Richmond, Va. • Republicans will invite two women who have accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, D, of sexual assault to publicly testify before lawmakers, despite Democrats’ objections that it would turn into a “political, partisan show.”
The move came one day after House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, criticized Democrats for resisting his efforts to launch a bipartisan investigation into the accusations against Fairfax.
Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, rose on the House floor shortly after noon on Friday and said the body had "a duty to investigate." He said the House Courts of Justice Committee will schedule a hearing but did not provide a date. He said Fairfax would be invited to testify, along with the two women.
Fairfax has emphatically denied the allegations, saying the encounters were consensual. His spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Democratic lawmakers slammed the notion of public hearings held by their GOP colleagues, particularly in an election year.
"Due process is absolutely needed," Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg. "It should be by a law enforcement agency and not by individuals who will be on the ballot in November."
"I question whether or not this body can truly deliver the justice that is sought," she said and added that in her opinion, "the answer is no."
"The seriousness of the allegations that have been made public in this case should not be turned into a political game," Aird said.
If Fairfax is charged with a crime by law enforcement and found guilty "the women, the black women on this side of the aisle will be the first people to draft articles of impeachment," Aird said.
But Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, disagreed with Aird.
Survivors of sexual violence should have the option to report sexual violence however they feel is best, he said. "When I was raped, I did not report it to law enforcement because I did not believe that was a way in which I would achieve justice," he said.
Cox originally proposed a 10-person investigative committee — with five Republicans, five Democrats and limited subpoena power - to look into claims by Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson that Fairfax sexually assaulted them years ago.
Both Tyson and Watson have asked the General Assembly for the opportunity to publicly testify.
Nancy Erika Smith, an attorney for Watson, said she "looks forward to testifying at this forum."
"It is our understanding that the hearing will be public and televised and that Ms. Watson, Dr. Tyson and Lt. Governor Fairfax will all testify under oath and be subject to the same rules and requirements, including our right to present witnesses and corroborators," Smith said in a statement.
Bell said that two weeks had passed since the women had made “very specific and detailed allegations that they had been sexually assaulted by Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. Governor Fairfax has denied these allegations. They’re obviously — extraordinarily — extremely serious. We tried to work diligently with our colleagues across the aisle to create a bipartisan way to investigate. Proposed a special subcommittee that would have been five-five — five Republicans, five Democrats — to hear testimony, issue subpoenas, conduct the investigation. That was declined.”
On Thursday, House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, confirmed that she and other Democratic leaders had met with Cox but said they were concerned that an investigative panel could impede possible criminal investigations.
"Nobody wants this to turn into a political, partisan show," Filler-Corn said.
She also said she was wary of agreeing to the formation of the committee without more details in writing. "We asked for the specifics: 'What are you talking about? What would this look like? How would this be done?' "
Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City, said he could not comment because if the House hearing turned out to be a precursor to impeachment proceedings, the Senate would serve as the jury.
“I’m not going to opine one way or the other because we would be sitting as a jury — if the Senate made the determination to participate,” he said.
Under the state constitution, articles of impeachment are initiated in the House of Delegates and then decided in the Senate.
Cox had initally proposed a special subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee, which could hear testimony from witnesses. He said the findings could form the basis for impeachment, but he cautioned against calling the panel an "impeachment committee" because that might not be the outcome.
Republicans, who hold a slim majority in both chambers of the legislature, would need bipartisan cooperation for any investigative effort, Cox said, for the public to have faith in the outcome.
But absent cooperation from Democrats, Cox said he would go forward with another format.
Tyson has accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Watson says Fairfax assaulted her in 2000, while they were students at Duke University.
Fairfax has called the allegations a smear campaign against him. Both women went public with their accusations at a moment when Fairfax appeared to be on the cusp of ascending to the governorship.
Democrats and Republicans alike were calling on Gov. Ralph Northam, D, to step down after revelations of a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page and his admission that he darkened his cheeks with shoe polish that year while dressed as Michael Jackson for a dance contest.
Fairfax would have become governor if Northam had resigned, an option the governor initially considered but then dismissed.
Democrats and Republicans were more restrained when Tyson stepped forward with her accusation, with most saying the lieutenant governor deserved due process.
They also held their fire when another scandal unfolded: Attorney General Mark Herring, D, who had called on Northam to resign, admitted that he had dressed in blackface as a college student.
But after Watson stepped forward with the second accusation, Democratic Party leaders quickly called for Fairfax to resign. He has said repeatedly that he will not step down and wants the FBI or others to investigate the accusations. The FBI has no jurisdiction over either case, since the allegations do not include a federal crime.
In polls conducted since the scandals broke, voters have been split over whether Fairfax should resign.
The back and forth between Cox and Filler-Corn over the attempt to create a panel led to dueling news conferences Thursday in the Capitol.
Cox's spokesman, Parker Slaybaugh, handed reporters copies of a joint statement that he said Filler-Corn had asked Cox to sign last week.
"It is our view that it is impossible for the General Assembly to conduct a thorough and credible investigation and impeachment process that is fair to Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson and to the Lieutenant Governor, consistent with the Assembly's constitutional duties, at this time," the letter said.
Cox refused to sign, Slaybaugh said.
Filler-Corn, who stepped up to the cameras immediately after Cox, acknowledged that the statement had been drafted by Democrats but insisted that it did not mean they were ruling out a legislative investigation.
"They [Republicans] seem to think that they have ideas as to how this could transpire," Filler-Corn said. "We have yet to see the details. So until we know, we cannot make a decision ourselves."
The Washington Post’s Gregory S. Schneider, Jenna Portnoy and Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.