NASHVILLE -- As a former Tennessee House speaker and his one-time top aide stood in a federal courtroom last week to enter not-guilty pleas to 20 counts of criminal bribery and conspiracy-related charges, another defendant who has already admitted her guilt and is now cooperating with the FBI and prosecutors was miles away.
That would be former Rep. Robin Smith. The Hixson Republican pleaded guilty in March to a single count of honest services wire fraud in an alleged bribery and kickback conspiracy involving Smith, former Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, and ex-Casada chief of staff Cade Cothren.
As part of her plea agreement, Smith is cooperating with federal prosecutors.
Several attorneys not involved in the case, but knowledgable about criminal investigations, view Smith as a valuable witness for federal prosecutors. Cooperation is equally valuable to Smith, a former Tennessee Republican Party chairwoman and political consultant who could see her criminal penalties reduced if she truthfully and fully cooperates, the attorneys said.
The federal indictment of Casada and Cothren describes it as a "conspiracy to steal from the state and its citizens" through the General Assembly's taxpayer-funded constituent mail program during an October 2019 to early January 2021 time frame.
Charges against Casada and Cothren include wire fraud, money laundering, theft from programs receiving federal funds, bribery and kickbacks.
At the heart of the indictment was political vendor Phoenix Solutions LLC. Prosecutors say the firm was created by Cothren and supported by Casada with the involvement of Smith, a former Tennessee Republican Party chairwoman and a political consultant.
Cothren incorporated Phoenix in Sante Fe, New Mexico, under the name "Matthew Phoenix," with Cothren, Casada and Smith describing Phoenix to lawmakers who needed mailer services as someone with political experience in Washington, D.C.
Prosecutors, who raided the homes and legislative offices of Smith and Casada as well as the home of Cothren in January 2021, seized the trio's cell phones, computers and other equipment, gaining a trove of information to proceed further.
Bill Killian, a Chattanooga-area lawyer and former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, said in a phone interview Friday that someone like Smith can provide testimony that "ties all of the parts of the conspiracy together."
"There are periods of time, there are actions by some that need further explanation or sometimes justification or to be able to refute their defense," Killian said. "Just an endless list of fill-in-the-blanks, so to speak. They can prove certain things."
Jerry Summers, a prominent Chattanooga attorney, said Smith is a "valuable witness if they can corroborate her and believe her."
"The strategy of federal prosecutors is to put as much pressure on people in light, particularly, of what was once a very strict federal sentencing guideline" process, Summers said by phone.
"With all respect to federal prosecutors they're always trying to convert co-conspirators or co-defendants into government witnesses who can cleanse their souls and say, 'I was wrong, these other people here are wrong,'" Summers said.
The reason for the fictitious vendor Matthew Phoenix was that Cothren, 35, had an interest in keeping his involvement concealed given his forced resignation amid a 2019 blowup over sexist and racist texts exchanged between himself and Casada as well as a text-message boast about snorting cocaine in his government office.
The uproar and other factors ultimately led to a Republican Caucus no-confidence vote, which in turn resulted in Casada's later resignation as speaker under pressure from Republican Gov. Bill Lee. Casada continued as a member of the House, and Cothren left his employment as a legislative staffer.
Smith, a Casada ally, also performed political consulting work for Phoenix and used the firm for her political clients along with Casada, who had started his own political consulting business.
They received a share of proceeds from Cothren, according to the criminal information document filed against Smith and the federal indictment against Casada and Cothren.
The state provides a $3,000 a year stipend to state representatives and lawmakers to hire consultants and underwrite their mailed communications to lawmakers. But more money came from having been designated one of the approved vendors of the House Republican Caucus.
Veteran Nashville attorney Gary Blackburn, a Smith friend, said in a phone interview Friday that Casada and Cothren are in serious legal hot water.
"If I were representing these people, I would suggest they start making arrangements about going away. That is a solid, solid indictment," Blackburn said in a Friday phone interview. "They have trimmed it back so well to those things where they could prove there were state funds involved, you know, the $3,000 postage allowance. It is well organized, it's very targeted. they just did an excellent job with it.
"You've got an indictment that is premised upon writings on texts, emails, bank accounts and so forth. Then you have one of the participants, one of the alleged co-conspirators, who will testify," Blackburn added, referring to Smith.
Someone in Smith's position can seek sentence reductions for acceptance of responsibility, Blackburn said.
"That's probably part of the deal that they would do that. I'm sure she was represented by good lawyers, and I would tell you that would have absolutely been one of my criteria if I were representing here. She's been a good friend to us, and she's been a good friend of my wife, but it is what it is."
Moreover, Blackburn, Killian and Summers agreed Smith could be in a prime position to shed light on other activity at the Tennessee Capitol.
"If she has information on it, I am confident they are [asking her]," Blackburn said. "And if I were representing Casada, I would be warming my singing voice up. I'm aware of some things about this I can't discuss. But I think there's been a whole lot of things that have occurred that have to do with the whole voucher plans, the lobby efforts to get vouchers for charter schools."
Casada and Cothren were in the thick of furious efforts to push Lee's school voucher bill across the finish line in the House after it got hung up for nearly an hour in April 2019 on a 49-49 vote. Casada and other proponents persuaded Rep. Jason Zachary, a Knoxville Republican, to switch his vote to yes -- he got his home county removed from the bill -- and it passed with 50 votes, the bare constitutional requirement.
"If I were looking for information about other possible charges, that's where I would look," Blackburn said. "That's just my looking at it. But I know this for a fact, let's just put it that way."
Another lawmaker, Rep. John Mark Windle, a then-Democrat and attorney from Livingston, has said he rejected an offer from Casada to "buy" his vote on the voucher bill.
Asked later if federal agents had interviewed him about that, Windle later told the Times Free Press last year that "people with guns and badges" had spoken to him but provided no further details.
Killian said the FBI and federal prosecutors typically "would go up the ladder" in those types of cases to "fill in the blanks."
"You never know that, they're never going to tell you," Killian said of where federal officials might try to go. "Sometimes that results in additional defendants being charged, sometimes it results in existing co-defendants being re-indicted with multiple charges or additional charges."
"I tell my criminal defense clients, both before and after I've been U.S. attorney, you never know what they know, they being the FBI or the U.S. Attorney's Office or whatever, whoever is prosecuting the case."
Summers said, "You make a deal to the government that you're going to plead guilty, and it's a condition in the document you sign that you will testify truly and completely, honestly, truthfully. That leaves a big hammer to hold over anybody."
Casada and Cothren were brought into the hearing wearing handcuffs and ankle chains.
Following Tuesday's arraignment for Casada and Cothren, Cothren's attorney, Cynthia Sherwood, told reporters that Cothren plans on "strongly defending the charges. We've got to let this matter proceed through the judicial process, and Mr. Cothren looks very forward to being vindicated."
Casada's attorney, Ed Yarbrough, had no comment after the proceeding. Ben Rose, who is part of Smith's legal team, had no comment.
In a new filing Friday, Smith's legal team moved without opposition from prosecutors to delay the former lawmaker's sentencing hearing, which had been schedule for Oct. 17. They sought a delay until the end of January 2023 at the earliest.
The Casada and Cothren trial is scheduled for Oct. 25 before U.S. District Judge Eli Richardson in Nashville, where Smith is expected to testify.
"The plea agreement ... contemplates the defendant will cooperate with the government in this and related cases," the motion states. "It is anticipated the defendant will testify in United States v. Casada."