A scathing public letter signed by more than 150 of Madison Cawthorn’s former schoolmates at Patrick Henry College alleges that the Republican candidate engaged in “sexually predatory behavior,” vandalism and lying as a student and is unfit for congress or as a representative of the conservative Christian school.
The letter, in the form of an online petition, was posted over the weekend by alumni who said they knew Cawthorn during the 2016-2017 academic year. He dropped out before the end of his second semester and didn’t return.
Within hours of the letter’s release October 17, the number of Patrick Henry College alumni signers exploded, from 10 to 150 by midweek. Many of the signers also recounted on social media their personal experiences with Cawthorn during that period, including several who alleged that they were victims of his sexual misconduct or had learned of it from other alleged victims at the time. Cawthorn did not respond to a request to comment about the letter’s specific allegations.
“[B]ased on our knowledge of Cawthorn’s character and our experience with him as a classmate at PHC, we have determined that we must speak out and resolutely oppose his bid to represent the people of North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District,” the letter stated.
“Cawthorn’s time at PHC was marked by gross misconduct toward our female peers, public misrepresentation of his past, disorderly conduct that was against the school’s honor code, and self-admitted academic failings.”
The letter said Cawthorn frequently asked female students to join him on “joy rides” in his sporty Dodge Challenger. He would take the women “to secluded areas, lock the doors, and proceed to make unwanted sexual advances,” it said.
One of the authors, Giovanna Lastra, was a senior and the head RA – residential assistant – in the female dorm, where her responsibilities included counseling younger students. In an interview with AVL Watchdog, Lastra said several students reported having been victimized by Cawthorn in this manner to the point where she said she felt it necessary to warn others that, if invited by him to go on a “joy ride,” to “stay away; he’s trouble.”
Cawthorn campaign spokesman John Hart characterized the allegations as “unsubstantiated and anonymous accusations” and blamed without evidence Democratic-candidate Moe Davis for disseminating them. The letter authors, however, told AVL Watchdog that they had no contact with either the Davis campaign or any other political organization. Many describe themselves as conservative Christians who have worked in Republican organizations or for Republican candidates.
Davis’s campaign manager Graeme McGufficke denied any connection to the letter and said the Democratic candidate would have no comment.
“This was driven exclusively by our desire to inform voters about the Madison Cawthorn we knew,” said Abby Osborne, one of the authors. “We’re graduates of a small school where everybody knows everybody. We didn’t want this guy to represent our college.”
Patrick Henry College is located in Purcellville, Va., a distant suburb of Washington, DC. Many of its 300 students were – like Cawthorn – homeschooled in a conservative Christian curriculum. According to its website, the college’s mission is “to prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values and fidelity to the spirit of the American founding.”
Osborne said that mission was central to her decision to participate in crafting and distributing the letter. “How could I let a liar and sexual predator go into office while I stood by and did nothing despite knowing what I know?” she said in an interview.
Three incidents alleging sexual misconduct by Cawthorn – two involving Patrick Henry College students — were reported previously in a conservative Christian publication, World Magazine, written by a reporter who was also a graduate of the school. Cawthorn didn’t challenge that report, but attributed his actions to awkward attempts to kiss his dates at a time when he was learning to adjust to his situation as a paraplegic after his 2014 car accident. He offered an apology to the women named in that article.
But one of the authors of the online letter, Marquis Gough, who became president of the student government, said the words “sexual predator” to describe Cawthorn were carefully chosen because reports from “multiple” female students of being victimized while on car rides “fit the same pattern.”
“This wasn’t the isolated incidence of an opportunist,” Gough said in an interview. “It is a pattern of predatory behavior. People say that he’s in a wheelchair and ask how could this be? But when you’re in his car with him and he locks the door, there’s no escape.”
Gough said Cawthorn’s reputation with female students was well known on the tight-knit campus, and many shunned him. When Cawthorn ran for student Senate, he fell short in part because of his reputation, Gough said.
