Tennessee leader says he believes sex assault allegations

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A key Republican leader who is next in line to take over the Tennessee House said on Wednesday he believes the women who have accused a Republican member of sexual misconduct.

Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn said it is the speaker's responsibility to investigate the claims three women have made against Rep. David Byrd. He said he would do so if he is elected permanently to the post.

"I believe something happened and what happened was bad," said Dunn in a phone interview.

Current House Speaker Glen Casada has been a longstanding defender of Byrd and has previously downplayed the women's accusations.

Casada announced on Tuesday that he was stepping down after a vote of no-confidence amid revelations that he exchanged sexually explicit text messages about women with his former chief of staff.

By Wednesday, Dunn had met with volunteers with Enough is Enough Tennessee — an organization dedicated to ousting Byrd. The Republican has faced accusations of sexual misconduct dating to when he was a high school basketball coach several decades ago.

The organization spearheaded multiple demonstrations throughout this year's legislative session and attempted to meet with key lawmakers to get them to push for Byrd's resignation.

"This is the first Republican lawmaker who has met with us and said he believes the victims," said Ashley Massey, a volunteer with Enough is Enough.

"We have a culture problem in the Legislature. Removing Casada doesn't mean you've solved the problem, but if Dunn's speaker, he can be part of addressing that culture," Massey added.

Two women alleged Byrd inappropriately touched them. The third said Byrd tried to. Byrd has not outright denied the allegations, but has said he's truly sorry if he hurt or emotionally upset any of his students. He did not step down; in fact, he was re-elected.

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-years-old at the time and working as head coach at Wayne County High School when Rice says he abused her.

"I wish I had a do-over because I promise you I would have corrected that and that would've never happened," Byrd said in the recorded call. "But I hope you believe me when I say that it's one of those things that I think about it all the time, and I always ask forgiveness for it and I hope you forgive me."

As speaker pro tem, Dunn would take over leading the Tennessee House once Casada steps aside. However, Casada has not specified when exactly that'll happen. Instead, he's promised to meet with House caucus leadership once he returns from vacation on June 3.

"There have been two questions. Are the women credible? That answer is yes. The second question is what next, should he resign?" Dunn said. "I'm not the speaker, but I think the speaker should take the lead on this issue. This is something that has to be addressed."

Dunn has said he's interested in becoming the permanent speaker, along with a handful of other lawmakers vying for the top legislative leadership post.

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