Todd warner

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.

Warner got another $138K under federal PPP program in January

Rep. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) is sworn into the House in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Freshman state Rep. Todd Warner, the Chapel Hill Republican who had his business and legislative offices searched by the FBI in January, received another $138,435 in federal COVID-19 relief funds later that month. That’s on top of the $149,630 he received in April 2019.

Warner last week denied to The Tennessean that any of the money he received under the the federal Paycheck Protection Program had gone toward funding the $154,100 he loaned his campaign last year. “If I’m charged with it I feel like I’m innocent,” he told the paper.

The federal funds were directed to his contracting company, PCS of TN, which reported employing 16 people.

The candidate’s largesse raised eyebrows during the race because Warner had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection a decade earlier due to his inability to pay $20 million in debts. Warner said he obtained the money for his political pursuits via an unrelated bank loan.

Warner defeated incumbent Rep. Rick Tillis of Lewisburg in the August primary.

The FBI also searched the homes and offices of Republican Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin and Robin Smith of Hixson. The Registry of Election Finance informed Warner it was reopening a complaint filed by the Tillis camp against him and an independent expenditure group called the Faith Freedom Family Find.

Warner denies federal PPP loan money used to fund campaign

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 lawmakers who had their homes and offices raided by the FBI in January, tells The Tennessean‘s Natalie Allison he didn’t use federal COVID-19 relief funds to pay for his campaign.

Warner, a Chapel Hill businessman, received $149,630 under the Paycheck Protection Program in April. He later loaned his campaign $154,100 in the process of defeating incumbent Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg) in the August primary.

Warner told the paper he used the PPP money to cover allowable business expenses, while he separately borrowed the money he loaned his campaign from a bank.

“They question your integrity, whether you’re an honest man when you’ve been blown up and they say you’re bankrupt, which I have been in 2010,” Warner told the paper, adding he had since rebounded financially.

Warner’s company filed for federal bankruptcy protection when he couldn’t pay more than $20 million in debts during the Great Recession.

“It was a sad time,” Warner said. “I hope we aren’t headed there again with the government giving all this money away.”

The FBI also hauled away materials from the homes and offices of former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) and Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson).

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.

Warner a no-show at Registry hearing over failure to file disclosures due to FBI raid

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 (R-Chapel Hill) was a no-show at Wednesday’s meeting of the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance to take up his request to waive his campaign finance disclosure requirement due to an FBI raid on his home and office.

Executive Director Bill Young said Warner had indicated he or his attorney would attend the meeting. But nobody appeared on his behalf.

“The FBI confiscated all files and documents related to my campaign including check copies from donations and checking account ledgers,” Warner said in last month’s email first reported by The Tennessee Journal. “They also took all computers and back ups for the campaign and my business.”

Registry member Hank Fincher said nothing prevented Warner from reconstructing his fourth-quarter disclosure from electronic bank records.

“The FBI took my bank records is not much of an excuse,” Fincher said.

The Registry agreed to send a letter to Warner saying the panel doesn’t have the authority to waive filing requirements.

Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro) also missed filing his report while hospitalized for COVID-19. Family members had alerted the panel only the lawmaker had access to the information needed to make the disclosure. The Registry again determined it wasn’t in a position to give Byrd a pass on filing requirements.

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.

Lawmaker searched by FBI misses campaign finance deadline

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 of Chapel Hill, one of three Republican House members to have their homes and offices searched by the FBI earlier this month, did not file a fourth-quarter campaign finance report by Monday’s deadline.

The other subjects of the searches, Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin and Robin Smith of Hixson, filed their personal campaign and PAC disclosures on time.

Warner in an email to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance said he was unable to complete his disclosure due to the raids.

“The FBI confiscated all files and documents related to my campaign including check copies from donations and checking account ledgers,” Warner said in the email obtained by The Tennessee Journal. “They also took all computers and back ups for the campaign and my business.”

Warner defeated Rep. Rick Tillis of Lewisburg in the Republican primary in August. The Tillis camp filed a complaint alleging coordination between Warner and an independent expenditure group calling itself Faith Freedom Family Fund because they used the same postal code. The account out of Chattanooga also sent mail for a new vendor called Phoenix Solutions, which ended up getting more than $200,000 worth of business from House Republicans last cycle.

Several House members have said Smith was a major proponent of first using Phoenix Solutions. She has declined to answer reporters’ questions about whether she has any financial ties to the outfit.

FBI raids state lawmakers’ homes, offices

Federal agents and legislative staffers confer outside the office of Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) on Jan. 8, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Federal agents descended on the homes and legislative offices of Republican state Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin, Robin Smith of Hixson, and Todd Warner of Chapel Hill on Friday. They also executed searches at the home of former Casada chief of staff Cade Cothren and three current legislative staffers.

The FBI didn’t say what it was investigating, though speculation spread around the Cordell Hull Building that agents were looking into efforts supporting Warner defeat of Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg) in last year’s primary and the previous year’s push to pass a controversial school voucher bill.