EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story did not include some comments from Tennessee State Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, that provided more context to her reactions to the controversy surrounding House Speaker Glen Casada. The comments were added at 7:40 p.m. on Saturday, May 11, 2019.
NASHVILLE - Embattled Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada said Friday that after apologizing and asking for forgiveness for controversial text messages between he and a top aide, he thinks the problem has been "dealt with" and that the state House will "unify and move forward."
But Casada's Senate counterpart, fellow Republican and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, said in his strongest criticism yet that in his personal opinion, "I believe it would be in the best interest of the Legislature and the state of Tennessee for Speaker Casada to vacate his office at this time."
McNally emphasized that's his own view and it's up to House representatives to decide.
The polar-opposite takes by Tennessee's two top legislative leaders over the fallout from controversial text messages that Casada exchanged with his former aide Cade Cothren and associated issues marked yet another day of political turmoil among majority Republicans at the state Capitol.
On Thursday, Republican Gov. Bill Lee made his firmest pronouncement yet on the unfolding drama, responding to questions from reporters that if Casada were a member of his administration, he would ask him to resign.
"I would," Lee said.
Lee also told reporters after a Nashville graduation ceremony for technology and trade students that "given what has unfolded in the past days, I have a responsibility in the executive branch to speak to what culture should look like, to the standard that should exist in the executive branch."
On Friday, television news crews from WTVF, which broke a number of stories related to the leaked texts, and WSMV caught up with Casada as he left an event.
"I've got one statement," the speaker said. "I apologize for the two texts that I sent [to Cothren]. They were wrong and I was wrong. But I've asked forgiveness and received forgiveness."
In the 2016 text messages, Casada joked with Cothren about the staffer's boasts of having had sex with a woman in a Nashville restaurant's bathroom. In another, Casada responded to a photo Cothren texted of a woman pole dancing, asking if he could "just touch."
Meanwhile, Casada told reporters, "my chief of staff has resigned. Those problems are dealt with and now the House will unify and move forward on addressing those things that need to be addressed and leading this state and making it the best state in the union. And that's all I got to say."
Reporters persisted, however, in following up on a WTVF report Thursday night that FBI agents have started talking to lawmakers, asking whether any improper incentives were offered to pass Lee's controversial school voucher bill, which Casada forced through on a narrow 51-49 vote.
That came after a 49-49 tie sent Casada and leaders scrambling to find a 50th vote, which they did to successfully pass the bill.
Asked if any "bribes" had been offered, Casada scoffed, saying, "Oh, that's ridiculous. Certainly not. Absolutely not."
And on another question over his installation of "white noise" machines in his office suite to dampen sound, Casada replied that "white machines are in every business in this country. They help people to blot out noise."
Some have raised concerns that it's intended to counter any potential recording.
Meanwhile, paranoia is sweeping Democratic ranks after The Tennessean published an article quoting Cothren in a prior interview saying that he could turn on committee room cameras and microphones even when official committee hearings were not in progress.
Democrats, who hold their caucus meetings in the rooms, were irate and are calling on the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Middle District of Tennessee to investigate.
Casada's office, however, says they don't have the ability to do that.
As he battled for his political survival this week within the GOP Caucus, Casada issued an apology and released a four-part "action plan" aimed at addressing some of their concerns.
And on Wednesday, he and fellow caucus members held a conference call in which he detailed some of his plans and fought back against a variety of charges. Calling it "embarrassing and humbling to have it displayed in this manner," Casada apologized, saying he had been in a "bad place" in his life back in 2016.
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."
Among those participating in the call were Reps. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah; Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, and Robin Smith, R-Hixson.
After the conference call, Hazlewood and Carter voiced deep reservations about Casada continuing as speaker.
Smith called the "behavior portrayed in those texts absolutely inappropriate, objectifying a woman or another human for that matter." She said her understanding based on Casada's remarks said on the conference call was he responded to two Cothren texts involving women but not "the racist, horrible comments" as well as Cothran's illegal drug use.
"I can only tell you what I've seen and what I've seen is none of this," Smith said. "[I]t seems very uncharacteristic of the speaker that I know. But it doesn't discount the fact that it's horrific even that which he did reference" in responding to Cothren's texts involving women.
A group of Republicans has been seeking a second GOP Caucus meeting to hash out issues further, a move Casada agreed with Friday afternoon.
"I support the call by some of my Republican members for an upcoming GOP Caucus meeting to continue to hear and address lingering concerns," he stated. "I am confident the more my colleagues have actual facts before them, the better."
There are other problems he faces as well, including a controversy around a criminal complaint Cothren brought against a black activist from Nashville who was previously arrested for assault after allegedly throwing a cup of coffee or tea on the speaker during the legislative session.
The activist, Justin Jones, was placed under a no-contact order. Cothren later texted a photo of an email that Jones had sent to the speaker's office to Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk, alleging it showed Jones was violating the order.
Black lawmakers are furious, saying the actual email's time stamp showed it was really sent before the no-contact order was issued. Legislative information services officials say it had been sent to a spam file with thousands of other emails. But it eventually got to Cothren, who is said to have expressed concerns that too many of his emails weren't getting through.
Funk recused himself from the case in the ensuing uproar. But on Friday, upset members of the legislative Black Caucus held a news conference in which they continued to raise concerns.
"We believe the email was altered and we believe it was intentionally done," charged Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, the group's chairman. He said the group planned to fire off letters to the U.S. Attorney's Office here, as well as the Department of Justice in Washington.
They're also angry with Funk, questioning why he was so ready to proceed with action against Jones based on what they said is a misleading photo, instead of having the actual email in hand.
Casada said in a late afternoon email update that he has learned the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference has named a special prosecutor to begin investigating what happened.
"My desire is for this independent review to be completed as quickly and thoroughly as possible and for all of the facts to come out," Casada stated.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.