Virginia Republicans take steps to investigate claims against lieutenant governor

Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax addresses the media about a sexual assault allegation from 2004 outside of the Capitol in dowtown Richmond, Virginia, February 4, 2019.

(CNN)Republicans in Virginia led by House Speaker Kirk Cox are prepared to set up a framework to publicly investigate the claims of rape and sexual assault leveled against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. The move comes as Virginia's General Assembly session comes to an end on Saturday.

Sources briefed on the plan say Cox would like to set up a special panel made up of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats who would build a process for the claims to be examined. The panel, likely a subcommittee of the House Courts and Justice Committee, would have subpoena power and the opportunity to call witnesses and hold public hearings on the matter. However, Cox is willing to move forward only if he can get buy-in from Democrats and, so far, the two sides cannot get on the same page.
The accusers, Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson, have both expressed a desire for Fairfax to resign. They also have said they are willing to tell their stories in an open hearing through the General Assembly. Both have said they are not interested in filing criminal charges against Fairfax, but Tyson has agreed to meet with the district attorney in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, where the alleged assault took place.
"It is unfathomable that the Virginia General Assembly appears intent on ending its current session without addressing this issue in any meaningful way," said Debra Katz, the attorney for Tyson, prior to Cox's call to action. "We call on the General Assembly to hire experienced independent investigators to conduct a prompt and thorough inquiry of these matters."
    Democratic leaders have never ruled out the idea of a General Assembly-led investigation, but they have been very cautious in their approach, concerned that the lack of experience in matters like these and limited investigatory power could lead to a partisan sideshow.
    While the Virginia Constitution and the rules of the House of Delegates appear to give the legislature the authority to conduct investigations into elected leaders, there is no precedent to guide the process. Furthermore, while the body has subpoena power it is unlikely that power extends beyond Virginia's borders, and both alleged incidents took place in different states.
    In private meetings with Democratic Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, Legislative Black Caucus Chair Lamont Bagby and other caucus members, Cox has attempted to strike a bipartisan deal to handle the investigation, but Democrats have balked at his efforts. Many Democrats, including Bagby, would prefer the investigations to be handled in the states where the alleged incidents took place, despite pleas by the accusers for the issue to be dealt with in Virginia.
    "Apparently, the Virginia House Democratic Caucus believes that courageous victims of rape need to be heard -- just not by them," said Nancy Erika Smith, an attorney for Watson. "Ms. Watson is counting on the General Assembly to do the right thing and hold hearings now. These nonstop efforts to duck their role is pure cowardice."
    Democrats claim that Cox has not been upfront in his negotiations on the matter. Sources in the Democratic leader's office say Filler-Corn pressed Cox for the specifics of his plan and he never provided them. Filler-Corn and Legislative Black Caucus member Del. Charniele Herring sent Cox a letter on Thursday informing him of her desire to work with the speaker, but demanding that he provide the plans to move forward in writing.
    "We remain hopeful that we will continue to work in good faith to reach a bi-partisan consensus on the best path forward for the accusers, the accused and the Commonwealth," they wrote.
    Lauren Burke, a spokeswoman for Fairfax, said the matter was better left to law enforcement.
      "The Lieutenant Governor has remained steadfast in denying the allegations against him. He has repeatedly made clear his desire for a full, fair, independent, impartial, and non-political investigation. He was the first and remains the only party to these matters to call for such an investigation in order to get to the truth," Burke said in a statement.
      "It would be extraordinary and unprecedented to initiate a General Assembly inquiry about matters that are better left to law enforcement. The Lieutenant Governor remains confident that the truth will prevail and that he will be exonerated."