Results of months-long investigation into racist photo on Northam yearbook page

Posted at 10:35 AM, May 22, 2019

NORFOLK, Va. -- A four-month investigation into the racist photo that appeared on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) yearbook page could neither confirm nor deny that the governor was one of the people in the photo, nor how it ended up on his page.

“We could not conclusively determine the identity of either individual depicted in the photograph," a summary of the report read. "The Governor himself has made inconsistent public statements in this regard. No individual we interviewed has told us from personal knowledge that the Governor is in the photograph, and no individual with knowledge has come forward to us to report that the Governor is in the Photograph.

"While we have identified no information that photograph was placed on Governor Northam’s personal page in error or by any other means not at this direction, we could not conclusively determine the origin of the photograph."

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page.

RELATED: Click here to read the full report to the Eastern Virginia Medical School

In order to reach this conclusion, investigators from the McGuireWoods Law Firm reviewed EVMS yearbooks and interviewed alumni who worked on the publications or had knowledge of how they were put together.  Investigators said they conducted more than 50 interviews for the inquiry.

EVMS investigators said there was “scant” documentation of how the student-run yearbooks were put together and acknowledged that memories have likely faded in the 35 years since the yearbook was published.

“I will note that our inquiry in this regard was restricted by the passage of time and the dirty of contemporaneous documentation," said Ben Hatch, one of the attorneys who worked on the probe.

Portsmouth NAACP President: 'What we heard today was a PR blitz'

Some were already skeptical of the report.  Portsmouth NAACP President James Boyd confronted EVMS officials and investigators during press conference, saying there is no way the investigation was independent given the school's ties to McGuireWoods and Northam.

“They sounded like Ralph Northam’s attorneys up there.  We’re going to believe, oh well, he remembered that there was a hat and this, but he didn’t remember if he was in blackface or a clan uniform?  This is the Governor of a state in America, and he cannot remember, recall, if he did it or not," Boyd said.  “If he was worried about getting to the bottom of the issue, he would have deferred this to an independent body to have a clear investigation.  What we heard today was a PR blitz.”

In two separate interviews with the governors, investigators report Northam repeatedly denied he was one of the people in the photo. Northam told investigators he remembers submitting the other photos on his yearbook page, but said he had never seen the racist photo before it was published on Feb. 1.

"He noted the person in blackface had much larger legs than he did in medical school, and the person in the KKK robes is much shorter than he is. Governor Northam commented that he would remember standing next to someone dressed in KKK robes," the report reads.

On the night of Feb. 1, after a conservative online publication first posted images of Northam's yearbook page, Northam made a statement in which he said he was in the picture; however, the next day during a wild, hour-long news conference at the Executive Mansion, Northam reversed course, saying he was not in the photo.

Through interviews with Northam, his staff, and his wife, the report recounts an administration in "crisis mode."  An emergency communications team saw three options, the report said: a full denial, accepting responsibility fully or something in between.

Since Northam said he had never seen the photo but was not definitive in his responses initially, investigators said Northam decided to accept responsibility and began calling allies to apologize. Northam told investigators his staff wrote the initial statement released to the public and that he approved it.

"Governor Northam said he didn’t have 'a good excuse,' but wanted to be accountable," the report reads.  "He said that he simply read the statement he was given, and probably wouldn’t do it over again or issue the same statement. He doesn’t remember anyone running the yearbook by him before it was published."

The report indicated that investigators reviewed all EVMS yearbooks from 1984 to 2013, the last year they were published, and they repeatedly contained content considered offensive to women, minorities, certain ethnic groups and others.

Governor's statement: 'I am not in the racist and offensive photo'

Northam released the following statement following the report's release saying he cooperated with the investigation, turned over the findings of his "private inquiry" and was "available for interviews."

"I am not in the racist and offensive photo that appears under my name in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook," Northam said. "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.”

EVMS officials said their staff members learned of the racist photo on Northam's page before he held statewide office.  EVMS President Dr. Richard Horman said he and previous EVMS leaders decided to not release the photo publicly or contact Northam about it in order to avoid a polticial firestorm similar to the one they are going through now.

Horman said if he had it to do over again, EVMS would still handle the situation the same way.

GOP response: 'Effort to avoid public disclosure'

Following the report's release, Virginia GOP leaders maintained their stance that Northam has lost the confidence of Virginians.

"Nearly four months after the photograph emerged, the onus remains on Governor Northam to deliver the answers he promised to the citizens he still seeks to serve," said House Majority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah).  “I am also concerned about what leaders at Eastern Virginia Medical School appear to have known with respect to the photograph. . . While it is unclear if they took any action to cover up the photo’s existence, it certainly appears that there was an effort to avoid public disclosure of such a racist photograph on the yearbook page of the most prominent alumni in school history.”

EVMS officials are launching an advisory board to address issues raised around diversity and inclusion at the school.

This is a developing story. Watch CBS 6 News starting at 5 p.m. for updates. 



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