federal court

Judge denies Starbuck’s effort to be put back on 5th District ballot

U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw has denied music video producer Robby Starbuck’s motion to be placed back on the Republican primary ballot for the 5th Congressional District.

“Exactly why Mr. Starbuck’s name was removed from the ballot the Court may never know,” Crenshaw wrote in Thursday’s order. “His Complaint speaks of smoke-filled rooms with carpetbaggers engaged in political chicanery reminiscent of the Daley machine in Chicago during the 60’s and 70’s, and New York’s Tammany Hall in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Whatever the reason, the only question now is whether Mr. Starbuck is entitled to a preliminary injunction under Rule 65 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. He is not.”

Read the lawsuit filed against congressional residency requirements in Tennessee

The House meets at the state Capitol in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A lawsuit has been filed in federal court in Nashville seeking to prevent a state law from going into effect that would impose a three-year residency requirement for congressional candidates in Tennessee. The challenge was filed on behalf of three residents who say they want to vote for Republican Morgan Ortagus in the the open 5th District race. Ortagus has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, but state lawmakers have chafed at her candidacy because she only moved to the state a year ago.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Eli Richardson, who was appointed to the bench by Trump. The lawsuit was filed by the Washington, D.C., law firm Dickinson Wright PLLC.

As frequent offenders when it comes to typos, we wouldn’t ordinarily make a point of highlighting the mistakes of others, but misspelled words in the lawsuit are particularly jarring given their central nature to the arguments presented. They include “Tennesse,” “Represenatives,” “unconstitional” “Repulican,” “impermissably,” “Consitution,” “Congressionl,” and “critreria.” They are replicated within the full text of the complaint below:

BARBRA COLLINS, AMY C. DUDLEY and DONALD J. SOBERY, PLAINTIFFS v. STATE OF TENNESSEE, and TRE HARGETT in his official capacity as Tennessee Secretary of State, DEFENDANTS.)

COMPLAINT

Plaintiffs Barbra Collins (“Collins”), Amy C. Dudley (“Dudley”), and Donald J. Sobery (“Sobery”) (collectively, “Plaintiffs”), file this Complaint against Defendants State of Tennessee (the “State”) and Tre Hargett (“Hargett”), in his official capacity as Tennessee Secretary of State, (collectively “Defendants”), and allege as follows:

NATURE OF THE ACTION

1. This is a civil action seeking damages and declaratory relief arising under the Qualification Clause of the United States Constitution. U.S. Const. Art. 1 § 2; U.S. Const. Art. 1 § 5. This action challenges the constitutionality of Tennessee Senate Bill 2616/House Bill 2764 (the “Provision”) that imposes an impermissible residency requirement on candidates running for United States Congress Specifically, the Provision requires that a candidate running for United States Congress reside in Tennessee, as well as within the congressional district they seek to represent, for at least three years in order to appear on the primary ballot as a candidate.

2. This Provision will become law unless Governor Bill Lee vetoes the legislation.

3. Under the challenged Provision, an otherwise constitutionally qualified candidate for whom Plaintiffs intend to vote in the Republican primary for the Fifth Congressional District, will be prohibited from running because she has not lived in Tennessee for at least three years. The Provision blatantly violates Article I of the United States Constitution (the “Constitution”) because the Constitution delineates the only qualifications necessary to serve as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and vests with the House of Representatives the exclusive authority to judge the qualifications of its own members.

4. Plaintiffs seek damages and a declaration that the Provision is unconstitutional so that all qualified candidates who wish to run for Congress in the August 4, 2022 primary election may do so.

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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.

Kelsey gets yearlong delay for federal campaign finance trial

State Sen. Brian Kelsey denies wrongdoing in a video conference call following his indictment on Oct. 25, 2021. (Image: screengrab from call)

State Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) has been granted a yearlong delay before the start of his federal campaign finance trial.

Originally scheduled to begin next month, U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw ordered the proceedings to be re-set for Jan. 23, 2023. The motion to delay the case was made by Kelsey’s legal team and unopposed by the U.S. attorney’s office or codefendant Josh Smith.

The attorneys for all parties met with Crenshaw behind closed doors for 45 minutes on Monday morning while Kelsey and Smith urgently whispered to each other in the courtroom that was devoid of spectators other than two reporters. Upon ending the in camera meeting, the public portion of the hearing lasted about 10 minutes to formalize the new trial date, which Crenshaw described as a “firm.”

As previously reported in this week’s Tennessee Journal Kelsey attorney Paul Bruno said in a legal filing he faced a conflict with the original Jan. 18 court date because he is scheduled to go to trial in a quadruple homicide case in Nashville the following week. Bruno added the government has already provided “a significant amount of discovery” in the case and indicated more would be forthcoming. Given the volume of materials in the case, Kelsey and his legal team did not believe they had enough time to prepare for a trial next month.

Prosecutors say Kelsey funneled campaign funds from his state account through other political action committees to the American Conservative Union, the Washington-based organizer of CPAC conferences. The bulk of the money was then allegedly spent on radio ads supporting Kelsey’s unsuccessful bid for the 8th Congressional District in 2016. Kelsey has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and has claimed to be the subject of a political witch hunt.

Differing court rulings affect mask mandates in East and West Tennessee

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference in Nashville on Jan. 23, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A federal judge in Memphis late last week granted a temporary restraining order against the state enforcing Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allow parents to opt their children out of mask requirements in school.

But the Knoxville Compass reports another federal judge in East Tennessee declined to take the same step in a case filed by parents there. U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer found the families of three students with disabilities hadn’t presented sufficient evidence of “immediate or irreparable injury or loss” by Knox County School’s refusal to enact a mask mandate.

In the Memphis case, mothers of two children with serious illnesses persuaded U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman to issue a restraining order against the opt-out provision after the Shelby County Health Department issued a universal mask requirement.

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.

Tennessee abortion law to be challenged before Trump-appointed judge

The House meets at the state Capitol in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

When Tennessee Republican lawmakers passed a sweeping abortion ban last week, it was the the expressed hope the measure could be used to challenge precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. A legal challenge filed in federal court in Nashville this week provides an early test as the case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Chip Campbell, whom President Donald Trump appointed to the bench in 2017.

Campbell was a business litigator with Frost Brown Todd before becoming a judge. He is the son of Republican National Committee member Beth Campbell and husband of Anastasia Campbell, the co-director of the General Assembly’s office of legal services.

Unlike some of Trump’s more controversial nominees, Campbell received a “Well Qualified” rating from the American Bar Association. The Senate voted 97-0 to confirm Campbell in January 2018.