NASHVILLE - Three Tennessee Republican lawmakers whose homes and legislative offices were raided Jan. 8 by the FBI collectively paid $182,794 during the 2020 election cycle for work done by newly minted political firms with little known campaign track records, state filings show.
At this point no one - except the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Tennessee - knows for sure why federal agents served search warrants on Rep. Robin Smith of Hixson, a business and political consultant, as well as Rep. Glen Casada, the former House speaker from Franklin, and freshman Rep. Todd Warner of Lewisburg.
Also raided was the home of Casada's former top aide, Cade Cothren, who along with his former boss was embroiled in a 2019 scandal over sexist and racist texts, which helped fuel Casada's downfall as speaker.
The inclusion of Warner, who defeated then-Rep. Rick Tillis, R-Lewisburg, in an ugly House District 92 Republican primary in August, however, has fueled scrutiny of shared political activity among the three legislators.
In that primary campaign, a new political action committee, the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC, launched digital and direct mail attack ads against Tillis in the district, which includes Marshall County and parts of Marion, Franklin and Lincoln counties.
The Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC, Warner's campaign, Smith and a number of House GOP colleagues she has done work for shared the same Chattanooga postal permit number, 383, on mailers filed last year as part of a complaint filed with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance against Warner and the fund.
"I knew there was something fishy going on. That's why I filed these complaints, right? I'd just never seen anything like it," said Gregory Hazelwood, who worked on Tillis' 2020 campaign.
In his complaint, Hazelwood said the PAC "appears to have coordinated" with Warner, a practice that's limited for certain kinds of political groups. He told the Times Free Press that a number of the mailers "had ties back to that Chattanooga address, that was associated with Robin Smith, I believe."
In his written response to the election registry, Warner denied any coordination with the PAC, saying the accusation "holds no merit and is completely and totally false."
The lowest-price vendor, Warner said, simply "ended up being a large mail house out of Chattanooga" that uses permit number 383." He noted a "significant number of sitting legislators" use "the same Chattanooga mail house because of the low rate."
State campaign finance records show Sydney Friedopfer, a 2018 Vanderbilt University graduate, listed as the PAC's treasurer, using a Utah address. She dismissed the issues raised as "rabbit holes" in her response to the registry? Efforts to reach her were unsuccessful.
Registry members dismissed the complaint.
The PAC wasn't the only new group involved in last year's House GOP primaries and the general election. So was a trio of new Republican campaign vendor companies.
One was Dixieland Strategies, an unregistered company listing a Rainbow City, Alabama, address associated with a PostNet store. That was the firm used by Warner, who paid the entity $75,461.67 for unspecified "professional services," according to his registry filings. At least one of Warner's mailings had the 383 postal permit from Chattanooga.
A second unregistered company was Bullet Proof Strategies. Casada disclosed paying $47,714.70 beginning in the fall for printing, advertising and campaign mail.
The third was Phoenix Solutions LLC. The firm registered with the state of New Mexico on Nov. 12, 2019, listing a Sante Fe address. Phoenix Solutions used a professional firm that can legally mask the name of an actual entity's owner. Four days later, Phoenix registered with the Tennessee Secretary of State's office using the same firm, again leaving the actual ownership concealed.
Smith, a senior projects manager with Chattanooga-based Rivers Edge Alliance and a close political ally of Casada, made extensive use of Phoenix in 2020 through both her personal campaign account and, later, a new political action committee she created, Leadership Pioneers. She used the PAC to help her Republican colleagues and other GOP candidates.
All told, Smith spent $59,618 with Phoenix, with $27,479 coming from her personal campaign account and another $32,139 from Leadership Pioneers PAC, according to her registry filings.
Smith and her attorney, Ben Rose of Brentwood, say she is not a "target" of the federal investigation.
"I am fully cooperating. I plan to be doing that," Smith told state Capitol reporters earlier this month.
Asked by the Times Free Press whether she had any connection to Phoenix Solutions, Smith said, "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."
An IRS W-9 form submitted to the state by the company carries the signature of a Matthew Phoenix. A phone number listed on invoices is no longer in use.
One campaign vendor, who asked not to be identified to steer clear of the controversy, confirmed an account first reported in The Tennessean that he had done work for Phoenix Solutions. The vendor said he dealt directly with Cothren, the former Casada aide. The vendor said when he asked Cothren how to bill the work, Cothren told him to invoice Phoenix Solutions.
