Letter raising questions about GOP lawmaker remains mystery

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — When Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada persuaded a GOP lawmaker accused of sexual misconduct to quit leading a legislative education panel, Casada said an ethics committee’s bipartisan request was a key reason he did so — but most members of the committee aren’t talking and the few Democrats who are say they were left in the dark.

Last week, Rep. David Byrd of Waynesboro resigned as chairman of a House education subcommittee at the Republican speaker’s request. The surprise announcement came as Byrd faces increased scrutiny after two women have said he inappropriately touched them nearly three decades ago when he was their high school basketball coach. A third woman said Byrd tried to touch her.       

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At the time of the announcement, Casada said he made the decision after receiving a bipartisan letter from the House Ethics Committee questioning Byrd’s leadership. The committee includes five Republicans and five Democrats.

Republican House members, through spokesman Doug Kufner, deferred questions to Casada, whose office has declined to hand over the letter, saying it’s a private document.

The Associated Press contacted all the Democratic committee members in an attempt to verify the letter’s existence and to check if members of both political parties had signed the document.

Three of the ethics panel’s Democratic members told the AP this week they never saw the letter and didn’t know it existed until Casada mentioned it Thursday.

They include Minority Leader Karen Camper, Minority Floor Leader Harold Love Jr. and Rep. Mark Windle.

“I’m not sure I would have signed it, but I haven’t seen it,” Camper said.

Camper has not weighed in publicly about Casada’s decision to remove Byrd from leading the education subcommittee, but earlier this year the House Democratic Caucus released a statement asking for Byrd to address the sexual misconduct allegations.

Meanwhile, two other Democrats on the committee stayed mum.

Rep. Rick Staples of Knoxville refused to comment when pressed by the AP on Wednesday and declined to answer any further questions on the letter’s existence.

“I have no comment on that,” Staples said.

Democratic Rep. John DeBerry of Nashville also declined to comment about the letter but promised he would issue a statement soon.

“I just don’t want to get in the middle of everything,” DeBerry said. “I would rather not comment at this time.”

Staples is currently backing a high-profile sports betting bill that will require Republican support to get through the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

The House Ethics Committee has not formally met this session, sparking questions about if and how it could have sent a letter to the speaker’s office.

The AP has also submitted a public records request for a copy of the letter, but Casada’s office has not yet responded.

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 was head coach at Wayne County High School when Rice says he abused her.

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