Attorneys for Virginia's Democratic lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, filed a $400 million defamation lawsuit against CBS on Thursday, accusing the network of amplifying sexual assault claims that Fairfax says are "false, defamatory and politically-motivated."
The lawsuit centers on CBS This Morning's airing of two interviews with Meredith Watson and Vanessa Tyson, who in February accused Fairfax of separate incidents of sexual assault.
Fairfax's attorneys allege the network didn't fully vet the accusers' claims and omitted information that would exonerate him. The suit repeats Fairfax's claims that the women "unambiguously" expressed their consent. The suit also alleges that a CBS lawyer who knew Fairfax from college knew the encounter with Watson was consensual because he was told about it by an eyewitness.
In a statement, CBS News said: "We stand by our reporting and we will vigorously defend this lawsuit."
Tyson's attorneys, Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, called the lawsuit "yet another desperate stunt by Mr. Fairfax to preserve his political career at the expense of survivors of sexual assault."
Nancy Erika Smith, an attorney for Watson, said in a statement that "we look forward to everyone testifying under oath now that this matter is in court."
Watson says Fairfax raped her in 2000, while they were students at Duke University. Tyson said Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex during an encounter in a Boston hotel room at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
The women told their stories in tearful interviews with Gayle King that aired April 1 and April 2.
Watson and Tyson have asked that Virginia's General Assembly hold bipartisan hearings into their accounts. Democrats have so far blocked Republican efforts to do that, saying the body isn't equipped to handle proceedings.
The allegations came forward days after a racist yearbook photo surfaced on Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam's 1984 medical school yearbook page. That revelation and the governor's bungled response led to calls for Northam's resignation, seemingly creating an opening for Fairfax to assume the top post.
Instead, Northam withstood the calls to step down as Tyson and then Watson came forward with their stories — proof, Fairfax says, of an orchestrated campaign against him. The complaint says that effort is led by supporters of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who Fairfax claims threatened to blackmail him last year by publicly releasing the Tyson allegations.
Stoney spokesman Jim Nolan called the claims "100% untrue" and offensive.
The suit seeks damages caused by "the intentional and reckless publishing and propagation by CBS of patently false allegations." The complaint notes that Fairfax lost his job with a prestigious law firm "at which he would have earned millions of dollars over the years."
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said courts have set high bars for defamation cases out of deference to the First Amendment. Fairfax's attorneys will have to prove CBS acted out of malice.
"There are allegations to that effect, but they may be difficult to prove," Tobias said.
The suit elaborates on some of Fairfax's past defenses. It says Fairfax's encounter with Watson occurred in the room of a fraternity brother, who he claims was present throughout the encounter and observed an "entirely consensual encounter." The eyewitness repeated that claim with friends after it occurred, according to the complaint.
One of those friends today is a CBS attorney. He was a fraternity brother of Fairfax's and the eyewitness at Duke, according to the suit, and previously dated Watson. The complaint, which does not name the attorney, says the lawyer knew about the eyewitness's story but was either unwilling or unable to stop the King interviews from airing.
The network "failed to interview other individuals who may have been able to confirm or contradict the allegations," according to the complaint.
The suit also reiterates Fairfax's claims that Tyson contacted him after their encounter and never mentioned the assault in public appearances.
Tyson, who is an associate professor of politics at Scripps College in California, has said the alleged assault caused humiliation that she struggled to overcome.
"I (like most survivors) suppressed those memories and emotions as a necessary means to continue my studies, and to pursue my goal of building a successful career as an academic," Tyson wrote in a statement in February.