Accused lawmaker denies Lee asked him not to seek reelection

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee lawmaker accused of sexual misconduct denied on Wednesday that he’s been asked by Republican Gov. Bill Lee not to run for reelection next year, but later attempted to retract the statement by describing the conversation as “private.”

Republican Rep. David Byrd initially texted The Associated Press that Lee had not called him seeking to persuade him from running for a fourth two-year term in the GOP-dominated Statehouse.

“No, it’s not true!!” Byrd told the AP.

Byrd, of Waynesboro, was reacting to a news report earlier on Wednesday alleging Lee recently attempted to persuade Byrd not to run in the 2020 election. The report also said Byrd hinted he would consider the governor’s request.

Within an hour of responding to the AP, however, Byrd asked to retract his statement.

“I want to retract my statement,” Byrd said in a text message. “The conversation that we had was private.”

Byrd’s statements were all made on the record. He did not provide any more details about his phone conversation with the governor.

Lee’s office on Wednesday declined to respond to Byrd’s text messages to the AP.

Byrd has attracted increased scrutiny for more than a year after being accused by three women of sexual misconduct three decades ago when he was a high school teacher and coach, but never charged.

That attention has increased in recent months as lawmakers prepare for a special legislative session in August to elect a new House speaker.

A handful of lawmakers and victim advocates are arguing the special session could be used to oust Byrd from his legislative seat. Republican legislative leaders have warned that the process to oust a sitting lawmaker requires certain actions and it may be too hasty to try in August.

Two women alleged Byrd inappropriately touched them. The third said Byrd tried to.

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

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

He has not outright denied the allegations, but has said he’s truly sorry if he hurt or emotionally upset any of his students.

Byrd has spurned calls to step down and was reelected in 2018 with overwhelming support in his legislative district. He repeatedly refused to answers questions about the allegations.

Lee has previously sidestepped questions surrounding Byrd’s resignation, saying that that decision is up to Byrd. But Lee has said it’s “past time” for Byrd to address the allegations publicly.

Earlier Wednesday, the governor himself backtracked after a video was released showing him promising that Byrd would soon be removed from the Legislature.

Activist Anna Grabowski recorded a video Tuesday showing her shouting questions at the governor as he walked toward an event in Meigs County.

“Will you get the child molester out of the legislature right away, David Byrd, get him out of there?” Grabowski asked Lee.

“That’s going to happen soon,” Lee replied.

Laine Arnold, Lee’s spokeswoman, said the governor thought he was responding to a question regarding House Speaker Glen Casada, who will be stepping down from the leadership position on August following a scandal that included sexually explicit text messages.

“(Lee’s) position on Rep. Byrd continues to be that it is past time for the representative to respond to allegations,” Arnold said in a statement.

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