matthew phoenix

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.

Whoever signed this Phoenix Solutions document has some explaining to do

Phoenix Solutions W-9 form filed with the Tennessee General Assembly.

According to federal prosecutors, Matthew Phoenix, the purported proprietor of political vendor Phoenix Solutions, was not a real person. They say it was actually Cade Cothren, a onetime chief of staff to then-House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin). Cothren allegedly posed as Matthew Phoenix because he knew the company wouldn’t otherwise get approval to do work on taxpayer-funded constituent mailers from the General Assembly.

Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson) is scheduled to strike a plea deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in federal court on Tuesday afternoon. Smith, who resigned from the House on Monday, was aware of Cothren was posing as Phoenix, according to the charging document.

An IRS W-9 form submitted to the General Assembly in January 2020 carries the signature of Matthew Phoenix, right under a section outlining the certification is made “under penalties of perjury” that the person singing the document is a “U.S. person.”

In search of Phoenix Solutions

The mailing address of Phoenix Solutions, a PostNet store in Santa Fe, N.M., on July 2, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessee Journal has ventured deep into New Mexico in search of the elusive political mail vendor believed to be at the center of a federal investigation into three sitting state lawmakers.

The mailing address of Phoenix Solutions is a mailbox store in a strip mall in Santa Fe, located next to a shuttered vape shop. Other businesses in the complex include a Harbor Freight tool store, a Carl’s Jr. fast food restaurant, and a drive-thru coffee shop called Agapao. Felipe’s Tacos is located across the street. There was no sign of the vendor’s purported proprietor, Matthew Phoenix, whom nobody has been able to reach since last year.

The mailing address of Phoenix Solutions, a PostNet store in Santa Fe, N.M., on July 2, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The FBI in January raided the offices of Republican Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin, Robin Smith of Hixson, and Todd Warner of Chapel Hill, along with the home of Cade Cothren, the former chief of staff to Casada when he was House speaker. Investigators have been mum about the reasons for the raid, but speculation has centered on the sudden prominence of Phoenix Solutions starting in early 2020.

The mailing address of Phoenix Solutions, a PostNet store in Santa Fe, N.M., on July 2, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Holt Whitt, the interim chief of staff for Casada and current speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) has obtained a letter from federal prosecutors that he is considered a witness in the case. Suspended after he was questioned in the January raids, Whitt has now been hired as Human Resources adviser in Gov. Bill Lee’s adminstration.

Is Matthew Phoenix out here somewhere? Santa Fe, N.M., on July 2, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)