The letter also linked to a recorded speech Cawthorn delivered in January 2017, midway through his freshman year, at a gathering in the college chapel called a “testimony.” These talks feature selected students or invited guests who “testify” about how their religious faith assisted them in overcoming a life challenge. It was rare, if not unprecedented, that a freshman would be featured, Gough said, but Cawthorn came to the school with some notoriety because of his family connection to then-Congressman Mark Meadows, a school benefactor, and a reputation for being an inspirational speaker.
In his talk, Cawthorn recounted his privileged childhood in western North Carolina, his religious upbringing and his success as a homeschooled student and athlete. He claimed to have been among the Naval Academy’s “top football recruits” in 2014 and said he dreamed of becoming a Marine. But also as he falsely has claimed in his congressional campaign, he told the assembled gathering that the injuries sustained in the car crash in April of that year prevented him from attending the academy.
The alumni letter referenced a report by AVL Watchdog that Cawthorn admitted in a sworn deposition that the Naval Academy had rejected his application prior to the car crash, thus his injuries were irrelevant to the negative decision. Repeating this claim during the chapel presentation, the letter said, was “a public misrepresentation of his past.”
In that talk, Cawthorn also spoke about his close friendship with Brad Ledford, whom he regarded as “my best friend, my brother.” Ledford was driving the car that crashed into a highway barrier at 70 miles per hour as the pair were returning to North Carolina from a spring-break vacation in Florida. Ledford climbed out of the wrecked vehicle while Cawthorn, unconscious, was trapped in the front passenger seat as flames engulfed the rear of the car.
Cawthorn told the chapel gathering that Ledford was “freaking out” and that he “ran into the woods [and] he leaves me in the car to die.” Only because of the actions of a bystander was he freed from the wreckage before flames reached him, he said.
The assembled students were stunned by Cawthorn’s story and sympathetic to his claim that he may have been fatally abandoned by his “best friend.” But as the letter noted citing several sources, this also was false. The letter linked to an interview that Cawthorn’s father gave to Asheville television station WLOS just days after the crash.
Ledford “wasn’t scared, didn’t run from the fire. He pulled [Madison] from the car because he was unconscious,” Cawthorn’s father said. “He saved our son’s life.”
The letter concluded: “Cawthorn is willing to skew the truth and slander the character of a friend who saved his life.”
The letter also cites what it calls Cawthorn’s involvement with another student in a “well-documented case of vandalism.” Gough said Cawthorn stole from a dorm lounge a ceremonial sword that had “deep sentimental value” to the student residents. After several days of intense searching, the sword was found encased in cement in the middle of a campus pond. Although Cawthorn was identified as the culprit, Gough said no charges were brought against him, though he was “counseled in a Christian manner.”
The Cawthorn campaign responded Sunday by posting a letter claiming its own “official endorsement” from Patrick Henry College alumni “who knew him personally at the time.” It also implied the endorsement of the school’s founder and former president, Michael Farris, who is highly respected in conservative political and religious circles.
The campaign letter said Cawthorn “represents the dream that Patrick Henry College was founded upon” and that he has “presented himself as a role model for young students who seek to enter politics.” It dismissed the attack letter as coming from “liberal sources as well as discontented PHC alumni, who never knew or interacted with Madison” and who were motivated by “jealousy and vitriol.”
The campaign response was signed by six people, two of whom – Micah Block and Blake Harp – are employed by the Cawthorn campaign. But rather than countering the original letter, it appears to have backfired.
Former PHC President Farris quickly released a statement denying an endorsement and saying the Cawthorn “statement is not true.” Farris wrote in a widely shared text that he had contacted the campaign’s “chief consultant.”
“I told him to have Madison leave me out of it,” Farris wrote.
The head of the alumni association also stated contrary to the campaign letter’s claim that the association makes no political endorsements.
The competing claims of PHC alumni support have ignited a social-media firestorm driven primarily by former students sharing personal stories and opinions about Cawthorn.
At least two female graduates identified themselves by name as being among the victims of Cawthorn’s unwanted sexual advances. “I personally experienced Cawthorn’s predatory behavior and sexual harassment, which is why I signed this letter with other alum,” one wrote in a tweet that drew several dozen retweets.
AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Tom Fiedler is former executive editor of The Miami Herald, where he shared a Pulitzer Prize for his political reporting. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.