A messy partisan battle is looming over efforts by Virginia lawmakers to investigate two women's allegations of rape against one of the state's top officials.
Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox blasted Democrats Thursday as obstructionists, saying they are intent on blocking the women who accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault from testifying at legislative hearings. Cox said he's tried repeatedly to get Democrats to help establish a process for lawmakers to hear directly from Fairfax's accusers and other key witnesses. He has proposed empowering a bipartisan subcommittee, made up of five Republicans and five Democrats, to hold hearings and do other investigative work.
But the speaker said Democrats have ducked his suggestion for days with excuses and are trying to stall until the legislative session finishes on Saturday.
"We just need a yes or no answer, I think that's what we're still looking for. Don't give us a lot of excuses,'' said Cox.
Democratic Minority Leader Del. Eileen Filler-Corn said Cox is playing "political games'' and has not provided details about how such a complicated process, including the cross-examination of witnesses, would work. She also said Democrats are concerned about impeding a possible criminal investigation in Massachusetts, where one of the alleged assaults occurred.
"They have yet to share details or specifics with us,'' Filler-Corn said. "How can we make a decision moving forward when they haven't been forthright with this information?''
She added that Democrats do not have a clear idea about if and how a legislative probe should proceed.
"If we had all the answers we would be sharing them, but you know what, we're also not the majority party, are we?'' she said.
Fairfax has said he will not heed widespread calls to resign in the wake of the sexual assault allegations. The accusations surfaced amid an unprecedented wave of scandal this month that's rocked Virginia's top Democratic leadership. Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have separately faced calls to resign after acknowledging they dressed in blackface decades ago. Both have indicated they also plan to remain in office.
Earlier this month, Vanessa 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 Tyson plans to meet with prosecutors in Massachusetts to detail her allegations.
Meredith Watson 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.
Fairfax has emphatically denied both accusations. He's vowed to clear his name against what he described as a "vicious and coordinated smear campaign'' being orchestrated against him. The lieutenant governor role in Virginia is largely ceremonial, but is first in line to become governor if there's a vacancy.
Fairfax has strongly resisted calls for the General Assembly to investigate and called for authorities, including the FBI, to investigate the women's claims.
"It would be extraordinary and unprecedented to initiate a General Assembly inquiry about matters that are better left to law enforcement,'' Fairfax spokesman Lauren Burke said Thursday.
Democrats have expressed unease about trying to forcibly remove Fairfax, who is only the second African-American to win statewide office. An effort by Democratic Del. Patrick Hope to start the impeachment process against Fairfax earlier this month was soundly rejected by members of his own party and Hope quickly tabled the idea.
Both Tyson and Watson have been critical of the General Assembly for its inaction. Tyson' lawyers issued a statement Thursday calling for lawmakers to hire "experienced independent investigators'' to probe the allegations against Fairfax.
"It is unfathomable that the Virginia General Assembly appears intent on ending its current session without addressing this issue in any meaningful way,'' the statement said. "Credible allegations of sexual assault must not be ignored.''
Cox said Thursday that the women deserve a public hearing said he's moving "quickly'' to try and find an alternative solution without Democrats' help.