A top Virginia Republican announced Friday that the state's judiciary committee will invite the two women accusing Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault to testify when the legislature returns in April.
Del. Rob Bell, chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee, made the announcement after demands from the accusers’ lawyers that the legislature take action on the allegations before it adjourns this weekend.
“Today, the Courts of Justice Committee will schedule a meeting,” Bell said on the House floor. “We will invite Dr. Vanessa Tyson and Ms. Meredith Watson to testify. We will also be inviting Lt. Gov. Fairfax to testify to give all parties a chance to be heard.”
Bell cited the committee's responsibility to “investigate the conduct” of “all public officers and agents concerned” to protect the public interest.
Watson's attorney, Nancy Erika Smith, said her client is "gratified" by the decision and would accept the invitation.
"She looks forward to testifying at this forum," Smith said in a statement Friday. "It is our understanding that the hearing will be public and televised and that Ms. Watson, Dr. Tyson and Lt. Governor Fairfax will all testify under oath and be subject to the same rules and requirements, including our right to present witnesses and corroborators."
The move came after Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican, said Thursday that he had been working to organize a bipartisan committee to investigate the allegations against Fairfax. But Cox said Democrats resisted the idea.
A source close to Cox told Fox News on Friday that the speaker wanted the committee to be bipartisan but, absent participation of Democrats, Cox was concerned the effort would be seen as a partisan operation.
While that effort has stalled, the announcement of a hearing marks a significant development following concerns from the accusers and their attorneys that Richmond officials might move past the controversy without investigating the underlying allegations. Virginia House Democrats, earlier this week, reiterated calls for Fairfax to resign, but said they “believe the law enforcement investigation should proceed encumbered and outside of the political arena.”
Tyson’s attorney Debra Katz on Thursday raised alarm that the legislature could adjourn without action. “It is unfathomable that the Virginia General Assembly appears intent on ending its current session without addressing this issue in any meaningful way,” Katz said, urging the General Assembly to hire independent investigators to conduct a probe.
Watson’s legal team also accused state Democrats of “pure cowardice” in allegedly ducking the issue, while calling for hearings.
Tyson, the first to come forward, has claimed that Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex at a hotel in Boston during the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Fairfax has denied the allegation, saying their relationship was consensual. Tyson has maintained it was not.
Tyson’s legal team noted that she has “made clear that she is willing to cooperate in any investigation” by the Assembly and by the Suffolk County District Attorney—which has jurisdiction over the alleged incident.
“As she has made clear previously, Dr. Vanessa Tyson is prepared to testify at a public hearing regarding Lt. Governor Fairfax’s sexual assault of her in 2004," Tyson's attorneys said in a Friday statement. "However, she has not yet received an invitation to do so from members of the Virginia Legislature.”
Last week, the district attorney’s office offered to hear from Tyson, saying in a statement that the office’s “resources” were available to her. The district attorney’s office on Friday did not respond to Fox News’ request for comment on the status of those possible talks.
Watson’s allegations surfaced days after Tyson’s. She claimed that Fairfax, in 2000 while they were students at Duke University, raped her.
Fairfax has said that the encounters with Watson and Tyson were consensual and suggested that both women’s accusations are part of a political smear campaign to prevent him from succeeding Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam if he’s forced to resign amid a racist photo scandal.
“I have never forced myself on anyone ever,” Fairfax said. “I demand a full investigation into these unsubstantiated and false allegations. Such an investigation will confirm my account because I am telling the truth.”
Fox News' Ellison Barber, Alex Pappas, Garrett Tenney and The Associated Press contributed to this report.