RICHMOND — Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox said Thursday that he has been quietly laying the groundwork for a bipartisan investigation of sexual assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax but Democrats have refused to cooperate.
For the past several days, Cox (Colonial Heights) has pressed Democrats to work with him on forming a 10-person investigative committee — with five Republicans, five Democrats and limited subpoena power — to look into claims by two women that Fairfax (D) sexually assaulted them years ago.
Fairfax has emphatically denied the allegations by Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson, both of whom have asked the General Assembly for the opportunity to publicly testify.
“Vanessa Tyson, Meredith Watson deserve a voice,” Cox said in an interview, recalling his pitch to Democratic leaders to form such a committee before the 46-day General Assembly session gavels to a close Saturday. “We need to work on a process to do that. And I would like for you to come alongside us.”
House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) confirmed that she and other Democratic leaders have met with Cox but said that 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. “We asked for the specifics: ‘What are you talking about? What would this look like? How would this be done?’ ”
Cox said he was proposing 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 people to have faith in the outcome.
With the Democrats not on board, he indicated — without elaborating — that he plans to seek another route.
Tyson accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Watson accused Fairfax of assaulting her in 2000, while they were students at Duke University.
Fairfax says the encounters were consensual and has criticized the allegations as part of 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 considered but eventually 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 yet another scandal unfolded: Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), who had called on Northam to resign, admitted that he had dressed in blackface as a college freshman.
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.
In polls conducted since the scandals broke, voters have been split over whether Fairfax should resign.
Asked about Cox’s proposal for a bipartisan investigative committee, Fairfax spokeswoman Lauren Burke said the lieutenant governor remains in favor of a “nonpolitical investigation.”
“It would be extraordinary and unprecedented to initiate a General Assembly inquiry about matters that are better left to law enforcement,” Burke said.
The back and forth between Cox and Filler-Corn over the attempt to create a panel led to dueling news conferences later 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.”