RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia House Republicans announced plans Friday to hold a public hearing where Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and the two women who have recently accused him of sexual assault can testify, a move that will likely inflame a partisan battle over the General Assembly's role in investigating the allegations.
Republican Del. Rob Bell said the House Courts of Justice Committee will invite Vanessa Tyson, Meredith Watson and Fairfax to a hearing at an unspecified future date.
"This will give all parties a chance to be heard," Bell said in brief remarks on the House floor.
He added that Republicans believe they have a duty to investigate the allegations made against the lieutenant governor.
Democratic House members have said they don't believe the General Assembly is the best place to investigate the allegations at this time and said they don't want to impede possible criminal investigations.
"The justice and the due process that we seek should be by a law enforcement entity, not by individuals who will be on the ballot in November," Del. Lashrecse Aird said on the House floor.
But Democrats are not united on the issue. Del. Lee Carter gave an emotional speech where he broke with his caucus and said lawmakers should focus on the wishes of the alleged victims, who have indicated a willingness to testify before the legislature.
"When I was raped, I did not report to law enforcement because I did not believe that that was a way in which I would achieve justice," Carter said, adding that survivors of sexual violence should have "the option of how they wish to seek justice."
Earlier this month, Tyson publicly accused Fairfax of forcing her to perform oral sex in his hotel room during the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. Her lawyer said last week that Tyson plans to meet with prosecutors in Massachusetts to detail her allegations.
Meredith Watson has also publicly accused Fairfax of sexual assault. She issued a statement accusing him of raping her 19 years ago while they were students at Duke University.
The Associated Press generally does not name people who say they are victims of sexual assault, but both women have come forward voluntarily.
Both women reiterated Friday they were prepared to testify publicly at the General Assembly, but differed in their response to the GOP invitation.
Tyson's lawyers issued a statement urging lawmakers to find a bipartisan "path forward," and said Tyson does not want to be "embroiled in a highly charged political environment."
Watson said Friday that she is "gratified" by the Republicans' offer and looks forward to testifying, according to a statement issued by her attorney, Nancy Erika Smith.
Fairfax has emphatically denied both accusations and blasted the GOP proposal Friday as a political stunt meant to distract the public from Republicans' recent votes against the Equal Rights Amendment, a gender-equality measure.
"House Republicans want to pursue this historically unprecedented course of action because the accused is a popularly elected Democrat," said Fairfax spokeswoman Lauren Burke.
The lieutenant governor in Virginia is largely a ceremonial role but is first in line to become governor if there's a vacancy.
The accusations against Fairfax surfaced during an unprecedented time of turmoil in Virginia politics earlier this month. Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, both Democrats, have separately faced calls to resign after acknowledging they dressed in blackface decades ago. Both have indicated they also plan to remain in office.