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Grip and grin: News photo shows figures at center of federal investigation

An August 31, 2021, photo in the Elk Valley Times shows Cade Cothren, the disgraced former chief of staff to then-House Speaker Glen Casada, at a ribbon cutting for a new location of his family’s Highway 55 restaurant chain in Fayetteville. Cothren is joined by Rep. Todd Warner (R-Lewisburg) and Ava Korby, the daughter of suspended legislative staffer Nadine Korby.

Cothren, Warner, Casada, and the elder Korby were among the subjects of FBI searches in January 2021. So was Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson), who pleaded guilty this week to a federal wire fraud charge over the creation of a front company called Phoenix Solutions, which obtained contracts to design, print, and send political mailers on behalf of Republican lawmakers.

According to the charging document, Cothren posed as a man calling himself Matthew Phoenix. He and an unnamed girlfriend calling herself “Candice” allegedly corresponded on the company’s behalf. A source with knowledge of the investigation tells The Tennessee Journal the girlfriend in question was Ava Korby.

Sydney Friedopfer, another woman once romantically involved with Cothren, testified to the Registry of Election Finance in January that she had created a PAC called the Faith Family Freedom Fund on his behalf. She told the panel she didn’t know anything about the group’s subsequent attacks on then-Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg) in his primary campaign against Warner.

Warner spent $75,500 on a vendor called Dixieland Strategies of Rainbow City, Ala., which had never before done work in Tenenssee and didn’t appear to be registered as a business. Warner told reporters later he couldn’t remember whom he had dealt with at the outfit. Rainbow raised eyebrows in the Tillis race for using the same postal code out of Chattanooga as Phoenix Solutions and the Faith Family Freedom Fund. Another campaign vendor told reporters that Cothren had commissioned him to do work that was billed to both the FFFF and Phoenix Solutions.

No one other than Smith has been charged so far.

Casada blasts Registry as ‘biased,’ Ogles threatens legislative action to halt subpoenas

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

Former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) on Friday called the members of the Registry of Election Finance “biased” for subpoenaing information from him about a political action committee allegedly created at the behest of his onetime chief of staff, Cade Cothren.

Speaking at a Williamson Inc. forum, Rep. Brandon Ogles (R-Franklin) also blasted the move, saying the House plans to take a “deep dive” into the powers of the campaign finance board’s powers. Ogles is close friends with Cothren and was a prominent Casada loyalist before his speakership collapsed in 2019.

Casada is retiring from the House and running for Williamson County clerk this year. The Registry in 2020 hit Casada with a $10,500 civil penalty for failing to keep receipts for $99,000 worth of expenditures made by his PAC. He also had his home and office searched by FBI agents early last year.

The Registry last week voted to issue subpoenas after a former girlfriend of Cothren’s testified under oath that she had set up a political action committee called the Faith Family Freedom Fund at his urging, but then had nothing to with it as it bankrolled attacks on the re-election bid of then-Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg). Email correspondence between someone purporting to be herself and the Registry did not come from her, she said.

Here is a transcript of the Williamson Inc. meeting on Friday:

Dave Crouch, moderator: The elephant in the room maybe this morning is you’ve been in the paper with some questions been asked about various things here recently. Is there anything you would like to say?

Glen Casada: I feel like a kid sitting on the side of the road, and someone’s just some come and punched me in the nose for no reason. If you didn’t know, the election registry of finance has subpoenaed me to ask me questions on a PAC. And the frustrating thing is, Dave, I have no knowledge of this PAC, I have no association, and there’s no reason to think that I do. And I realize three years ago, I was quite involved politically across the state on elections and getting people elected. But I just feel like the board has a bias, you know? And so, so let me just be very clear. And I was very clear [when I ] contacted them. Guys, not only do I not know, or never heard of this PAC, or no association with it. Why would you even reach out and punch me in the nose like you did? You know, there’s no reason to do that. So, so let me just put that to bed. And thank you for this opportunity to address it.

Crouch: I’m gonna push back a little just for conversation here. Cade Cothren was your chief of staff?

Casada: Yes. Three years ago.

Crouch: When you were speaker of House?

Casada: He was.

Crouch: And apparently he’s the one that had his girlfriend set this PAC up. That’s correct?

Casada: Yes.

Crouch: And why would he have done that?

Casada: You could ask Sam [Whitson], Brandon [Ogles], or Jack [Johnson] that question. I don’t know. I mean, there’s no association. It’s been three years ago when he was employed by me. So again, it’s just a bias on that board’s opinion. And the legislature gave them certain powers to be deliberative, and to be fair, and not biased. And I feel like you’re exhibiting biases by just assuming because he once worked for me three years ago, you know, that somehow I’m involved. And that’s not the way we run public policy.

