kent calfee

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.

Democrat Camper, Republican Hicks test positive for COVID-19

House Minority Leader Karen Camper (D-Memphis) and House Finance Subcommittee Chair Gary Hicks (R-Rogersville) have tested positive for COVID-19.

Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis) speaks tp reporters on Nov. 25, 2018, after her elected as House minority leader. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Camper felt ill during the start of last week’s special session, but an initial test did not detect the virus. She went home to Memphis as a precaution, where another test determined she had been infected. Camper is resting and recuperating at home, according to a statement from the House Democratic Caucus.

Hicks attended last week’s special session and was among several Republicans seen interacting with others without a mask. He works at Rogersville City School, which last week announced it would delay opening after two staffers tested positive for COVID-19 and while it awaited test results on a third.

The two positive tests follow the hospitalization this week of Rep. Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah) due to COVID-19. Carter had skipped the special session along with former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin), who said he stayed home because had been exposed to the coronavirus. Casada wouldn’t tell The Tennessean whether he had tested positive, but said he had no symptoms and felt fine.

Rep. Kent Calfee (R-Kingston) tested positive for COVID-19 following the conclusion of the regular session in June, as did former Republican Rep. Kevin Brooks, the mayor of Cleveland, who was hospitalized with pneumonia on both lungs. Brooks had served as as the minister of the day for the final House floor session in June.

Rep. Carter hospitalized with COVID-19

Rep Mike Carter is sworn in to the 111th General Assembly in Nashville on Jan. 8, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Rep. Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah) has been hospitalized with COVID-19, according to an email sent to Republican House members by Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison.

“Our friend and colleague Mike Carter is in ICU at Erlanger with Covid,” Faison wrote to colleagues. “He is asking for prayers. Let’s lift him up y’all.”

Lawmakers were in Nashville last week for a special legislative session. Many did not wear masks. Carter did not attend.

Former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) skipped the special session because he had been exposed to COVID-19, The Tennessean reported. Casada wouldn’t disclose whether he had tested positive, but said he had no symptoms and felt fine.

“I was exposed to covid and did not want to run the risk of exposing anyone else,” he told the paper in a statement Saturday.

Rep. Kent Calfee (R-Kingston) tested positive for COVID-19 following the conclusion of the regular session in June, as did former Republican Rep. Kevin Brooks, the mayor of Cleveland, who was hospitalized with pneumonia on both lungs. Brooks had served as as the minister of the day for the final House floor session in June.

Lee’s $40.8B budget proposal in the media

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here’s a look at how Gov. Bill Lee’s second State of the State address played in the state media:

Chattanooga Times Free Press:

Lee, whose wife Maria is a former teacher, zeroed in on education during much of his speech, noting that “in this building, we work hard to develop student-centered education policies, but out there in the classrooms is where it happens. We make it law, but teachers make it happen.”

Daily Memphian:

Saying the “majority” of the state’s efforts must focus on traditional public schools, Lee said he is putting a $117 million increase into teacher and educator salaries, a 4% pay increase designed to push starting teacher pay to $38,000 a year.

“We make it law, but teachers make it happen,” Lee said. “No teacher I know does it only for the money, but you and I know a worker is worthy of their pay.”

Associated Press

Education advocates caution that even with a $117 million boost, it may not be enough to help teacher salaries.

“While that is a large yearly increase, it breaks down to about $1,450 per teacher, or approximately $28 a week,” said Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association, when talking about the state’s approximately 80,000 instructional staffers.

WPLN-FM

Criminal justice reform was among some issues notably lacking details. Lee, who has been an advocate, had hinted in the past that he’d focus on reforming the state’s criminal justice system. Lee said that based on recommendations made by the Criminal Justice Investment Task Force, he will propose legislation that improves community supervision and expand recovery courts.

The Tennessean:

Overall, the mood inside the House chamber was jovial, with Republicans praising Lee’s assessment and vision for Tennessee. Democrats later criticized the governor for doing too little, too late on issues like education funding and criminal justice reform.

With a proposed $40.8 billion budget, Lee’s most significant plans for the year include notable increases in public school teacher pay and the creation of the new endowment fund.

Nashville Scene:

Helping partially fulfill another Republican priority, Lee said he wants to cut the professional privilege tax from $400 to $200. In 2019, lawmakers and the governor teamed to reduce the number of professions subject to the tax. The $200 reduction in the tax — still applied to money managers, lawyers and other professionals — will cost the state $40 million.  Lee called the privilege tax “arbitrary and unfair.”

And for good measure, Tennessean reporter Natalie Allison and photog George Walker teamed up for this gem: A photo of Rep. Kent Calfee swigging from a chocolate syrup bottle on the House floor while clutching crackers in his other hand. The bottle is a favorite prop of the Lenoir Republican, who claims to drink water out of it to amuse his grandchildren. Allison’s tweet had received nearly 10,000 likes by Tuesday morning and 2,700 retweets.

The photo also ran on the front pages of the print editions of The Tennessean and the Knoxville News Sentinel.