NASHVILLE - Tennessee state Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, resigned Monday and has reached a plea agreement in a federal wire fraud investigation of a political consulting firm tied to former state House Speaker Glen Casada, who remains a House member, and Casada's former chief of staff, Cade Cothren.
Smith, 58, a former Tennessee Republican Party chair first elected to the state House in 2018, faces one count of honest services wire fraud, according to a filing in U.S. District Court in Nashville. It carries a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment with no minimum sentences and fines not to exceed $250,000.
Honest services wire fraud is defined in U.S. law as "a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services."
Cothren was forced to resign from his House staff position in 2019 amid a blow-up over sexist and racist texts he had exchanged with Casada, his then-boss.
Court documents allege that Smith colluded with Cothren to hide his involvement in a new political services company called Phoenix Solutions, given that Cothren had left the legislature in scandal and was unlikely to win business if his involvement was known. According to prosecutors, Smith received kickbacks for vouching for the company, which had a fictitious frontman named Matthew Phoenix who was really Cothren.
Attorney David Bridgers with the Nashville-based Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis filed the motion for a plea agreement with federal prosecutors.
"Ms. Smith submits that the parties have reached a plea agreement to resolve the pending charges in this case and that she is ready to change her plea in this matter," Bridger's motion states.
The government has advised that it has no objection to the motion, Bridgers said.
U.S. District Court Judge Eli Richardson has scheduled a hearing on the change of plea for Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. CST.
House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and House GOP Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison of Cosby issued a joint statement on Smith's case.
"Robin Smith has been charged with a very serious crime, and we agree with her decision to resign," the statement said. "We thank the FBI for their hard work and persistence in this case. We respect that it is an ongoing investigation, and therefore we will not be making any additional statements at this time."
Smith did not respond to a request for comment.
The plea deal with Smith, a political consultant, comes some 14 months after her home and office along with those of Casada and another lawmaker, freshman Rep. Todd Warner, R-Chapel Hill, were raided on Jan. 8, 2021, by search-warrant bearing FBI agents. Smith and Casada had done business with Phoenix Solutions LLC, which one source told the Times Free Press was being run by Cothren.
Without naming Cothren directly, the filing clearly identifies him, saying that around November 2019 he "established" Phoenix Solutions with the "knowledge and support" of Smith and Casada, although Casada is also not cited by name in the filing.
The business was originally for campaign services but later extended to the legislature's taxpayer-funded constituent mail program, which the Times Free Press has previously reported.
The filing notes that Smith and Cothren "claimed that Matthew Phoenix was an experienced political consultant who had worked for Consulting Firm 1, a real company based in Washington, D.C.
"In truth and in fact, Individual 1, and Individual 2, profited from it. Smith, Individual 1 [Casada] and Individual 2 [Cothren] knew that Matthew Phoenix was a fictitious person and was, in truth and fact, Individual 2 [Cothren]."
In her resignation letter to House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, Smith stated that "the purpose of this letter is to advise that I am resigning from House District 26 effective immediately."
By early afternoon, Smith's metal plaque was removed from outside her sixth-floor office. The door was locked.
"I want you to know that serving the great people of this district, and indeed, all of Tennessee, has truly been an honor," Smith said in her statement. "I have resigned with the deepest of humility and out of respect for the role of public service."
The federal filing states that Smith, Cothren and Casada sought to conceal their involvement in Phoenix Solutions and the state and lawmakers "due to the expectation that Phoenix Solutions would not be approved by Tennessee House Speaker's Office, acting on behalf of the state, or be hired by individual members if Individual 2's [Cothren] operational involvement and financial interests in the business and kickbacks to Smith and Individual 1 were disclosed."
Federal prosecutors also charge that Smith and Casada "received kickbacks from Individual 2 [Cothren] in exchange for using their positions as members of the Tennessee House of Representatives to perform official acts, including pressuring the Tennessee House Speaker's Office to approve Phoenix Solutions as a Mailer Program vendor and disburse State funds to Phoenix Solutions."
And the federal government alleges that Smith along with Cothren with Casada's knowledge set up an email for "Matthew Phoenix," the purported head of Phoenix, which Cothren used to conduct business on behalf of Phoenix."
Cothren later explained to Smith that he established a U.S. Postal Service box for Phoenix Solutions and forwarded that to his home address in Nashville, the charging document states.
The former chief of staff later explained to Smith that he established a New Mexico post office box because the state allows anonymous registration of companies.
The federal filing says that Individual 2, Cothren, on April 2, 2020, sent an email to Individual 1, Casada, stating, "Friends, Here's our up-to-date printing spreadsheet. All of these checks have been collected and deposited. All bills related to these print jobs have also been paid. So, let me know what address is best for you and I will cut checks for each of you?"
Smith was to receive $4,100 which was 25% of that particular split, according to the document, which appears to suggest Casada was getting a similar share. Cothren was to receive 30%.
"More than a year ago, federal authorities started an investigation into public corruption," Sexton said in a statement. "Today's news and the ultimate resignation of Rep. Smith is a sad day for all who know her. I commend the Federal Bureau of Investigation for their diligence, hard work and dedication throughout this investigation. It is clear in the charging documents that certain individuals used their official capacity to target General Assembly members and the Republican Caucus by using a fake company to siphon off money illegally and deceptively.
"I will continue to cooperate fully with federal authorities as the investigation continues, which has been the case since I became speaker in 2019," Sexton continued. "Due to this being an ongoing investigation, I will reserve any further comments as the FBI continues their pursuit to stop public corruption."