NASHVILLE — A Tennessee Democratic lawmaker says she expects to press in the House's upcoming August special legislative session to expel embattled Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, who is accused by three former students of sexual misconduct while he was their high school basketball coach in the 1980s.
"We have what most consider to be an admitted child molester in the House of Representatives," Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, told reporters last week. "And he has not to this date explained the phone call where he's apologizing to Christi Rice."
That was a reference to a 2018 secretly recorded conversation by Rice in which Byrd apologized to the former student for his past actions. It was aired last year on WSMV-TV.
In the recording, Byrd, who retired as a principal from the Wayne County school system and was first elected to the House in 2014, said, "I have been so sorry for that. I've lived with that and you don't know how hard it has been for me."
Byrd, however, didn't go into into specifics about exactly what he had done. While never outright denying the allegations, the lawmaker has said in public statements he has never done anything improper since his 2014 election to the House.
The General Assembly is reconvening Aug. 23 in a special session called by Republican Gov. Bill Lee. House members are expected to elect a replacement for departing GOP Speaker Glen Casada, who is resigning Aug. 2.
Casada announced his resignation as speaker after a May no-confidence vote by fellow Republicans, triggered by scandalous sexist and racist text messages with a top aide, as well as other controversies.
With regard to Byrd, Johnson said a number of Republicans have told her "it's very clear to them that in that conversation [with Rice] what it was about. And the fact that he will not answer to anyone in the House and to you guys, I think it's important that we push that issue."
She said she doesn't plan to pursue the route of first filing a complaint with the House Ethics Committee if it's not required, adding, "it's my understanding that you can do a House resolution" for expulsion.
While saying she had not reached out to House Ethics Committee attorneys, Johnson noted she had talked to Democratic lawmakers who are attorneys who she said advised her that an expulsion resolution could simply be introduced.
Legal staff in the past have said a complaint cannot be based on actions taken before someone become a legislator. But Johnson said she believes she could pursue an investigation based on Byrd's 2018 conversation with Rice.
Asked by reporters if she thought enough of the House Republican super majority would go along with an effort to expel Byrd, Johnson said: "I know that quietly, there's quite a bit of support. How will they vote? That's the question. That's the big question. Will they have the political courage to follow their gut and follow what their constituents want."
Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, said that if Johnson is serious, she "needs to reach out to legislative legal staff at the very least."
The proper House route, said Lamberth, a former state prosecutor, involves filing a formal complaint with the Ethics Committee, providing for "due process" in the course of the committee's investigation. And then a vote "on that with a clear and concise allegation" before it would come to the floor for any final action.
"If she chooses not to go through that process, it's blatant partisan politics at its worse," Lamberth said.
Lamberth noted the state is still embroiled in a federal lawsuit filed by former Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, over his 2016 expulsion by the House. That's despite a formal investigation having been made by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery into numerous allegations by female staffers and lobbyists, Lamberth said.
The majority leader also has said any complaint against Byrd should be based on actions during the 111th General Assembly, which convened in January.
Casada added fuel to to controversy earlier this year after appointing Byrd chairman of an important House subcommittee. When a group of women showed up at a Byrd-led hearing at the Cordell Hull State Office Building and held up signs denouncing him, the chairman called for a recess and quickly left.
After some demonstrators during the recess began asking members where they stood on Byrd, Casada's office directed state troopers to remove them. They then conducted a sit-in in Casada's office. Casada later stripped Byrd of his chairmanship. That was after Byrd voted against a school voucher bill favored by the speaker.
Lee, who has spoken with Rice, recently said he finds her story "credible" and believes Byrd needs to address the accusations.
The demonstrators have created a political action committee called Enough is Enough Tennessee.
Last week, the protesters showed up at a town hall-style meeting, where one of the women asked Lee if he would support a vote to expel Byrd.
A one-time colleague of Byrd, former Rep. Barry Doss, R-Lawrenceburg, generated his own controversy by later approaching Kristina Richardson, a Hardin County resident and sexual assault survivor, who had posed the question to Lee.
She videotaped Doss and the exchange was later posted to the Twitter account of The Tennessee Holler.
After Doss asked Richardson whether she was being paid, she said she wasn't. Doss then goes on to say he had served with Byrd before his own 2018 GOP primary defeat and that Byrd is "different than he was 32 years ago. He's a good Christian man and he served admirably and I'm proud of him.
"And I'm not condoning anything he did in the past," Doss said, then added, "we'd need to kick out Gov. Lee because there's something he done in the last 30 years that he done."
Taken aback, Richardson asked, "What did Gov. Lee do?" to which Doss replied, "there's something he done. And there's something I done. And him and her and her. Are we going to kick them all out?"
Asked by Richardson if he had ever "molested" a teenage girl, Doss said, "there's a lot more people who have molested people than you're letting on. Are we going to kick them all [out]?" to which Richardson replied "yes!"
In a later telephone interview with The Tennessean, Doss said he has spoken with Byrd and "have asked him, and he says that 'I have done lots of things in my past that I'm ashamed of, and I've gotten forgiveness from God.'
"That was 32 years ago," Doss told The Tennessean. "I think there's something in every one of our lives in the last 30 years that you could go after."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.