Virginia House Republicans are floating the idea of using next month’s special session on guns to hold a hearing on the sexual assault allegations against Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.
In a letter sent to Democrats on Monday, Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, said the July 9 session presents a “good opportunity” for a hearing on the Fairfax situation, or at least a conversation about scheduling a proceeding “later in the summer.”
“We respectfully ask the Democratic Caucus to agree to something — anything — that would allow bipartisan public hearings to take place,” Bell, the chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee, wrote to House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax.
Gov. Ralph Northam called the special session in the aftermath of the mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building that left 12 people dead. Though Northam, a Democrat, encouraged lawmakers to pass new laws to prevent gun violence, Republican leaders can use the session to pursue their own ends.
In a statement Tuesday, Fairfax’s office blasted GOP leaders for what he called a “shameful” attempt at “dodging a discussion” on guns.
“A Republican show trial during an election year is not an investigation that will reveal the truth,” said Fairfax spokeswoman Lauren Burke. “Speaker [Kirk] Cox and Del. Rob Bell’s goals are to embarrass the Democratic Party in an election year and avoid talking about reducing gun violence and the NRA’s control over the GOP.”
The allegations against Fairfax, which the lieutenant governor has adamantly denied, became public in February and re-entered the headlines last week after Fairfax’s lawyers sent letters to prosecutors in Massachusetts and North Carolina asking them to investigate the claims. Fairfax’s two accusers — Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson — responded with statements of their own, reiterating their desires to tell their stories publicly at the General Assembly.
Tyson has accused Fairfax of forcing her to perform oral sex in a Boston hotel room in 2004. Watson has accused Fairfax of raping her while the two were students at Duke University in 2000.
Republicans first signaled their willingness to hold a Fairfax hearing in February, but said Democrats have blocked the effort by refusing to discuss logistics of how such a proceeding could happen.
In his letter to Filler-Corn, Bell noted that Tyson’s lawyers had said the legislature has an “independent responsibility to ensure that Virginia’s leaders have the character and temperament to represent the Commonwealth.”
In a response Tuesday, Filler-Corn said Democrats suggested an “alternative option,” hiring a law firm or other third party to look into the matter. She said the lack of a reply and the absence of “good faith” negotiations show Democrats were right to be concerned about the Republicans’ motives.
“As such, we will not participate in House Republicans’ political games, nor will we turn such serious allegations into a partisan sideshow,” Filler-Corn wrote in her reply to Bell.
Cox spokesman Parker Slaybaugh said hiring an outside investigator to look into the Fairfax allegations is “not a serious idea.”
“Democrats would prefer these women be forced to tell their stories shrouded in secrecy so Democrats can sweep it under the rug rather than agreeing to give these brave women the voice they have repeatedly asked for,” Slaybaugh said.
Republicans have said Fairfax would be invited to participate in any hearing that takes place. Fairfax has mostly dismissed the idea, suggesting Republicans would subject him to a political show trial. Last week, Fairfax said his accusers have had four months to pursue criminal investigations against him, but have instead sought to make their cases in the media.
House Democrats are divided over the issue, with some saying Fairfax, the only African American who holds a statewide office in Virginia, should be afforded due process in the face of allegations that have not been substantiated by law enforcement. Others have argued for a more proactive approach, saying the General Assembly could conduct its own process to gather more information and give the accusers a public forum in Richmond.
Republicans too seem to have mixed feelings about how to proceed. Though the House GOP has pressed for a hearing, Republican leaders in the Senate have said the matter should be left to law enforcement.
In a radio interview Tuesday morning on WRVA, Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said Democrats have “flatly refused” to discuss how the House could honor the accusers’ requests. Cox said the special session would be an “ideal time” for a hearing.
“It’ll be interesting to see if they say yes. If they don’t, that is squarely on them,” Cox said.
Kathryn Gilley, a spokeswoman for the House Democratic Caucus, questioned the timing of Republicans’ new offensive, noting that it comes the day after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a redistricting case that could make it harder for Republicans to defend their slim House majority in elections later this year.
“We seem to always hear from House Republicans right about the time they are unhappy with the news headlines,” Gilley said.
Fairfax’s office singled out Bell for criticism, saying Bell has “spent his entire legislative career pushing the goals of law enforcement and prosecutors.”
“It is beyond time for him to stop playing political games and insulting the intelligence of Virginians and for him to encourage prosecutors in Boston and Durham to do a full, fair and nonpolitical investigation,” Burke said. “That is the path to the truth.”
Bell could not immediately be reached for comment.