The vendor said Cothren also sought his services for additional work for the Faith Family Freedom Fund, the group that attacked Tillis in the primary.
Noting his work was legitimate, the vendor added, "I don't understand why the down-low" approach by Cothren. "It just blew me away."
Efforts to reach Cothren were unsuccessful. Both Casada and Cothren were no friends of Tillis, whom they and others suspected of operating an anonymous Twitter account which criticized and mocked them, as well as a number of hard-right House Republicans. Tillis, the brother of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, did not respond to Times Free Press inquiries.
State campaign disclosure forms show that six of Smith's individual legislative colleagues who have relied on her political services collectively spent about $50,000 of their own campaign funds with Phoenix.
Several lawmakers said in interviews that they used Phoenix based on Smith's recommendations. Some couldn't recall whether Smith specifically told them she was using the firm but shrugged it off because they were simply seeking a comprehensive package of mailer design, printing and mailing.
"As you know, Rep. Smith has done my campaigns from the beginning. She recommended them," said Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain. "She said she'd worked with them before. I just don't get into that part of the business. All I did was look at the mailer and approve. We talked about what to put in it and all that. But as far as who actually did the work, it was her recommendation and they billed me and I paid them."
Hazlewood, who is not related to the Gregory Hazelwood who had worked on the Tillis campaign, spent $1,737 on the campaign mailer, according to her campaign disclosure.
Rep. Dan Howell, R-Cleveland, recalled talking with Smith last year when she asked if he had an opponent. Howell said he didn't but did want to do some direct mail to reach the people he represents.
"She said 'Well, I can help you with that.' And I said fine because I knew that she had done that for some others," Howell said. He noted he provided a photo and "she or her people designed it. And she said, 'Now, there's a company I work with that's called Phoenix Solutions. They will do the mailing if you want them to.' I said fine, just handle it and I'll write a check."
Howell, who did more than one mailing, said "Phoenix is not her company, is my understanding. Her company is River's Edge." He paid Phoenix $6,187, his campaign disclosures show.
Rep. Mark Hall, R-Cleveland, who also used Smith, said the name Phoenix Solutions "doesn't sound familiar, but it doesn't mean that I wasn't affiliated with it in some way because normally it's one-stop shopping, you know. We don't know who they're affiliated [with]. She did my mailing."
Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston, who spent $22,789 with Phoenix, said that while he and his wife usually do their own mailers, after they both contracted COVID-19 and pneumonia last year, Smith offered to help.
"She approached us, just that she could help us with mailers. And she helped us with some pictures and verbiage and stuff and did fantastic mailers," he said.
His bills came directly from Phoenix Solutions, Calfee said. Cothren's name never came up, he said.
While Calfee's office was among those searched by federal agents, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said it wasn't because of anything Calfee had done. Calfee's administrative assistant was one of the people the FBI was interested in. She has been placed on administrative leave.
Calfee said he believes the reason agents were interested in his assistant was because her daughter "used to date Cade [Cothren]. That's well known up here, I think. I know that's why they looked at her - because of Cade."
Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta, spent $25,160 with Phoenix Solutions. He declined to discuss his use of the firm.
Two other lawmakers also used Phoenix Solutions. Rep. Charlie Baum, R-Murfreesboro, paid the firm $1,875 for work. Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, paid Phoenix $4,408. The name of the company was misspelled in Zachary's filing.
Following the August primaries, Phoenix Solutions was added to the list of approved House GOP Caucus vendors for the fall election with several lawmakers serving on the caucus' campaign committee, including Smith, supporting the firm's inclusion.
"Robin was one of them," said Rep. Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville, chairman of the caucus's campaign panel. "Robin had used them in the past, and I believe they had done some work for others."
But there were questions raised about Phoenix and the Faith Family Freedom Fund's attacks on Tillis during the District 92 GOP primary in August.
Smith defended the firm, lawmakers said, saying she knew the firm, that it wasn't involved in the Tillis/Warner contest and that the firm did good work. The attacks from the PAC on Tillis largely dealt with his alleged ties to the anonymous Twitter account.
Garrett said he called and spoke with Matthew Phoenix.
"I had zero indication that I was talking with anyone other than Matthew Phoenix with Phoenix Solutions," said Garrett, an attorney. "I know that that is out there, that maybe this person doesn't exist. I had no inclination even during the call or after the call that I was with anyone but a legitimate person, a legitimate company."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.