NASHVILLE — Tennessee House Republicans on Friday twice rebuffed efforts by Democrats to oust Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, the retired high school coach accused by three female former students of sexually assaulting them during the 1980s.
The actions came as the General Assembly met in special session in order for the House to elect Republican Cameron Sexton of Crossville as the new speaker replacing Glen Casada, who resigned under pressure on Aug. 2 over multiple scandals.
As expected, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, first pressed forward with her resolution to expel Byrd "for disorderly behavior as described by credible victims in multiple reports."
Only the day before, incoming Speaker Sexton said he planned to send the measure to Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery for review. As Johnson's resolution came up Friday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael Curcio, R-Dickson, moved to send it to his committee, saying the panel could hold hearings later this year depending on what Slatery says.
Democrats objected, with Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville arguing, "there's no need for delay tactics. We just need to proceed forward with this issue."
Assistant Chief Clerk and Parliamentarian Daniel Hicks said the resolution couldn't be heard in the one-day special session because it was substantive in nature and would require committee action, as opposed to the raft of resolutions which did pass that honored someone or commemorated an event.
The resolution was shipped off to the Judiciary Committee on a 71-26 party-line vote.
Later, Johnson came forward with another approach in the form of making a simple expulsion motion to expel Byrd under a provision of the Tennessee Constitution. That spurred more heated debate.
Critics said that because the charges involve decades-old behavior, statute of limitations guidelines would apply.
But Johnson said that charges that Byrd specifically assaulted then-underage basketball players he coached and is now participating in what she called a cover-up as a sitting Tennessee legislator, it amounts to a "crime that occurred while he was in the Legislature."
Calling the allegations very serious, Curcio said, "we believe in due process and we will get to this in a full Judiciary Committee meeting" if Sexton agrees it should be held.
Republicans tabled Johnson's expulsion motion on a 71-25 vote with one Democrat, Rep. Barbara Cooper of Memphis, abstaining.
Sexton later told reporters he wants to hear what Slatery "says on that, because if her argument is valid then the AG is going to say that we can do exactly what she wants to do. So we'll have to wait until we see what happens."
Byrd has been under pressure to resign for months but had been largely protected by Casada, who further incensed critics after becoming speaker in January by naming Byrd a chairman of a House education subcommittee. But after Byrd refused to vote for a controversial school voucher bill that Casada supported, the then-speaker stripped Byrd of his chairmanship.
After meeting Byrd's accusers in the spring, Republican Gov. Bill Lee said he found their stories "credible" and also said Byrd needs to address them publicly, a view he repeated to reporters on Thursday.
Byrd, who has never outright denied the allegations, has refused and generally seeks to avoid reporters.
Some Republicans have defended Byrd, saying the allegations came out in advance of the 2018 election and voters opted to re-elect him. Others have quietly said for months they were under the impression that Byrd simply wouldn't seek re-election in 2020.
The issue came up Friday in a closed-door meeting of the GOP Caucus when Byrd said he was not going to run again, The Tennessean reported.
Byrd refused to acknowledge that later to reporters.
Meanwhile, some Republicans are upset over the leak about Byrd's plans and want to get to the bottom of it.
While declining to confirm Byrd's planned retirement remarks, Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, said in response to a reporter's question that "understanding a report has been published online, what I can tell you is we had a confidential closed-door session of the House Republican Caucus. And being very respectful, the unfortunate thing is someone within that caucus has already leaked to the media."
A member of the House Ethics Committee, Smith said that if Sexton allows her to continue serving on the panel "I'll be working with our legal resource team as well as any other Ethics Committee members who might join me in looking at how we can address some of the leaks and betrayal that we're having with a Republican Caucus."
She said Byrd's last request to the caucus after what she characterized was a "very sincere moment of comments about what process has happened, the fact that he was re-elected with upwards of 78% of what I think are four or five of his counties. He did explain that this is a tough decision for him."
But Smith said "knowing his last request was to not have anyone go on the record, that confidence has been breached. And we're seeing time and again that someone within our House Caucus is not honoring respect within our own caucus, and I will do what I am able to do to structure an environment of trust again."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.