The medical school that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam attended has been unable to determine who was pictured in a racist photo appeared on a 1984 yearbook page.
Eastern Virginia Medical School made the results of an independent investigation public late Wednesday morning.
Northam's profile in the 1984 yearbook included a photo of a man in blackface standing next to someone in Ku Klux Klan clothing. The revelation nearly ended his political career in February.
The independent investigation was conducted by the law firm McGuireWoods on behalf of the medical school in Norfolk.
"We could not conclusively determine the identity of either individual depicted in that photograph," McGuireWoods Attorney Ben Hatch said.
Thousands of letters and emails were sent to alumni asking for information.
"With respect to the Photograph on Governor Northam's personal page, we could not conclusively determine the identity of either individual depicted in the Photograph," the medical school said in its summary of the findings. "The Governor himself has made inconsistent public statements in this regard. No individual that 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."
Investigators said Northam did not believe he was in the photo when he first saw it but did not want to issue an immediate denial in case someone contradicted him.
"The best we can conclude is that he erred on the side of caution initially and immediately regretted not having denied," said attorney Richard Cullen, who led the investigation.
Northam's chief of staff, Clark Mercer, told investigators the governor was "in a state of shock" when the photo surfaced.
The report also said that they did not find any information that the photograph was placed on Northam's personal page in error and that they could not conclusively determine the origins of the photograph. "Our inquiry in this regard was restricted by the passage of time and the dearth of contemporaneous documentation," the findings say.
"I am not in the racist and offensive photo that appears under my name in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook," Northam said in a statement Wednesday.
While the headline is that investigators could NOT determine who was in the racist photo on Gov. Northam’s yearbook page they add: “We were also not able to conclude the Governor was in the picture..that would part of the headline as well.” @nbcwashington pic.twitter.com/R4DRXrIakZ— Julie Carey (@JulieCareyNBC) May 22, 2019
The investigation showed the medical school knew about the photo for years, but the school's president said they didn't disclose because they didn't want to be viewed as political.
James Boyd of the Portsmouth NAACP accused the investigators of covering up for the governor and the school.
“This is exactly what I feared would happen,” he said. “The community can have zero trust in what happened here today.”
State Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William County, was in the room with Northam in the hours after a right wing website exposed the photo, as part of the Virginia Legislature's black caucus that called for Northam to resign.
"He was not definitive in those early hours in saying that this is me, this is not me,” Torian said.
He believes the report helps Northam because there’s no evidence the picture is of him.
“The report is simply saying, because they could not come to any conclusion, the report basically is saying it’s not him," Torian said.
Virginia Republicans say Northam still owes the public answers about how the photo appeared on his yearbook page.
House Majority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert said in a statement the "report did not provide many answers" or substantive proof Northam isn't in the picture.
Gilbert also said he was concerned that leaders at the school were aware of the racist photo while Northam was running for office but did not notify the public.
"I take credit for recognizing that this was a horrific photo that was on my page, with my name," he said at the time. "I have no recollection at all of ever dressing up [in that photo]."
"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," Northam said in Wednesday's statement. "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."
NBC News located the yearbook from Eastern Virginia Medical School and found the page featuring the photo.
Northam has said he never bought a copy of the yearbook, but the school's findings say that one person recalled looking at the yearbook with him in 1984.
"While the Governor denies that this encounter occurred, this witness account would indicate that the Governor did know about the photograph in 1984, however, the witness did not think the Governor was personally depicted in the photograph," the school's findings say.
Yearbook staff members have disagreed over whether the photo could have been mistakenly placed on Northam's page.
Virginia politics were turned upside down in a matter of hours in early February after a conservative website posted the picture of Northam's medical school yearbook page. The Democratic governor issued two apologies within hours, initially indicating that he was one of the people in the picture. By midnight it appeared his entire political base was gone, with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, other key Democratic groups and top allies calling on him to resign.
Northam reversed course at a news conference the next day, saying he was convinced it was not him in the picture, while revealing that he did in fact wear blackface once decades ago, to look like Michael Jackson for a dance contest. Defying calls to resign, he said he wanted to focus his remaining three years in office on addressing longstanding racial inequities.
While he was all but invisible in February and much of March, the governor is making routine public appearances again.
And he's won praise from black lawmakers and others for several recent policy moves. Those include ending the suspension of driver's licenses for motorists with unpaid court fines and costs and a review into how public schools teach the nation's racial history.
The heat for Northam to resign significantly lessened after scandal enveloped his potential successors. Two women publicly accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, which he denies. And Attorney General Mark Herring announced he'd also worn blackface in college, just days after he too called on Northam to resign. Both Fairfax and Herring also resisted calls to resign. And other politicians around the South soon had their own explaining to do over yearbook images taken long ago.
But the incident will forever mark Northam's time in office, and opponents still use it against him. House Majority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert recently said Northam had chosen to "repair his own racist legacy," rather than protect victims of domestic abuse after the governor vetoed a bill requiring a mandatory jail term for repeat domestic abusers.
Complete statement from Northam on the investigative report:
“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. I am not in the racist and offensive photo that appears under my name in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook.
“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.”