Suspect arrested in Ole Miss student’s death

Accused Tennessee lawmaker out as education chairman

FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2015 file photo, Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, center, takes the oath on the opening day of the legislative session in Nashville, Tenn. Byrd, who is accused by three adult women of sexually assaulting them when they were teenagers, has denied wrongdoing. A local political action committee has since been launched, dedicated to opposing his re-election bid. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee lawmaker accused of sexual misconduct has stepped down as chairman of an education subcommittee after facing months of protests from victim advocates calling for his resignation.

Republican Rep. David Byrd will no longer oversee the House Education Administration Subcommittee, House Speaker Glen Casada confirmed in a statement Thursday. The surprise announcement comes just a day after Byrd voted against a highly contentious school voucher bill backed by both the speaker and Gov. Bill Lee.

“Following discussions with members of the House and after careful consideration, I have formally asked Rep. Byrd to step down from his position as chairman. … Rep. Byrd agrees that this is the best path forward in ensuring the House of Representatives can focus on the issues that truly matter to all Tennesseans,” Casada said.

Casada later told WPLN-FM that while he didn’t regret assigning Byrd as chairman, he changed his mind when he received a letter signed by Republicans and Democrats on the House Ethics Committee questioning Byrd’s leadership. Casada’s office declined to provide the letter, calling it private.

Two women have said the Waynesboro lawmaker inappropriately touched them nearly three decades ago when he was their high school basketball coach. A third woman said Byrd tried to touch her.

Byrd told The Tennessean on Thursday he had no intention to resign from his legislative position and declined to comment further.

Casada initially appointed Byrd to the legislative committee in January shortly after securing the top leadership seat. During the 2018 campaign and throughout this year’s legislative session, Casada has repeatedly defended Byrd, comparing Byrd’s treatment to the backlash against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and President Donald Trump — two men who Casada said have been unfairly accused.

However, Byrd’s refusal to back the voucher proposal — one of the top legislative issues of the session — raised eyebrows. During that same meeting, Casada popped into the hearing room to cast a vote in support of the voucher bill — a move that can be used as a tool to keep members in line.

Byrd’s appointment to the education panel had sparked outrage from advocates who held weekly protests during Byrd’s committee meetings.

Byrd has not outright denied the allegations since they were first broadcast in a media report nearly a year ago, but has said he’s truly sorry if he hurt or emotionally upset any of his students.

One of the women, Christi Rice, recorded a call to Byrd. The lawmaker apologized in the recording but he didn’t detail his action and denied anything happened with other students.

Byrd was 28 at the time and the head coach at Wayne County High School when Rice says he abused her.

“I think this is certainly a step in the right direction,” Rice said, reacting to Thursday’s news. “It feels really good to be heard by the leadership.”

The Associated Press generally doesn’t identify people who say they have faced sexual misconduct unless they agree to be identified.

Rice met with Lee — who was elected governor last year — to discuss the allegations earlier this month. Lee later said it took “a lot of courage” for Rice to meet with him, but stopped short of calling for Byrd’s resignation.

“Gov. Lee agrees with Speaker Casada and the House leadership’s decision today in removing Rep. Byrd from his subcommittee chairmanship,” Lee’s spokeswoman Laine Arnold said Thursday.

When the allegations first came to light last year, Republican Senate Speaker Randy McNally and former GOP House Speaker Beth Harwell called for Byrd to resign.

Many Democrats continued their resignation calls Thursday.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction but I am not satisfied. I think there needs to be an investigation. I would like to hear him answer to the apology that he made,” Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville told reporters.

Others noted the timing between the voucher vote and Byrd’s chairmanship decision.

“Months and months of sexual assault victims coming up here pleading didn’t make the case,” said Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Democrat from Nashville. “But within 24 hours after voting against that voucher bill, he’s no longer a chairman. I think it speaks for itself.”

Casada’s chief of staff Cade Cothren denied the voucher bill had anything to do with Byrd’s resignation, calling it an “absolute lie.”

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