fbi raid

Report: Feds asked lawmaker if he knew Casada, Cothren were owners of Phoenix Solutions

House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) checks his phone as he awaits the joint convention to hear Gov. Bill Lee’s first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Rep. Kent Calfee (R-Kingston) tells the Tennessee Lookout’s Sam Stockard federal agents asked him whether he was aware of the roles of former House Speaker Glen Casada and his onetime chief of staff, Cade Cothren, in a mysterious campaign vendor.

“They asked me if I knew Cade Cothren and Glen Casada were owners of Phoenix Solutions,” Calfee told the publication.

The FBI raided the homes and offices of Casada, Cothren, and Reps. Robin Smith (R-Hixson) and Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) on the eve of the legislative session in January.

Calfee said FBI agents searched the computer of his assistant, Nadine Korby, who has been placed on administrative leave along with Casada aide Carol Simpson and interim chief of staff, Holt Whitt.

Calfee, a critic of the way school voucher legislation was passed in 2019, told the Lookout he believes the FBI is conducting three investigations, but declined to give specifics.

As first reported by The Tennessee Journal, federal agents had conducted interviews throughout the legislative session of lawmakers who engaged Casada and Smith for political consulting work.

As recently as the last day of the session, state Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) told colleagues he had spoken to federal agents in his office. Zachary spent $4,408 with vendor Phoenix Solutions (though he misspelled it as “Phenoix Solutions” on his disclosures), the outfit believed to be at the center of the FBI probe.

Several colleagues have said Smith was a vocal advocate for steering more political work to Phoenix Solutions. She and Casada have both declined to say whether they have an ownership stake in the business.

“They did not tell me I couldn’t disclose the information that we discussed,” Zachary explained to Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Andy Sher earlier this month, adding “even with my colleagues, I’ve still tried to be very careful about disclosing what we discussed.”

“Everything centered around the investigation with my colleagues, specifically Rep. Casada, Rep. Smith… I did a survey with Glen and it went through the Phoenix Solutions,” Zachary told the paper.

FBI agents interviewed lawmakers throughout session, Zachary says Casada promoted Phoenix

Federal agents meet with legislative staffers outside the office of Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) in Nashville on Jan. 8, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

As first reported in the print edition of The Tennessee Journal, federal agents have been conducting interviews throughout the legislative session of lawmakers who engaged Republican Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin and Robin Smith of Hixson for political consulting work.

As recently as the last day of the session, state Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) told colleagues he had spoken to federal agents in his office. Zachary spent $4,408 with vendor Phoenix Solutions (though he misspelled it as “Phenoix Solutions” on his disclosures), the outfit believed to be at the center of the FBI probe.

Several colleagues have said Smith was a vocal advocate for steering more political work to Phoenix Solutions. She and Casada have both declined to say whether they have an ownership stake in the business.

“They did not tell me I couldn’t disclose the information that we discussed,” Zachary explained to Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Andy Sher following the Journal report, adding “even with my colleagues, I’ve still tried to be very careful about disclosing what we discussed.”

“Everything centered around the investigation with my colleagues, specifically Rep. Casada, Rep. Smith… I did a survey with Glen and it went through the Phoenix Solutions,” Zachary told the paper.

It’s the first time Phoenix Solutions has been publicly linked to Casada, a former House speaker. Others have said they were told to bill the vendor for work done at the behest of his former chief of staff, Cade Cothren, or at the urging of Smith.

Zachary said he didn’t feel he provided any new information to agents “because Glen never pressured me, he didn’t hound me” to use the firm.

Registered in New Mexico in December 2019, Phoenix Solutions ended up receiving $231,000 from Tennessee Republicans in 2020. According to federal tax documents filed with the state, the company was run by a Matthew Phoenix, who at least one state lawmaker said he spoke to on the phone, but none has said to have met in person.

