NASHVILLE - Republican House Speaker Glen Casada on Wednesday sought to head off a possible rebellion among GOP colleagues over a text-message scandal, apologizing to Republicans in a telephone conference call during which some members called for him to resign from his powerful post.
The speaker has come under fire over several issues, including text exchanges with his former chief of staff Cade Cothren, who resigned earlier this week amid a furor over the revelation of racist and sexually explicit texts he sent to Casada from 2014 to 2016, as well as Cothren's admitted use of cocaine in his office.
Outlining what he called an "action plan" aimed at restoring trust in his office, Casada promised to put things right, even after having earlier publicly questioned whether some of the texts had been fabricated.
Whether that is enough to satisfy his critics remains to be seen, although Casada appears to continue enjoying significant support from the 73-member Republican Caucus. Democrats, who have called on Casada to resign, have 26 members in the 99-member chamber.
In a statement, Casada said, "I take complete ownership over the text messages with inappropriate comments about women that I exchanged with my former Chief of Staff and another individual several years ago. It's embarrassing and humbling to have it displayed in this manner.
"I apologize and hope that my friends, family, colleagues, and constituents find a way to forgive me for it, because it is not the person I am and it hasn't been the way I have conducted myself as Speaker," Casada said.
But he sought to distance himself from "the myriad of other messages" sent both to him and a third person by Cothren, which Casada acknowledged included "racial slurs, drug use, and various other inappropriate comments. I condemn them in their entirety and I do not tolerate that type of behavior as an elected official or as a human being."
He has previously dismissed the sex texts as "locker room talk," a phrase used by then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in the wake of explosive "Access Hollywood" tapes in which he discussed having groped women. And Casada has said he didn't read the racist and drug-related texts.
Meanwhile, Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart called Wednesday for a federal criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney's office into news reports the speaker's office may have conducted secret surveillance on meeting rooms and bugged some lawmakers' personal offices, a charge that Casada's office vehemently denied.
During the conference call, Casada also sought to assure Republicans that no further shoes are to drop, saying, "let me be very clear, there's nothing else to come out," according to The Tennessean, which had reporters listening in on the call.
Four Republican lawmakers have publicly called on Casada to step down, among them Speaker Pro Tempore Bill Dunn of Knoxville, the chamber's most senior member and a prominent religious conservative.
Dunn said on the call that he and Casada had spoken and "I shared with him my feelings about how I thought it would be better for him to step down," The Tennessean reported.
Multiple efforts to reach Reps. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, and Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, by telephone were unsuccessful after the meeting. Efforts to connect with Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, also were unsuccessful.
Earlier this week, Hazlewood was quoted by The Tennessean as saying Republicans "should not tolerate the kind of behavior and the kind of judgment" that was shown.
Carter, meanwhile, had challenged Casada in 2016 for the majority leader post that Casada won. That race took a dramatic turn as Casada denounced a video posted on an anonymously run blog, charging it was selectively edited to destroy his candidacy, his reputation and his marriage.
It showed Casada, who was married at the time, in a local restaurant with a young woman. But Casada charged it was edited to omit others at the table, including Cothren, who later said the woman was with him.
Carter had disavowed the video.
And during last November's GOP Caucus election for speaker, Casada's opponent, Rep. Curtis Johnson, R-Clarksville, pointedly noted that given the GOP's super majority, "Democrats' only hope is for Republican division or scandal, and you'll have neither with me. I don't play political games."
In an interview Wednesday with the Times Free Press, Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, a freshman House member, said she agreed that the "behavior portrayed in those texts [was] absolutely inappropriate, objectifying a woman or another human for that matter. It's always wrong basing comments on someone's ethnicity or race."
But Smith said as a result of the Casada call, her understanding is that the speaker's comments that were "inappropriate" were "those that were sexual in nature and that the racist, horrible comments, derogatory comments about women and the drug use, those happened between the former chief of staff and the third person who has been identified as a [former] disgruntled employee."
Smith said in her prior work as a House GOP political consultant, "I never saw this kind of behavior from our speaker, ever. Never experienced it, never saw it. To that end, I can only tell you what I've seen and I've seen none of it and it doesn't characterize the speaker that I know."
Smith is a member of the House Ethics Committee, which Casada has tasked with reviewing Cothran's dismissal, as well as developing a drug-testing program for employees.
Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, said during the meeting that Casada asked for "forgiveness on what he said on texts three or four years ago and apologized for it."
Adding that Casada was "very sincere and humbled," Travis said, "I'm ready to forgive him and move on. I think he fixed the issue."
In one of the text messages to Casada, according to The Tennessean, Cothren sent a photo of an upside-down woman next to a pole. Casada responded, "What about some pole dancing?" Casada later asked "Can I just touch????"
Cothren responded, "Lol maybe just once."
In another message reported by The Tennessean, when Cothren boasted about having had sexual intercourse in a restaurant restroom with a woman, Casada responded that "only gone for 60 seconds. R u a minute man???;)"
Cothren replied, "Yes, I take after you. Like father like son."
The speaker responded, "Lolol! If I'm happy, then all is good!!!!!"
Asked about Republicans' reaction to Casada's apology, GOP Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton said, "I think his apology was sincere, and I think the public statement is the same as what he told the caucus. I think most members are looking at his apology, and they're going to accept the apology and watch this as it develops."
Asked if the matter hasn't been settled, Sexton said, "we don't know what else is to be reported. We just know what's being reported currently. If nothing else is reported, I think everything's settled."
In his action plan, Casada also sought to allay concerns related to another controversy regarding a criminal complaint Cothran made against a black activist from Nashville who was previously arrested for throwing coffee on the speaker.
The activist, Justin Jones, was under a no-contact order. Cothran forwarded an email from Jones to the Davidson County District Attorney's Office purporting to show Jones violating that order. But critics said the email's time stamp showed it was actually sent prior to the no-contact order coming down.
Questions were raised in Nashville news media over whether the email had been tampered with.
The legislature's Black Caucus has demanded the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation look into it. Casada said Wednesday he has written the District Attorneys General Conference and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation asking them to investigate.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.