phoenix solutions

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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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)

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.”

Paperwork for mystery vendor appears to have been improperly filed in registered agent’s name

Phoenix Solutions, the campaign vendor that has come under scrutiny following an FBI raid on Tennessee lawmakers last month, appears to have improperly filed its application to do business in the state.

A Spokane, Wash.-based company called Northwest Registered Agents LLC had been hired to originally register Phoenix Solutions in New Mexico in November 2019. When the company filed its papers with the Tennessee Secretary of State four days later, it submitted an electronic signature in the name of the same Northwest employee, Morgan Noble. The problem is that Noble did not submit the latter filing for Phoenix Solutions, according to her employer.

“We did not do that,” Jed Smith, a spokesman for Northwest Registered Agent LLC, told The Tennessee Journal. “It was unauthorized.”

The company remains a client of Northwest in both New Mexico and Tennessee, but Smith said “we weren’t hired” for registration purposes in the latter.

Phoenix Solutions did $231,144 worth of business with Tennessee Republicans — almost entirely from House members — in the year since emerging on the scene. Rep. Robin Smith of Hixson, a former state GOP chair and then a freshman lawmaker, was a chief proponent of directing caucus business toward Phoenix Solutions.

Smith, newly elected Rep. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill), and former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) had their homes and offices searched by federal agents. Smith and Casada have declined to answer questions about whether they or former aide Cade Cothren (whose home was also searched) had any financial ties to Phoenix Solutions.

A phone number for Phoenix Solutions listed in invoices filed with the Tennessee General Assembly is disconnected.

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.