Crouch: I just, I didn’t want to totally ignore the subject. I want to just air it out some. Brandon, you’ve got a comment?

Brandon Ogles: I’d like to speak to this because there was a conversation yesterday with members of the Judiciary Committee in the House. The fact that some of the things that were said in the press, they were so sloppily said by these committee members. For them to issue a subpoena that’s not signed by a judge, there’s going to be ramifications for that when you start threatening people to subpoena them. Some of these boards that we’ve set up in the state of Tennessee, these pseudo-entities, even entities within the state of Tennessee, that threaten people. And to issue subpoenas that have no weight, or credit, or value – and are not signed by a judge – circumvents every judiciary process we have in this state, both criminally and civilly. So we’re going to deep dive into this, this threat to subpoena people. And if this continues, remember: also the House committees can subpoena as well. So this will be interesting to watch play out. I’m going to enjoy being a member of Judiciary and seeing this come to light.

Ex-girlfriend testifies Cothren had her register PAC that attacked Casada foe Tillis

Cade Cothren, speaking on phone, attends a meeting with lawmakers and fellow staffers on the balcony ouside the House chamber on April 29, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tenenssee Journal)

In remarkable sworn testimony to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance on Thursday, the treasurer of a mysterious political action committee testified she had registered the outfit at the behest of her then-boyfriend, Cade Cothren, and had nothing further to do with it thereafter.

“I asked him if it was illegal to open it for him,” said Sydney Friedopfer, a former Vanderbilt student who now lives in Utah. “And he said no. And he said he just couldn’t have a name on it, considering everything he had gone through.”

The Family Faith Freedom Fund PAC was involved in attacking then-Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg), a foe of Cothren and his former boss, House Speaker Glen Casada, in the 2020 primary won by now-Rep. Todd Warner. (Just as a reminder, Cothren, Casada, Warner, and Rep. Robin Smith had their homes and offices searched by the FBI around this time last year).

Here is a transcript of Friedopfer’s testimony to the Registry on Thursday. The other speakers are Registry chair Paige Burcham Dennis, general counsel Lauren Topping, executive director Bill Young, and members Tom Lawless, David Golden, and Hank Fincher.

Paige Burcham Dennis: Miss Sydney, are you on the phone today?

Sydney Friedopfer: Yes, I am.

Paige Burcham Dennis: OK, before we get to you. I want to remind you, we’re going to have Lauren, give us a little bit of background on the Faith Family Freedom Fund case. But I do want to remind you that you are under oath today even though you’re participating by phone.

Sydney Friedopfer: OK, yep, no problem.

Paige Burcham Dennis: OK. Lauren, can you give the Registry a little bit of background on what’s going on with the Faith Family Freedom Fund case?

Lauren Topping: So as you’ll recall, this case came about as a result of a complaint that was filed with the Registry. As a result of that, there was an audit that was ordered. Up until this point in time, we had been unable to reach Ms. Friedopfer. And so the audit report basically says that we were unable to obtain any information. I think that’s all in your packet. But since then, we have been able to contact her and so she is here on the line today to tell you what she knows. So that’s kind of where we are.

Paige Burcham Dennis: OK, so at this time, Sydney, I understand you’re in Utah. Is that correct?

Sydney Friedopfer: Yes, that’s correct.

Paige Burcham Dennis: OK. I’m Chairman Burcham Dennis, and we’re going to let you tell us what you would like to tell us concerning the case.

Sydney Friedopfer: OK. So I guess I don’t have the exact date, sometime in end of 2019, early 2020. I had a friend of mine that I met when I was back at Vanderbilt ask me to open a political action committee for him. I was advised that I should tell you the name. The name is Cade Cothren. And I trusted him.

Paige Burcham Dennis: Could you repeat that? His name was what?

Sydney Friedopfer: Cade Cothren.

Paige Burcham Dennis: OK.

Sydney Friedopfer: Being a 22, 23-year-old at the time, I, unfortunately, did not have any information about politics. I asked him if it was illegal to open it for him. And he said no. And he said he just couldn’t have a name on it, considering everything he had gone through, which I’m sure everyone’s aware. But yeah, he resigned from his position as chief of staff to Glen Casada. And he didn’t want his name on the political action committees. Like being young and dumb, honestly, regarding this, I –

Paige Burcham Dennis: So Sydney, you had an involvement, a relationship or friendship, with him. And he asked you to do this on his behalf. That’s what you’re saying?

Sydney Friedopfer: Yes. I mean, yeah. At the time, I thought I loved him, I guess. But I was young and he’s 10 years older than me. And I trusted him. And so I opened the political action committee for him. And I filed the papers, signed my name, and that was the last I heard of it. I received the e-filing thing in the mail. And I just sent him a picture of that. And he took over from there. And I didn’t hear about it again until a reporter started calling me. But the first time I had anyone call me from a reputable source that I was going to talk to was when Lauren called me a few weeks ago.

