. 1, first by a conservative blog, plunged the Northam administration into crisis and prompted widespread calls for his resignation.
The disclosure of the yearbook photo also set off a chain of events that saw two of Virginia’s other top state officials battle their own crises: Two women accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface in college to depict a black rapper.
What EVMS knew
The report revealed that EVMS staff members, including Homan and former EVMS President Harry T. Lester, had known about the photo for years. Some knew before Northam’s run for lieutenant governor in 2013.
Homan said he became aware of the photo through his chief of staff and chief marketing official during Northam’s 2017 run for governor. School staff members had approached his predecessor with the same information, investigators found.
According to the report, the then-alumni affairs director at EVMS had noticed the photograph while preparing for a reunion event.
“EVMS typically placed the yearbooks for the reunion years on a table during the reunion events, and the former alumni affairs director had observed the photograph while looking through the 1984 EVMS yearbook. The photograph shocked the former alumni affairs director, who then showed it to some other EVMS personnel.
“The EVMS personnel decided to remove the 1984 yearbook from the table at the reunion event so as not to upset anyone who might see the photograph. The EVMS personnel who became aware of the photograph expressed surprise and disappointment in the photograph. Members of EVMS staff brought the photograph to the attention of the president of EVMS on two separate occasions. Most recently, it was brought to the attention of President Homan, and prior to that it was brought to the attention of then-President Lester.”
The report says that staff members were “asking if EVMS had an obligation to or should do something about it, such as notifying Governor Northam about it.
“In each case, the president of EVMS decided that the school should not take steps to publicly announce the photograph or to call Governor Northam’s attention to it.
“We understand President Homan’s reasoning was EVMS should not become involved, or be seen to become involved, in an election as it is a public body and a public institution, and that EVMS did not want there to be any suggestion that it had tried to influence Governor Northam in any respect by calling the photograph to his attention.”
Homan and Lester have financially backed Northam’s political campaigns — even after learning of the photo.
Homan gave $10,000 to Northam’s inaugural committee in December 2017. He previously had given him $1,000 for his campaign for governor and $1,000 for his 2013 campaign for lieutenant governor, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Lester, the former president, gave $19,500 between 2015 and 2017 to Northam for his run for governor and gave $5,000 to Northam’s PAC in April 2018, according to VPAP. Lester gave Northam $5,000 for his run for lieutenant governor, and from 2009 to 2011 gave $5,000 to Northam when Northam was a state senator. Lester left his role as president in April 2013.
On Feb. 2, the day that Northam backtracked at a news conference and said he was not in the photo, Homan issued a statement in which he apologized for racist photos in the yearbook.
Homan said the school shares “the outrage, alarm and sadness voiced by our alumni, the press and many on social media.”
During the news conference Wednesday at EVMS, James Boyd, president of the Portsmouth NAACP, questioned the independence of the investigation, and said there was “zero trust” by the community in the outcome. He said that McGuireWoods’ and Cullen’s political connections to EVMS and Northam begged skepticism.
Homan said that he did not order the yearbook removed from the library, but that in hindsight, he would have placed it in a private area.
Homan said Wednesday that upon reading the report, it was clear that the yearbook’s publication of the photo represented a “failure of the administrative oversight on the part of EVMS.”
“It should never have happened,” he said.
Homan added that EVMS is not alone when it comes to troubling yearbook photos, citing a USA Today report that found dozens of racist photos in yearbooks from across the country.
“That’s not an excuse but rather a troubling diagnosis of the racist bias and racism that continue in this country today,” he said.
Northam’s ‘inconsistent’ statements
The report also looked into Northam’s statements immediately following news outlets’ publication of the photograph on Feb. 1, and the chaos within Northam’s inner circle that night.
Cullen said that Northam’s “inconsistent public statements” were “an obvious question” for investigators, and that as best as they could discern from interviews with Northam’s staff, it came down to Northam’s lack of certainty the night the photo surfaced.
While Northam “from the very first moment said, ‘I do not believe this is me in the photograph,’ he qualified that by saying, ‘I don’t think that’s me. ... I don’t remember,’” Cullen said.
“The dilemma was, because he wasn’t saying 100 percent as other politicians might have, they said, ‘You can either deny it outright or you can apologize. Those are the two only two options.’”
Northam chief of staff Clark Mercer said that amid a chaotic process, he and other staff members collectively advised Northam that he should apologize. Mercer expressed regret about how the situation was handled.
There was a “laptop in a conference room with lots of folks surrounding it, tweaking this word, that word. It was not the most effective way to write [the statement] but that’s how it was.”
Northam is quoted as saying: “I didn’t adequately think through this.”
First lady Pam Northam told investigators that she wasn’t aware that the statement would include an admission until it was released, and quickly told the governor he should retract it. Had she known, she said, she would have “physically stood there and stopped it.”
Overall, the details in the report, which was paid for by EVMS, fall short of Northam’s stated goal during his Feb. 2 news conference, when he said: “I want to have all the facts. And I want Virginia to have all the facts. That’s important to me,” Northam said. “I think that we will continue to collect information to definitively prove, in addition to my word, that I’m not in that picture.”
EVMS spokesman Vincent Rhodes said the institution is expected to pay McGuireWoods roughly $300,000 for its services, though the total amount has not been finalized.
As the findings were released Wednesday morning, Northam was in Lexington to tour a meat market as part of Agriculture Week. He said at that point he had not yet read the full report.
Northam said in Lexington: “I suspect this has been a thorough investigation. I’ve actually participated in the investigation, been present for the questioning.”