Smith’s attorney, Ben Rose, told the Times Free Press it was “news to us that Zachary, No. 1, has been talking to the FBI and that Zachary was, No. 2, a client of Phoenix. And it certainly didn’t have anything to do with [Smith].” He added, “Our position has been we continue to cooperate with the FBI.”

Bill to ban lawmakers from selling services to the state wouldn’t extend to executive branch

A Lee Company truck is parked outside the fire-damaged John Sevier State Office Building on Nov. 24, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Current law makes it illegal for public officials to enter into sales or purchase contracts with the state. A bill moving in the House would also make it a crime for lawmakers to secure service contracts with the state, with the main aim being to curb the practice of members’ political consulting firms getting paid with taxpayer funds to design and send constituent correspondence on behalf of their colleagues.

The bill sponsored by House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) initially would have applied to any government official, but as amended it is limited to “any member of the General Assembly.”

When Bill Lee was running for governor, he appeared to have been caught off guard by questions about what would happened to government contracts held by his family plumbing and air conditioning company if he were elected governor.

“I would guess we would be required to do that. I haven’t actually looked into that. I basically went into this thing and said, am I willing to give up state contracts to do this, yes,” Lee said in 2017. “Will we be required to? I don’t know. If we aren’t required to, I won’t.”

Lee later clarified his position and announced he would cancel all contracts if he was elected. Lee Co. trucks have sporadically been spotted around the Capitol complex since the governor took office, but officials say the company has no active contracts.

Smith wants to cast wider net on banning lawmakers from doing business with state

Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson) attends a House floor session in Nashville on April 23, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A bill introduced by House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) is aimed at ending the practice of having lawmakers’ political consulting firms be paid with taxpayer dollars to send out constituent mailers for their colleagues. The measure would apply to two GOP lawmakers who recently had their homes and offices raided by the FBI, Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin and Robin Smith of Hixson.

Smith’s Rivers Edge Alliance last year billed the General Assembly nearly $11,000 for work on behalf of three colleagues. Casada’s Right Way Consulting billed $12,500 to six GOP lawmakers’ accounts. Smith and Casada have also refused to say whether they have a stake in a secretive vendor Phoenix Solutions that sprung into prominence last year.

Smith tells Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Andy Sher she wants to amend Sexton’s legislation to make it “even better” by expanding it to also include legislators’ “consultant or agent.”

Smith didn’t tell Sher whom she was seeking to target with her amendment, but her attorney has been blaming Sexton adviser Chip Saltsman for the FBI probe into his client, calling the matter a “turf war between political consultants.”

Saltsman and Smith are both former political consultants to the House Republican Caucus. They have been at odds since a 2010 congressional race in which Saltsman client Chuck Fleischmann defeated Smith in the Republican primary.

Sexton is cool to the idea of Smith amending his bill.

“Her amendment and what she wanted to do would not fit the caption of my bill,” Sexton told the Times Free Press. “Nor has she come to me about adding an amendment to my bill. What she’s wanting to do would not fit the caption, therefore you can’t do it even if I gave her the approval, I would accept the amendment — which I have not.”

FBI visit to Tennessee Capitol sparks jitters

Federal agents meet with legislative staffers outside the office of Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) in Nashville on Jan. 8, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

FBI agents visited the first floor of the state Capitol on Tuesday, setting off shockwaves around a statehouse complex still reeling from raids on three lawmakers’ homes and offices on the eve of the legislative session. But authorities were quick to disavow any connection to the probe into Republican Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin, Robin Smith of Hixson, and Todd Warner of Chapel Hill.

“The visit by several of our agents was not related to the raid that occured in January,” FBI spokeswoman Elizabeth Clement-Webb told The Tennessee Journal. “This was solely outreach.”

The agents were spotted flashing badges at troopers manning the gate to the Capitol, and later as they were escorted past security to the floor housing the offices of Gov. Bill Lee, his top advisers, and the state’s constitutional officers.

