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Was that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in blackface photo? Investigation inconclusive  4 Months ago

Source:   USA Today  

The law firm handling an investigation into Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook page that included a blackface photo said Wednesday that it was unable to determine whether the governor appeared in the picture.

The law firm of McGuireWoods conducted the probe on behalf of Eastern Virginia Medical School, reaching out to 1984 yearbook staffers and alums of the school and releasing a 32-page report.

"We could not conclusively determine the identity of either individual depicted in that photograph," said Richard Cullen, who led the investigation for McGuireWoods.

The report said no one interviewed could say whether the photo appeared on the page in error – and that no one could say definitely whether Northam was in the picture.

"The governor himself has made inconsistent statements in this regard," Cullen said.

Northam issued a statement after the report was released reaffirming that he is not the "racist" in the photo and apologizing again for the hurt it caused. 

A muddled defense that included moonwalking and a Michael Jackson costume has thus far been sufficient for Northam to keep his job despite widespread calls for his resignation in the days following the discovery of the page four months ago.

Northam, a Democrat, at first apologized for being in the 1984 photo, which depicted one person in blackface standing next to someone wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. But he soon reversed direction, saying he didn't believe he was in the photo and calling it "disgusting, offensive, racist."

Richard Homan, president and provost of the school, said the investigation indicated Northam initially did not think he was in the photo but was not certain. That indecision, he said, left Northam's staff with a dilemma.

"They said, 'You can either deny it or apologize for it, those are your only two choices,'" Homan said. "He decided initially to go with apology as opposed to outright denial."

Northam said he felt compelled to take responsibility for the photo's presence on his page.

"But rather than providing clarity, I instead deepened pain and confusion," Northam said in his statement Wednesday.

In the weeks after the photo surfaced, a USA TODAY review of 900 yearbooks from the 1970s and 1980s at 120 schools found more than 200 examples of offensive or racist material. Homan said bias and racism remain a part of society.

“Unless we face this fact head on, this bias and racism will not abate,” he said. “Uncomfortable silence only perpetuates these problems."

Northam said he has engaged in frank dialogue on how to best use the power of the governor’s office to provide meaningful progress on issues of equality.

"I know and understand the events of early February and my response to them have caused hurt for many Virginians," his statement said. "For that I am sorry."

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said the report probably won't hurt Northam. Tobias told USA TODAY that the governor has kept a low profile since the photo emerged but has "enjoyed considerable success" in the legislative session.

Tobias also noted that Cullen has strong ties to the state's Republican Party, making it unlikely investigators faced pressure to favor the governor.

"What happens next is unclear," Tobias said. "I think that he will survive."

Northam has admitted to blackening his face with shoe polish for a Michael Jackson costume at a dance contest in the 1980s, although no photo from that incident has emerged. At that news conference in February, Northam appeared to consider displaying his moonwalking skills until his wife shut that down.

Virginia’s Constitution says elected officials who commit “malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty or other high crime or misdemeanor” may be removed from office. There is no indication that Northam did anything "that satisfies those terms," Tobias said.

Northam is not the only top official under fire in the state, though none has resigned or been removed from office. Days after the blackface photo emerged, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was accused of sexual assault, which he adamantly denies, stemming from a 2004 encounter. That drew calls for his ouster. Then, Attorney General Mark Herring admitted he, too, donned blackface in the 1980s. 

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