Tennessee representative continues business with shadowy campaign vendor amid investigations

Photo by John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout / Rep. Todd Warner, R-Culleoka
Photo by John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout / Rep. Todd Warner, R-Culleoka

Despite a federal probe into Tennessee House corruption, Republican state Rep. Todd Warner continued doing business with an Alabama campaign vendor linked to two other entities caught up in FBI and state investigations.

Warner, a Chapel Hill Republican seeking re-election to a second term, purchased more than $6,000 in advertising services this February from Dixieland Strategies, according to his filing with the state Registry of Election Finance.

Asked Wednesday why he sought the services of Dixieland Strategies again, Warner said, "They done me a great job (sic)."

He said he did nothing wrong in hiring Dixieland again and produced a mailer showing off their work.

Williamson County Commissioner Jeff Ford of Spring Hill recently announced he is running for election as a Republican in House District 92. Newly-aligned House districts put Spring Hill into District 92, setting up the race pitting Warner against Ford.

Warner declined to identify whom he deals with or whether Dixieland Strategies is run by Cade Cothren, the ex-chief of staff for former House Speaker Glen Casada, who is now seeking election to the Williamson County clerk's post.

But Dixieland Strategies uses the same pre-sorted postal code out of Chattanooga, 383, as two other shadowy entities that popped up in late 2019, Phoenix Solutions and the Faith Family Freedom Fund political action committee. Faith Family Freedom Fund used that postal code in Warner's latest campaign mailers.

Former state Rep. Robin Smith pleaded guilty in March to a federal wire fraud charge that detailed how Cothren set up a phony New Mexico-based company called Phoenix Solutions to keep lawmakers from finding out he was running the vendor. Smith and Casada pressured Republicans to do more than $200,000 worth of business with Phoenix Solutions, purportedly run by "Matthew Phoenix," in return for kickbacks. Casada and Cothren have not been indicted.

Phoenix Solutions operated similarly to the Faith Family Freedom Fund political action committee and Dixieland Strategies, set up through an out-of-state PostNet box. Dixieland has a mailing address of 3331 Rainbow Drive Suite E, Rainbow City, Alabama, which is the location for a PostNet business.

A former girlfriend of Cothren's told the Tennessee Registry of Election that he persuaded her to set up the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC and serve as treasurer so he could run it. Cothren also told her not to talk to Registry personnel who called her asking about her participation in the PAC's formation. Her sister was the chairman of the organization.

Faith Family Freedom Fund used a donation from a North Carolina restaurant owner – unable to be found by the Registry – for its seed money to pay for attack ads against former Republican Rep. Rick Tillis, who lost to Warner in the 2020 election. Tillis used an anonymous Twitter account to criticize Casada and Cothren in the run-up to Casada's resignation amid a racist and sexist texting scandal involving Cothren.

Ultimately, Casada resigned in August 2019 after the House Republican Caucus gave him a vote of no confidence. House Speaker Cameron Sexton then was elected to serve during a special session.

The Registry of Election Finance audited Warner's campaign finances, including his expenditures with Dixieland Strategies, in 2021 after a Tillis campaign worker filed a complaint alleging illegal coordination between Warner's campaign and the Faith Family Freedom Fund.

The Registry dismissed the matter in November 2021 after Warner was able to show where he paid the vendor and received the services.

Warner, however, was under investigation, along with Smith and Casada, after FBI agents raided their homes and legislative offices in January 2021. On the advice of his attorney, Warner has declined to discuss the raid and investigation.

(READ MORE: Tennessee ethics bill designed to clamp down on legislative corruption still in works)

The Registry board subpoenaed several legislators, including Warner and Casada, to testify about what they know of the Faith Family Freedom Fund in March. Casada said he knew nothing about the entity, and he previously told the Tennessee Lookout he had no connection to Phoenix Solutions, though Smith's guilty plea document shows he knew about the firm's setup and took kickbacks.

Cothren refused to testify before the Registry, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself, and criticized the subpoena in a letter from his attorney.

The Registry recently turned the entire matter over to the Williamson County District Attorney's Office for an investigation into potential criminal penalties.

Despite Warner's decision to keep doing business with Dixieland Strategies, little about the entity can be found.

The Alabama secretary of state's website has no registration for the company, nor does Tennessee's site.

Phoenix Solutions, in contrast, filed a certificate of organization in November 2019 in New Mexico and a few days later in Tennessee, according to reports.

Whether Dixieland Strategies is required to file in Tennessee could depend on how it was organized, as a sole proprietor or limited liability company.

(READ MORE: Tennessee election registry wants attorney general to enforce subpoena on former House aide)

According to the Attorney General's Office, a "foreign" corporation, one that is not incorporated under the Tennessee For-Profit Business Corporation Act, is required to obtain a certificate of authority from the secretary of state before "transacting business" in the state. Some activities are excluded, such as handling legal work, holding board meetings, maintaining bank accounts, selling items through independent contractors and soliciting orders by mail. None of the items listed in state law appear to involve campaign work.

Greg Hazelwood, a Nashville resident who did volunteer work for Tillis in 2020, complained to the Registry board that Dixieland Strategies had no "business footprint" because he couldn't find a physical location, phone number or other information showing it existed.

His complaint also contended Warner, through Dixieland Strategies, and Faith Family Freedom Fund violated campaign finance laws when they sent out political flyers with the same postal code on the same day.

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.

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