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Virginia Lt. Gov. files $400M defamation suit against CBS in reporting on sexual assault claims

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax presides over the Virginia Senate on Feb. 4, 2019.

STEVE EARLEY, VIRGINIAN PILOT/TNS

By LAURA VOZZELLA | The Washington Post | Published: September 12, 2019

RICHMOND, Va. — Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax filed a $400 million defamation lawsuit Thursday against CBS, saying the network recklessly disregarded the truth and hyped what he says are false sexual assault allegations against him.

Two women alleged in early February that Fairfax had sexually assaulted them in separate incidents in the early 2000s, one involving a classmate at Duke University and the other a woman he met at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Fairfax, D, insisted that both encounters were consensual.

Both women gave interviews to Gayle King that aired on CBS This Morning in early April. The suit, filed in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, claims that CBS failed to "follow up on leads that would demonstrate the allegations to be false."

One of those concerns Fairfax's claim that a witness was present at Fairfax's sexual encounter with Meredith Watson at Duke University in 2000 and could corroborate that it was consensual.

Fairfax's lawyer went public with that claim only in July, and at that time, a spokesman for Watson's attorney declined to respond to it.

The lawsuit contends that CBS could have or should have known about the possibility of a witness before Watson's interview aired.

The suit says that a top CBS attorney was a Duke classmate who had dated Watson a year before the alleged assault and remains a friend of both Fairfax and the witness. It claims that the lawyer, though not present, had been told about the sexual encounter by Fairfax and the witness, and believed it to have been consensual.

The suit says that Fairfax and the lawyer "exchanged numerous text messages and had several conversations since Watson went public with her false accusation against Fairfax in February 2019. Most of these communications occurred before the April 2019 interviews were aired by the [lawyer's] employer and client, CBS."

The suit continues, "In all their conversations, Fairfax and the [lawyer] knew from both Fairfax and the eyewitness that the eyewitness was in the room throughout the encounter and that the encounter between Fairfax and Watson was completely consensual."

The suit says the lawyer did not take steps to try to prevent airing Watson's interview or was unable to do so, "despite this knowledge from the eyewitness and from Fairfax that Watson's story was false and that there was an eyewitness corroborating that Watson's story was false."

The suit includes a copy of a text between a Fairfax aide and King, with the aide urging the broadcaster to ask Watson if anyone else was in the room during the encounter. King did not ask the question, at least in the portions of the interview aired.

CBS News released a statement: "We stand by our reporting and we will vigorously defend this lawsuit."

In response to the suit, Watson attorney Nancy Erika Smith said, "We look forward to everyone testifying under oath, now that this matter is in court."
 

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