Lee spokeswoman Laine Arnold said the visit “had nothing to do with the raids.”

WTVF-TV’s Phil Williams has reported that Casada has been telling associates the FBI asked him questions about how he helped pass the governor’s signature school voucher law when he was the House speaker in 2019. Casada was asked about allegations of bribes being offered to help gain support, the people he spoke to told Williams.

Casada has denied offering inducements in exchange for votes when voucher bill was deadlocked on a 49-49 vote. The measure later passed by a single vote.

Warner got another $138K under federal PPP program in January

Rep. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) is sworn into the House in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Freshman state Rep. Todd Warner, the Chapel Hill Republican who had his business and legislative offices searched by the FBI in January, received another $138,435 in federal COVID-19 relief funds later that month. That’s on top of the $149,630 he received in April 2019.

Warner last week denied to The Tennessean that any of the money he received under the the federal Paycheck Protection Program had gone toward funding the $154,100 he loaned his campaign last year. “If I’m charged with it I feel like I’m innocent,” he told the paper.

The federal funds were directed to his contracting company, PCS of TN, which reported employing 16 people.

The candidate’s largesse raised eyebrows during the race because Warner had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection a decade earlier due to his inability to pay $20 million in debts. Warner said he obtained the money for his political pursuits via an unrelated bank loan.

Warner defeated incumbent Rep. Rick Tillis of Lewisburg in the August primary.

The FBI also searched the homes and offices of Republican Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin and Robin Smith of Hixson. The Registry of Election Finance informed Warner it was reopening a complaint filed by the Tillis camp against him and an independent expenditure group called the Faith Freedom Family Find.

Warner denies federal PPP loan money used to fund campaign

Rep. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) is sworn into the House in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Freshman Rep. Todd Warner, one of three Republican lawmakers who had their homes and offices raided by the FBI in January, tells The Tennessean‘s Natalie Allison he didn’t use federal COVID-19 relief funds to pay for his campaign.

Warner, a Chapel Hill businessman, received $149,630 under the Paycheck Protection Program in April. He later loaned his campaign $154,100 in the process of defeating incumbent Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg) in the August primary.

Warner told the paper he used the PPP money to cover allowable business expenses, while he separately borrowed the money he loaned his campaign from a bank.

“They question your integrity, whether you’re an honest man when you’ve been blown up and they say you’re bankrupt, which I have been in 2010,” Warner told the paper, adding he had since rebounded financially.

Warner’s company filed for federal bankruptcy protection when he couldn’t pay more than $20 million in debts during the Great Recession.

“It was a sad time,” Warner said. “I hope we aren’t headed there again with the government giving all this money away.”

The FBI also hauled away materials from the homes and offices of former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) and Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson).

Lawmaker searched by FBI misses campaign finance deadline

Rep. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) is sworn into the House in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Freshman Rep. Todd Warner of Chapel Hill, one of three Republican House members to have their homes and offices searched by the FBI earlier this month, did not file a fourth-quarter campaign finance report by Monday’s deadline.

The other subjects of the searches, Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin and Robin Smith of Hixson, filed their personal campaign and PAC disclosures on time.

Warner in an email to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance said he was unable to complete his disclosure due to the raids.

“The FBI confiscated all files and documents related to my campaign including check copies from donations and checking account ledgers,” Warner said in the email obtained by The Tennessee Journal. “They also took all computers and back ups for the campaign and my business.”

Warner defeated Rep. Rick Tillis of Lewisburg in the Republican primary in August. The Tillis camp filed a complaint alleging coordination between Warner and an independent expenditure group calling itself Faith Freedom Family Fund because they used the same postal code. The account out of Chattanooga also sent mail for a new vendor called Phoenix Solutions, which ended up getting more than $200,000 worth of business from House Republicans last cycle.

Several House members have said Smith was a major proponent of first using Phoenix Solutions. She has declined to answer reporters’ questions about whether she has any financial ties to the outfit.