esther helton

Grand jury hears from lawmakers, staffers

House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin), right, meets with colleagues on the Senate floor on May 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State lawmakers and staffers have testified before a federal grand jury believed to be considering charges related to a campaign vendor promoted by former Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson), who recently pleaded guilty, former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin), and his onetime chief of staff, Cade Cothren.

Appearing Monday were House Speaker Cameron Sexton of Crossville, along with fellow Republican Reps. Patsy Hazlewood of Signal Mountain, Esther Helton of East Ridge, Bud Hulsey of Kingsport, and Jason Zachary of Knoxville.

Also giving testimony were Holt Whitt, a former interim chief of staff to the speaker, and Connie Ridley, the director of legislative administration.

Zachary told reporters afterward that he couldn’t speak about his testimony, but said it did not relate to his controversial decision to break a 49-49 tie in favor of Gov. Bill Lee’s signature school voucher bill in 2019.

Casada PAC attacks from 2018 appear to be templates for hit pieces on Tillis

A political action committee that ran attacks last summer against former Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg) used the same template as hit pieces issued by the PAC of former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) two years earlier.

The mailers attacking Tillis were run by a group called the Faith Freedom Family Fund, or FFFF. The ones targeting Jonathan Mason, a Republican candidate running for a Hamilton County House seat in 2018, were sent out by Red Ivory Strategies for Casada’s CAS-PAC. Red Ivory is owned by Michael Lotfi, whom Casada later hired for a no-show job at the General Assembly.

“Lying Rick Tillis will say & do anything to get elected … Don’t let him fool you!” reads an FFFF mailer.

“Lying Jonathan Mason will say & do anything to get elected … Don’t let him fool you!” says a CAS-PAC mailer.

Red Ivory received at least $135,000 from House Republicans in 2020, including $57,750 from the GOP caucus (which isn’t supposed to work against its own members).

The Tennessean has reported that former Casada aide Cade Cothren, who helped run CAS-PAC, also assigned work on behalf of FFFF.

Casada’s preferred candidate in the 2018 primary was Esther Helton of East Ridge, who went on to win the primary and the general election. A mailer from that race carried a Chattanooga postal permit number, 383, that has featured heavily in the Tillis primary.

Permit No. 383 was used in August by Tillis’ opponent Todd Warner, the FFFF PAC, and a campaign vendor called Phoenix Solutions, which has run mailers for a variety of GOP candidates. Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson) was a major promoter of Phoenix.

Smith, Casada, and Warner had their homes and offices searched by the FBI earlier this month, which agents also went through Cothren’s apartment.