Tennessee Rep. Robin Smith directed colleagues' taxpayer-funded mail to New Mexico vendor

Taxpayers paid for 4,867 copies of this mailer for Rep. Mark Hall, R-Cleveland, at a cost of $2,871.53. The vendor was a New Mexico firm called Phoenix Solutions.
photo Taxpayers paid for 4,867 copies of this mailer for Rep. Mark Hall, R-Cleveland, at a cost of $2,871.53. The vendor was a New Mexico firm called Phoenix Solutions.

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Rep. Robin Smith, a Hixson Republican and political consultant, didn't just direct political campaign mail business to a little-known New Mexico firm with ties to all the figures raided this month by the FBI.

She also steered taxpayer-funded "constituent mail" there for her colleagues to keep voters apprised of what's going on at the Capitol, to the tune of $28,000.

The firm, Phoenix Solutions LLC of New Mexico, lists an address that's a rented mailbox at a PostNet store in Santa Fe. It's one of four entities that have come under public scrutiny following the Jan. 8 FBI raid of homes and legislative offices belonging to Smith, former House Speaker Glen Casada, Rep. Todd Warner, R-Lewisburg, and four legislative staffers.

Federal officials have yet to say exactly what they're investigating. But all three lawmakers used the services of three new political vendors during the 2020 election cycle. Phoenix was among them. Its ownership is legally masked because of the way it was incorporated.

The Times Free Press and other news organizations have previously reported that Smith and a number of her House GOP colleagues spent campaign funds through Phoenix.

Smith and her attorney Ben Rose have said she is not a "target" of the FBI probe and that Smith plans to be "fully cooperating" with investigators. Smith has not specified her relationship with Phoenix Solutions and declined to answer questions about it.

She used the firm extensively in 2020 herself, spending nearly $75,000 with Phoenix through her personal campaign accounts and her Leadership Pioneers political action committee, through the 4th quarter, her filings on Monday show.

Legislative emails and other documents provide a new wrinkle: They show Smith corresponding with legislative officials to pay Phoenix for another service - taxpayer-funded constituent mailings on behalf of herself and six other Republican lawmakers.

(READ MORE: Rep. Smith: 'Fully cooperating' with FBI following raid but yet to be interviewed)

Her attorney, Rose, said in response to a WTVF-TV report on the taxpayer-funded mailers that they "appear to be legislative updates and surveys, which are routinely used by all members." Rose said "these materials are submitted, reviewed, edited, and approved" by House officials before they are approved.

It remains unclear what Smith's financial relationship, if any, with Phoenix actually is.

In a Dec. 31, 2019, email to then-House Chief of Staff Scott Gilmer, Smith provided information about her own government-funded legislative update mailer and added, "I am also assisting several other members with their leg update/survey, so please advise on any process changes on the review/approval."

She later corresponded with legislative officials on behalf of Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, for a $3,257.40 mailer provided by Phoenix.

Hazlewood said the outreach to constituents is "routinely done" and the mailer "was just an update to let my constituents know what had been done. Robin has done most of my campaign work since I was first elected to legislative office."

(READ MORE: FBI searches offices, homes, of Tennessee lawmakers, including Hixson Rep. Robin Smith)

She recalled that part of the expense was offset by funds from her campaign account. Hazlewood also remembered engaging Smith on at least one political mailer that her campaign paid for, saying, "I didn't have an opponent, but I didn't want people thinking I was taking them for granted."

WTVF reported that Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston, was astonished to find that a constituent mailer had been sent out to his district through Phoenix from his state account.

"I have never knowingly sent anything to anybody for the state to pay," he said of the $5,537 bill.

Twelve days later, Calfee's campaign account paid the company the same amount for a mailer. Calfee said the campaign mailing was sent at Smith's suggestion.

"If they billed the state, they are trying to hoodoo somebody," he told WTVF.

(READ MORE: Tennessee lawmakers in FBI probe spent nearly $200,000 with new campaign vendors)

Smith also submitted some invoices for taxpayer-funded constituent accounts to Legislative Administration Director Connie Ridley's office through work attributed to her own firm, Rivers Edge Alliance. That list included a $4,333.12 bill for a legislative update for Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge. And she submitted another $3,480.60 claim through Rivers Edge Alliance for Casada.

Smith billed the state $3,259.20 for Phoenix Solutions out of her own government-constituent mail account, records show. Other bills paid to Phoenix through government accounts included:

> Rep. Mark Hall, R-Cleveland, $2,871.53

> Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, $4,804.04

> Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta, $4,547.50

> Rep. Jay Reedy, R-Erin, $4,481.48

In addition to the New Mexico address, Phoenix used a mailbox at a UPS Store in Nashville on at least one billing.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.