NASHVILLE - Tennessee House Ethics Committee member and State Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, is calling on embattled Republican Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada to resign, saying he was shocked by the proposed "statement of facts" for a draft ethics opinion sought by the speaker, who is scrambling to hold onto his post amid a text-messaging scandal and other issues.
In a statement provided Thursday night to the Times Free Press, Carter, an attorney and former judge, said that he previously had felt he should make no decision on Casada's future until the panel completed an investigation.
But events began taking a dramatic turn for the Hamilton County lawmaker on Monday when he and four Democrats also on the 10-member ethics panel were called in for one-on-one meetings with Casada's hand-picked Deputy Speaker Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, who is also the Ethics Committee chairman, another appointment by Casada, who was elected speaker in January.
Two staff attorneys were also present at the meeting, Carter said.
What happened next and fears about what could come down the pike spurred his call on Casada to resign, Carter said.
"I was stunned that facts had been produced with an exonerating advisory opinion written for which no ethics committee member had input," the statement from Carter reads.
"The facts are not fully known, and my understanding is the investigation is in its infancy. However, with great reluctance and a heavy heart, I now feel moved to call for the resignation of Speaker Casada, based on the facts that I now know," Carter stated.
He said "my concern with the meeting is that it shows a heart for misrepresentation and political maneuvering to save the requestor's office even at a loss of reputation and integrity of the House Ethics Committee. This is the most egregious act I have been made aware of.
"It is not an allegation of past conduct, it is proof of present state of mind and present conduct," Carter added.
Casada's push for the opinion comes with the 73-member Republican super majority planing to hold a GOP Caucus meeting this coming Monday to debate his political future. They could hold a no confidence vote.
Casada has publicly stated he was seeking the opinion "concerning my actions taken relative to the resignation" by his former chief of staff Cade Cothren, who resigned May 6 amid a furor over leaked lewd and racist texts in a group-text thread between himself, Casada and an unidentified man.
In three texts dated before he was elected speaker in January, Casada responded jokingly or approvingly to Cothren's crude boasts and claims about his sexual activities, according to the Tennessean and WTVF.
Moreover, WTVF has reported that the FBI has made inquiries about this year's controversial school voucher vote in which Casada held the House tally board open for 40 minutes when it tied 49-49.
Casada finally persuaded a Knoxville lawmaker to switch his vote and it passed 50-48.
On another front, a black activist, Justin Jones, and black legislators charge that Cothren tried to railroad Jones after his arrest for assault, in which he allegedly threw a cup filled with coffee at Casada.
The advisory opinion apparently only deals with the sex and racist texts, which Casada initially decried as fake, then later acknowledged he had responded to two of the sexist texts.
And after apologizing and saying those were his only text responses, the speaker on Monday had to acknowledge he had responded to yet a third sex text following a report from WTVF.
According to House rules, if an advisory opinion is signed by six or more Ethics Committee members, "any person who conforms that person's behavior to the requirements of the advisory opinion may rely upon the advisory opinion without threat of sanction by the House Ethics Committee or the House of Representatives."
Asked if that would not effectively immunize Casada from House official action, Carter told the Times Free Press in brief comments Thursday night, "That's right. That's right."
In his statement, Carter said that when he went to the Monday meeting, he was given a "statement of facts setting forth the Speaker's position on many of the issues that have been raised."
He said in his six years on the Ethics Committee, "I have never received a request for an advisory opinion from a legislator concerning his own conduct. Nevertheless, I agreed to participate as long as the opinion rendered was based upon facts that would withstand scrutiny."
But Carter said after "reviewing the facts as presented, I advised that the facts did not appear to be in line with the documents existing in the public realm," Carter said.
After that, Carter said, he was handed a two- or three-page "advisory opinion" bearing signature lines for all 10 Ethics Committee members to sign. It was based on the "facts presented" and "found no ethical violations," he said.
Carter said he then informed Hill and the two attorneys he wouldn't sign the advisory opinion. But he later agreed to sign the advisory opinion "and adopt it as my own if the Speaker would state under oath that the facts stated were true and correct.
"I was advised that would not happen," Carter said.
Carter said when he asked who drafted the document, he was advised legal staff had penned the draft advisory opinion and then told Hill and the two attorneys he "would sign the advisory opinion if I could modify that opinion to clearly state that the facts upon which the opinion was rendered appear to be divergent from facts in the public record."
He also told them he would sign the opinion "if I was allowed to write the final paragraph and attach this letter of facts to the opinion as exhibit A."
The lawmaker said he was given to understand that request would be honored at a planned meeting later that Monday afternoon.
But it was later canceled after Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Nashville, armed with a clerk's ruling, said the panel needed to wait for 72 hours to provide public notice for the meeting.
Carter also stated "it was discussed that the opinion would be used as an exoneration of the Speaker's conduct. Further that if it is to be used for such purposes, it must be done with accuracy and integrity befitting the Ethics Committee."
The lawmaker, who is chairman of the House Civil Justice Subcommittee and known affectionately among many colleagues as "Judge Carter," said he knows that his statement "will bring political retribution on me and therefore the people of District 29 I make these facts known out of an understanding that my oath as a state representative requires such action and leaves no alternative."
On Wednesday Jernigan told the Times Free Press that the Ethics Committee's advisory opinion process "has never really been used this way before" with someone asking about their own prior actions after the fact as opposed to seeking authorization to do something.
The Nashville lawmaker said he has sought opinions in the past from the Registry of Election Finance or a request from a Tennessee Attorney General.
"You'd say to the Ethics Committee, 'I'm about to do a, b, c. Is that ethical?'" Jernigan said.
Citing his own past experience in seeking legal opinions, Jernigan also noted that how questions are framed is important too, noting that "If you write the question the right way, you know what the answer is going to be."
"I can tell you when you write the question, we can only address the question you write," Jernigan said. "So like I said, I've written the attorney general [for] an opinion knowing what the answer is going to be because I need an AG opinion."
Moreover, Jernigan pointed out, in the current situation involving Casada, the opinion was requested after the fact, asking "Hey, is what I did legal or ethical? And then you phrase the question."
Carter's stance, meanwhile, could put not just Casada but Ethics Chairman Hill in a tough spot. Six votes are required to approve an advisory opinion.
Given Carter's opposition and the expectation that at least four of the five panel Democrats will oppose it, any vote could result in a 5-5 standoff.
Meanwhile, nine Republicans on the 73-member House Republican Caucus, including Rep. Patsy Hazlewood of Signal Mountain, have publicly called on Casada to step down.
Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate speaker, has also said Casada should resign, while noting he has no control over the situation.
Republican Gov. Bill Lee has said he would dismiss Casada if the speaker were a member of his administration, but he stopped short of calling on him to resign.
Former Republican Gov. Bill Haslam was the latest to weigh in, telling WBIR in Knoxville this week that "I think when any of us serve in public office, we're doing it because we think it's the best thing for the state.
"I think Glen has to ask himself, is remaining in position as speaker the best thing for the state. It's hard for me to see how that would be true," Haslam told the station.
The House Democratic Caucus has called on Casada to step down, as has the Black Caucus.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.