robin smith

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)

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.

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.”

Smith wants to cast wider net on banning lawmakers from doing business with state

Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson) attends a House floor session in Nashville on April 23, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A bill introduced by House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) is aimed at ending the practice of having lawmakers’ political consulting firms be paid with taxpayer dollars to send out constituent mailers for their colleagues. The measure would apply to two GOP lawmakers who recently had their homes and offices raided by the FBI, Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin and Robin Smith of Hixson.

Smith’s Rivers Edge Alliance last year billed the General Assembly nearly $11,000 for work on behalf of three colleagues. Casada’s Right Way Consulting billed $12,500 to six GOP lawmakers’ accounts. Smith and Casada have also refused to say whether they have a stake in a secretive vendor Phoenix Solutions that sprung into prominence last year.

Smith tells Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Andy Sher she wants to amend Sexton’s legislation to make it “even better” by expanding it to also include legislators’ “consultant or agent.”

Smith didn’t tell Sher whom she was seeking to target with her amendment, but her attorney has been blaming Sexton adviser Chip Saltsman for the FBI probe into his client, calling the matter a “turf war between political consultants.”

Saltsman and Smith are both former political consultants to the House Republican Caucus. They have been at odds since a 2010 congressional race in which Saltsman client Chuck Fleischmann defeated Smith in the Republican primary.

Sexton is cool to the idea of Smith amending his bill.

“Her amendment and what she wanted to do would not fit the caption of my bill,” Sexton told the Times Free Press. “Nor has she come to me about adding an amendment to my bill. What she’s wanting to do would not fit the caption, therefore you can’t do it even if I gave her the approval, I would accept the amendment — which I have not.”

Warner files fundraising report after blaming FBI raid for delay

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, one of three Republican House members who recently had their homes and offices raided by the FBI, has filed a campaign finance disclosure after previously saying he couldn’t access his records because they had been seized by the federal agents.

The Registry of Election Finance ruled this week that it didn’t have the authority to give Warner an extension due to the law enforcement activity and instructed him to reconstruct his report from online filings

According to the report, Warner’s top donations in the fourth quarter were $1,500 each from the PACs of Amazon and House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville). He also received $1,000 each from CVS Health, the Marshall County Republican Party, and Rep. Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro).

Warner reported raising a total of $9,750 and spending $1,183 during the period.

The other lawmakers searched by the FBI were Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin and Robin Smith of Hixson.

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.

Casada PAC attacks from 2018 appear to be templates for hit pieces on Tillis

A political action committee that ran attacks last summer against former Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg) used the same template as hit pieces issued by the PAC of former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) two years earlier.

The mailers attacking Tillis were run by a group called the Faith Freedom Family Fund, or FFFF. The ones targeting Jonathan Mason, a Republican candidate running for a Hamilton County House seat in 2018, were sent out by Red Ivory Strategies for Casada’s CAS-PAC. Red Ivory is owned by Michael Lotfi, whom Casada later hired for a no-show job at the General Assembly.

“Lying Rick Tillis will say & do anything to get elected … Don’t let him fool you!” reads an FFFF mailer.

“Lying Jonathan Mason will say & do anything to get elected … Don’t let him fool you!” says a CAS-PAC mailer.

Red Ivory received at least $135,000 from House Republicans in 2020, including $57,750 from the GOP caucus (which isn’t supposed to work against its own members).

The Tennessean has reported that former Casada aide Cade Cothren, who helped run CAS-PAC, also assigned work on behalf of FFFF.

Casada’s preferred candidate in the 2018 primary was Esther Helton of East Ridge, who went on to win the primary and the general election. A mailer from that race carried a Chattanooga postal permit number, 383, that has featured heavily in the Tillis primary.

Permit No. 383 was used in August by Tillis’ opponent Todd Warner, the FFFF PAC, and a campaign vendor called Phoenix Solutions, which has run mailers for a variety of GOP candidates. Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson) was a major promoter of Phoenix.

Smith, Casada, and Warner had their homes and offices searched by the FBI earlier this month, which agents also went through Cothren’s apartment.

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

Here are the candidates for House GOP leadership

Speaker Cameron Sexton presides over a House floor session on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Following Rep. Andrew Farmer’s withdrawal as a candidate for House majority leader, the only remaining contested GOP leadership race appears to be for caucus chair, where Robin Smith is challenging Jeremy Faison.

Here’s the list circulated among House Republican Caucus members (with the caveat that nominations will also be allowed to be made at the GOP meeting on Tuesday) :

Speaker

  • Cameron Sexton

Speaker Pro Tempore

  • Pat Marsh

Republican Leader

  • William Lamberth

Republican Caucus Chair

  • Jeremy Faison
  • Robin Smith

Assistant Majority Leader

  • Ron Gant

Caucus Whip

  • Johnny Garrett

Floor Leader

  • Paul Sherrell

Caucus Vice-Chair

  • Brandon Ogles

Caucus Secretary

  • vacant

Caucus Treasurer

  • Mark Cochran

Fiscal Review

  • Clark Boyd
  • Jason Zachary
  • Kelly Keisling
  • Kevin Vaughan
  • Ron Gant
  • Rush Bricken
  • Scott Cepicky