Virginia state Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle), chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee, may have created a trap. The question is who will it catch: House Republicans or Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D)?
After noting that House Democrats had refused an offer to form a special, bipartisan subcommittee to look into accusations of sexual assault two women leveled against Fairfax, Bell said, “I think it’s appropriate to make a statement about future plans.”
“The Courts of Justice Committee will schedule a meeting where we will invite Dr. [Vanessa] Tyson, Miss [Meredith] Watson to testify. We will also be inviting Lt. Gov. Fairfax to testify.”
“This will give all parties a chance to be heard,” Bell said.
Fairfax spokesman Lauren Burke said Bell’s decision was both a “distraction” and “political theater.”
Former delegate David Ramadan, a Republican, tends to agree with Burke. Ramadan told me his former colleagues were putting politics ahead of the truth and that a hearing “would put Republicans in a trap.”
“The committee has no investigative capabilities,” Ramadan said. “No staff, no money. It’s a charade.”
When contacted for a response, Bell said he had no comment beyond what he said on the House floor.
So the House committee would possibly take testimony from Fairfax’s accusers, neither of has agreed to appear, and possibly from Fairfax.
It really is a trap. But a political one, not a legal one.
Fairfax has already said he wants law enforcement to conduct a fair and impartial look into the accusations against him.
At the same time, he has made a perfectly reasonable request that due process be observed. It’s an appeal to fairness, which still has the power to move folks regardless of their politics.
But as a skilled lawyer who understands due process and how prosecutors’ offices work, Fairfax knows his legal peril is slim. The allegations against him are several years old. The Post’s investigation into Tyson’s allegations found no contemporary or other corroborating evidence an assault occurred. Watson wrote a powerful op-ed for The Post reasserting her claims against Fairfax, but she offered no new evidence or corroboration. Absent such evidence, charges against Fairfax are unlikely.
Fairfax can continue to demand an investigation and due process. But it will be for political reasons -- because that’s where his real peril lies.
Watson noted how frustrating this strategy is:
I am frustrated by calls for an investigation rather than a public hearing into these matters. Such ‘investigations’ are secret proceedings, out of the public eye, leaving victims vulnerable to selective leaks and smears. And we all know how such investigations end: with ‘inconclusive results.’
Which brings us back to Bell’s committee hearing.
Barring new evidence, independent corroborations or a stunning admission, the committee will have nothing to add that isn’t already in the public record.
But if Fairfax testifies (probably against the advice of counsel), his words may effectively paint Tyson and Watson, two women of color, as liars (again assuming both agree to participate in a GOP-only affair). While not legally perilous, the political perils for him are enormous.
Fairfax can’t participate in such a forum.
Burke has already made that clear and hinted at the danger Republicans face: “House Republicans want to pursue this historically unprecedented course of action because the accused is a popularly elected Democrat.”
If Democrats take control of the House or Senate and a Republican lawmaker faces accusations of wrongdoing, Democrats quite rightly would point to Bell’s hearing as all the precedent they need to proceed without so much as a nod from the GOP.
If Bell is still intent on going ahead with his committee hearings, don’t expect justice or a tidy ending. And be very wary of the politics.