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Former House Speaker Casada to retire amid FBI scrutiny

House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) speaks to Republican colleagues in Nashville on April 23, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Former state House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) announced he won’t seen another term in 2022. The decision comes after federal agents searched his home and office before the start of the legislative session in January. No charges have been filed.

Casada stepped down as speaker in 2019 following a text messaging scandal with this former chief of staff, Cade Cothren, and a revolt among Republican lawmakers over his heavy-handed leadership style.

Casada has denied offering inducements to lawmakers to vote in favor of Gov. Bill Lee’s signature school voucher bill, which narrowly passed the chamber after the speaker kept the voting board open to cajole holdouts to switch their votes. Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) ultimately changed his vote from no to yes after being promised his home county would be kept out of the bill.

Here’s the release from Casada:

Franklin, TN – Glen Casada (Republican, Dist. 63) announced today that he will not seek re-election to the State House, marking the end of a 20-year career as state representative. Casada has served as Caucus Chairman, Majority Leader and Speaker of the House. “This decision comes after much prayer and thought,” said Casada. “I am blessed and grateful to have served Williamson County and to have achieved many goals for my constituents, but it is time for a new chapter of public service.”

Casada sponsored the landmark constitutional amendment to ban the personal state income tax, and has successfully sponsored numerous conservative, pro-life and pro­ business initiatives. Several organizations have honored Casada as Legislator of the Year throughout his public service career.

Rep. Sam Whitson (Republican, Dist. #65) commented, “I strongly feel that Katie Beckett will be Glen’s legacy,” referring to the 2019 law that gave access to life-saving medical treatments and therapies to children with special needs. Casada secured funding for the program. “This law would not have been possible without his support and leadership.”

Elected to the Democrat-controlled State House in 2001, Casada worked tirelessly to support conservative candidates across the state. Those efforts were successfully rewarded in 2008 when voters flipped the State Assembly to a Republican majority for the first time since 1868.

“Glen’s strong conservative voice will be greatly missed,” said Rep. Brandon Ogles (Republican, Dist. #61). “Tennessee is better off today because of Glen’s investment in our state.”

Senator Jack Johnson (Republican, Dist. #23) remarked, “Rep. Casada is a great friend and a tremendous asset to our community. I am grateful for his conservative leadership and service to Williamson County and Tennessee.”

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.

Warner a no-show at Registry hearing over failure to file disclosures due to FBI raid

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 (R-Chapel Hill) was a no-show at Wednesday’s meeting of the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance to take up his request to waive his campaign finance disclosure requirement due to an FBI raid on his home and office.

Executive Director Bill Young said Warner had indicated he or his attorney would attend the meeting. But nobody appeared on his behalf.

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

Registry member Hank Fincher said nothing prevented Warner from reconstructing his fourth-quarter disclosure from electronic bank records.

“The FBI took my bank records is not much of an excuse,” Fincher said.

The Registry agreed to send a letter to Warner saying the panel doesn’t have the authority to waive filing requirements.

Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro) also missed filing his report while hospitalized for COVID-19. Family members had alerted the panel only the lawmaker had access to the information needed to make the disclosure. The Registry again determined it wasn’t in a position to give Byrd a pass on filing requirements.

Phoenix calling: Mystery vendor received more than $200K in 2020 (UPDATED)

Reps. Robin Smith (R-Hixson), left, and Mark Cochran (R-Englewood) are sworn into the 112th General Assembly on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A mystery campaign vendor believed to be at the center of an FBI investigation into three sitting House members and a former chief of staff was the beneficiary of more than $200,000 in Republican spending.

As of Monday evening, Phoenix Solutions was reported to have received $82,450 during the fourth quarter to bring its total haul for the year to $200,850. About $72,000 of that has come from Rep. Robin Smith, a Hixson Republican who was among the lawmakers who had their homes and offices searched, and her Leadership Pioneers PAC.

Smith and the PAC spent $14,500 on the company in the quarter, with the money going toward get-out-the-vote efforts, a digital fundraising campaign, and independent expenditures in support for Reps. Mark White of Memphis, John Gillespie of Germantown, and Mike Sparks of Smyrna.

Also reporting spending on Phoenix in the quarter were Republican Reps. Esther Helton of Signal Mountain ($10,700 for advertising), Charlie Baum of Murfreesboro ($7,300 for advertising) and Patsy Hazlewood of Signal Mountain ($5,600 for consulting fees). The state Republican Party spent another $44,500 on Phoenix’s services, including on Gillespie and unsuccessful House candidates John Dawson of Clarksville and Patti Possell of Cordova.

