Tennessee election registry wants attorney general to enforce subpoena on former House aide

FILE - In this May 2, 2019, file photo, House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, left, talks with Cade Cothren, right, his chief of staff, during a House session in Nashville, Tenn. Cothren has resigned amid allegations of racist and sexually explicit texts. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE - The state's campaign watchdog agency has asked Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery to enforce two subpoenas the agency issued to a former top state House aide accused of operating a dark-money group in 2020.

The aide, Cade Cothren, worked for then-House Speaker Glen Casada about the time the Faith Family Freedom Fund attacked a lawmaker thought to have criticized Casada.

Tennessee Registry of Election Finance Committee members made the request to Slatery after an attorney for Cothren, said in a Feb. 16 letter to the agency that the two subpoenas "were made in bad faith and are an abuse of process," and that Cothren would not be responding. One subpoena sought records and the other Cothren's appearance before the agency.

"Furthermore," attorney Cynthia A. Sherwood added, "Mr. Cothren invokes his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination."

Cothren was forced to step down in mid-2019 following revelations of text messages to Casada and another man that included racist comments, texts about illegal drugs and crude comments about women. Not long afterwards, the embattled Casada stepped down as speaker.

After dismissing a complaint last year against the dark money group, the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC, registry members snapped into action in January after agency staffers were finally able to contact Cothren's former girlfriend, Sydney Friedopfer, who was listed as treasurer of the PAC.

The woman testified she opened the PAC at Cothren's direction, and that Cothren controlled it. The PAC raised $7,000 in contributions from a person from North Carolina whom registry investigators have yet to find. Money was used in direct-mail attacks against then-Rep. Rick Tillis, R-Lewisburg, whom Republicans believed was behind a Twitter account that criticized and ridiculed Casada and right-wing Republicans. Tillis was defeated in his 2020 GOP primary by now-Rep. Todd Warner, R-Lewisburg.

During Wednesday's meeting, registry member Henry "Hank" Fincher, an attorney and former Democratic representative, argued that the subpoenas should be referred to Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk.

"We're saying, 'Hey, here's what we found, have your team look at it,'" Fincher said.

But registry members, including Tom Lawless, an attorney, opted to seek Slatery's aid.

Among those previously subpoenaed was Casada, who came to the registry meeting, reiterating his prior statement to the agency that he knew nothing about the PAC. He criticized the watchdog panel's members for subpoenaing him.

"I got to be honest. I feel like you were a little reckless in issuing the subpoena to me," said Casada, whose home along with those of Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, and Rep. Mark Warner, R-Lewisburg, were raided by FBI agents in 2021 in a yet-to-be-specified probe. Smith, a campaign consultant, and Casada, who got into the campaign consulting business as well, both did business with a New Mexico-based political vendor calling itself Phoenix Solutions.

Casada called the subpoena damaging because it allowed the media to assume the worst.

"And you guys know me, and I would urge you in the future when things like this come up, just call me or other legislators, just call us here, don't subpoena us," Casada added. "If we don't come, by golly, y'all need to hammer down. That's why you're here, and I expect that."

Casada's comments about reckless activity by the registry alluded to what Fincher had stated at the registry's January meeting about Cothren.

"People like him, in my experience, the sheriff's got to bring them in before they believe the court can touch them," Fincher said about Cothren in January. "And they're a lot more humble after they're wearing orange."

Fincher responded to Casada on Wednesday, denying being reckless.

"Hold tight there, Brother Casada, because you just accused us of bias," Fincher said. "Bias, of course, means unfair, unjustified, reckless. It's a very serious charge, and you can coat it with honey all you want to. But it's a very serious and personal affront to this board."

The Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC, Phoenix Solutions LLC and another previously unknown vendor used by Warner, Alabama-based Dixieland Strategies, all used the same Chattanooga postal code.

Last year, a Republican vendor who asked not to be identified told the Times Free Press he had done work for both the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC and Phoenix Solutions. The vendor said he dealt with Cothren, who told him to bill some work to Faith Family Freedom Fund and other work to Phoenix.

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