Good teeth, big legs and a bow tie: Inconclusive report details chaos in Northam’s office and how he finally decided it wasn’t him in blackface photo

By: - May 22, 2019 12:31 pm

The page from Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook that has ignited widespread calls for his resignation.

Lawyers who spent months investigating the racist yearbook photo that appeared on Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page said Wednesday they can’t say for sure whether the governor is or isn’t in the photo, which shows a man wearing blackface standing next to someone in klan robes.

“We weighed all the evidence that we had, and based on that, we cannot conclusively identify either person in the photograph, and that includes Gov. Northam,” said Richard Cullen, a partner at the Richmond law firm McGuireWoods, which investigated the photo on behalf of Eastern Virginia Medical School.

The 55-page report the school released does, however, provide a window into the chaos that unfolded after Northam’s staff learned the image had surfaced and Northam’s response when he saw it on the way to a soldier’s funeral, which he ultimately did not attend.

Northam at times appears to blame his staff for an initial statement admitting it was him and apologizing, which he then contradicted the next day during a widely-mocked press conference in which he admitted to appearing in blackface at a separate dance contest, but not in the photo.

Northam’s staff initially interpreted his uncertainty as an admission that he was, indeed, in the photo.

Northam’s staff members all say that from the beginning, he told them he didn’t think it was him in the photo, but wasn’t totally sure.

The report says his chief of staff, Clark Mercer, said: “They heard a politician saying ‘I’m not sure.’ With most other politicians, you would think it’s them” if they said they were not sure. “Most political people speak differently.” So other people hearing the governor “took that and provided the statement they did.”

The staffers told Northam he had two options. Either admit that it was him and apologize or deny it 100 percent. Mercer said Northam decided to go with an admission because he was worried about what would happen if he denied it and then witnesses came forward and contradicted his account.

“I think the two paths forward were predicated on — he interpreted that if he said it’s not me and someone comes out and says it is me … the one thing I have is my credibility, my honor, and that would devastate me,” Mercer said.

Northam says he “had nothing to do with writing the statement other than reading it over and saying OK.”

Northam sounds a bit like he blames his staff for the bungled response, telling investigators he relied entirely on their guidance the night the photo came out: “I said ‘what do you need for me to do and I’ll do it.’ That’s the mode I was in. There was an urgency to get the statement out. If I had it to do over again I’d do it differently. I always rely on my communications people. You see these statements … I don’t know why the statement went in the direction it did.”

“My staff is young. They work hard, but I haven’t heard anyone say ‘We should’ve sat down and talked about this.’ That’s not in their playbook.”

During a press conference at the Governor’s Mansion in February, Gov. Ralph Northam denied appearing in a KKK yearbook photo but admitted to moonwalking in blackface. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

After the statement went out, his wife demanded he come home.

Pam Northam said she hadn’t been aware the statement was going out and wasn’t happy about it when she saw it. “If she had been made aware of this, she would have ‘physically stood there and stopped it.’”

According to the report: “After the statement was issued, she demanded that Governor Northam return home. Thereafter, she recalled that Governor Northam looked at her and said ‘That’s not me in the photo.’ She stated, ‘There was no doubt. No equivocating,’ from Governor Northam after he denied being in the photograph. She told Governor Northam he had to say that publicly.”

A former roommate told Northam it couldn’t be him because his teeth looked too good.

The investigators say Northam began to regret his statement after calls came in from friends insisting the photo wasn’t him.

A former roommate at Virginia Military Institute who is now a dentist is among those who called. He flagged Northam’s teeth, bow tie and plaid pants as evidence.

“First, he told Governor Northam his teeth had never looked as good as the individual in blackface, and he did not think Governor Northam wore bowties or plaid pants,” according to the report. “The former VMI roommate also noted that the person in blackface held beer in his right hand, whereas Governor Northam usually uses his left hand.”

Other physical characteristics solidified Northam’s certainty that he wasn’t in the photo, according to the report, which says Northam “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.”

Facial recognition efforts were inconclusive.

Early on Northam floated facial recognition as an option for conclusively proving he wasn’t in the photo.

Investigators tried that route and it didn’t work, they said.

A consultant hired to analyze the picture “found the image of the photograph was not of sufficient quality to conduct a comparison with other photographs.”

Investigators couldn’t corroborate Northam’s claim that there were other errors in the yearbook.

Northam has suggested it appeared on his page as an error, and while yearbook staff members described a chaotic process of putting the book together, none could point to any errors in the edition under review.

“No one we spoke with identified an actual mistake in the 1984 yearbook,” the report states.

Former students also remain uncertain about where the photo was taken, but investigators say they think it would have either been a Halloween party or “perhaps a costume party with the theme of odd couples or opposites.”

One student contradicted Northam’s claim that he had never seen the photo.

The unnamed person told investigators they talked to Northam outside the EVMS library before the graduation and flipped through the yearbook with him, including a stop on his page.

“This individual did not recall the governor having any reaction to the photographs on his personal page that would suggest the governor thought there was an error on his page,” according to the report. “He did remember discussing the photograph featuring the car on Governor Northam’s page. This former student told us that he did not believe Governor Northam was in the photograph.”

Northam denied meeting or knowing the person.

The library on the campus of Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

EVMS knew about the yearbook photo before it was released.

A former alumni affairs director spotted it when preparing for a reunion.

“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.”

Staff alerted two consecutive presidents of the school — Harry Lester and current president Richard Homan. Both decided not to do or say anything about 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.”

As Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Patrick Wilson notes on Twitter, both men are Northam supporters, donating more than $31,000 to his campaigns over the years, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

At a press conference Wednesday, Homan said he chose not to remove the yearbook from the library, but might act differently given another chance.

“I probably would have in retrospect placed them in a reserve area that would be out of the public view,” he said. “But they are public documents, and it was our obligation to keep those as part of our public library that we administer.”

Northam’s staff thought political allies would hang with him through scandal.

Mercer cited “some miscalculations on my part” that informed the decision go forward with an initial statement admitting he was in the photo.

According to the report, Mercer said, “’I also think we naively thought that long-term friends of the governor would stand by him.’ There’s a sentiment that ‘you take ownership, you do the right thing, and you move on.’ We ‘thought we’d have one or two folks standing behind us.’ Instead there was a ‘torrent of resignation calls. We underestimated how strong and how quickly they would be’ coming in. ‘That was poor advice we provided the governor.'”

The new information seems unlikely to change anybody’s mind one way or the other. 

Northam’s stance remains unchanged to the extent that he’s still essentially asking people to take his word that it’s not him in the photo.

“I have cooperated with Richard Cullen and his team over the course of their investigation, both by making myself available for interviews and by turning over the findings of my private inquiry into the matter,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

“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.”

Republicans, meanwhile, noted the report does nothing to back up Northam’s claims that it’s not him in the photo.

“The report is entirely inconclusive and more questions remain unanswered than answered,” said House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, in a statement.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.