The subjects of the FBI searches were Reps. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) and Glen Casada (R-Franklin), along with Cade Cothren, who was Casada’s top aide when he was speaker.

“I am fully cooperating. I plan to be doing that,” Smith told reporters after the FBI raids. Her attorney said in a statement that Smith was not a “target” of the investigation.

Pressed by the Chattanooga Times Free Press’ Andy Sher about whether she had any connection to Phoenix, Smith replied: “All I will tell you is we’ve issued a statement. I’m fully cooperating. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize what’s going forward. And I look forward to being able to issue another statement in the future.”

Phoenix has become a new player since Smith’s election to the General Assembly, with several lawmakers saying she was a major advocate for using the New Mexico-based outfit.

Before Monday’s disclosures, Phoenix had received $118,400 in 2020, including $22,800 from Kent Calfee of Kingston, $21,900 from Paul Sherrell of Sparta, $6,200 from Dan Howell of Cleveland, $4,400 from Jason Zachary of Knoxville (who misspelled the name of the company as “Phenoix” in his disclosure), $1,900 from Baum, $1,700 from Hazlewood, and $1,700 from Mark Hall of Cleveland.

McNally: Lawmakers should resign if arrested

Rep. Glen Casada speaks to fellow Republicans in a caucus meeting on Jan. 10, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Senate Speaker Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican who wore a wire for the FBI in the Rocky Top investigation in the 1980s, says state lawmakers who who had their homes and offices searched by federal agents should resign if they are arrested.

“Of course nobody’s been arrested. They’ve just had search warrants,” McNally told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “But, if somebody’s arrested, I think they should resign.”

The lawmakers who had their offices and homes raided on Friday include former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin), Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson), and Rep. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill). The FBI is also looking into former top Casada aide Cade Cothren, interim House Chief of Staff Holt Whitt, and two legislative staffers.

So far we’ve heard from the lawyers of Smith and Whitt:

[Smith] intends to cooperate fully with the investigation in all respects. while she would have preferred to do so voluntarily, Robin understands this may not have been possible…. [She] “is not the target of the investigation, and she has not done anything wrong. Please understand that due to the ongoing investigation, Robin will not be providing any further comment.”

— Smith attorney Ben Rose to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Holt Whitt was one of several individuals contacted by agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation regarding an ongoing investigation. Mr. Whitt is a well-respected legislative aide with an impeccable reputation, and he has not been charged with any wrongdoing. He is cooperating fully with the investigation. Out of respect for the legal process, Mr. Whitt will have no further public comment regarding this matter.”

— Whitt attorney Ty Howard.

Federal agents descended on Rep. Warner’s home and business in Marshall County with search warrants, the contents of which remain shrouded in mystery by the government. Significantly, Rep. Warner has not been charged with any wrongdoing.”

— Warner’s attorney Peter Strianse

FBI raids state lawmakers’ homes, offices

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

Federal agents descended on the homes and legislative offices of Republican state Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin, Robin Smith of Hixson, and Todd Warner of Chapel Hill on Friday. They also executed searches at the home of former Casada chief of staff Cade Cothren and three current legislative staffers.

The FBI didn’t say what it was investigating, though speculation spread around the Cordell Hull Building that agents were looking into efforts supporting Warner defeat of Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg) in last year’s primary and the previous year’s push to pass a controversial school voucher bill.

Feds charge Democratic state Sen. Robinson with embezzlement

Freshman state Sen. Katrina Robinson (D-Memphis) is facing federal theft and embezzlement charges.

Prosecutors allege Robinson stole stole more than $600,000 from her business, the Healthcare Institute, by paying herself more than what was allowed under the terms the grant she received, the Daily Mempian reports.

Robinson defeated the late Sen. Reginald Tate in the primary in 2018 and went on to win the heavily Democratic district.

The Senate Democratic Caucus issued the following statement:

It’s clear that Sen. Robinson’s work in the state legislature on behalf of her constituents is not in question here today. Just like every other American, Sen. Robinson deserves the presumption of innocence and due process under the law. Her case should be resolved by a court of law, not by the court of public opinion.”

Investigators this week searched Robinson’s home and business again after conducting earlier raids in February. The complaint alleges Robinson used the money to buy a vehicle for her daughter, clothing, and beauty products. She is also charged with spending grant money on her wedding and honeymoon, followed by legal fees for her divorce.

Robinson’s company, the Healthcare Institute, in 2015 received a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2015 to educate people  “looking for a jumpstart to their education and also to provide patient education to the elderly community.”

An anonymous complaint filed in 2016 alleged Robinson had spent $550 in grant funds to buy a Louis Vuitton handbag. The agency’s inspector general opened an investigation, which the FBI later joined.