NASHVILLE - Former Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada won't say whether he is or isn't cooperating with the FBI's probe into a political consulting kickback scheme that earlier this week netted a guilty plea from former Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, a Casada political ally who resigned from the legislature Monday and formally pleaded guilty the next day to a wire fraud charge.
"I just can't talk about any of that, just can't talk," Rep. Casada, R-Franklin, told the Times Free Press on the House floor earlier this week.
A federal filing this week said Smith worked with Casada and his former chief of staff, Cade Cothren, through a political consulting firm, Phoenix Solutions LLC. Smith, 58 and a former Tennessee Republican Party chair first elected to the Tennessee House in 2018, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to a single count of honest services wire fraud and is now cooperating with the probe.
Asked specifically if he is cooperating with the FBI, Casada told the Times Free Press "no comment" during the brief exchange.
While neither Casada nor Cothren's names are mentioned in the nine-page charging document, it repeatedly refers to an individual who is a former House speaker and his former chief of staff.
On Jan. 8, 2021, FBI agents swooped down on the homes and legislative offices of Smith, Casada and freshman Rep. Todd Warner, R-Lewisburg, and the home of Cothren in the then-unspecified probe. Warner said he hasn't spoken with the federal government since last year.
The charging document states Smith worked with Casada and Cothren through a political consulting firm, New Mexico-based Phoenix Solutions LLC, run by a "Matthew Phoenix." That was actually was Cothren, who created the entity, federal officials say.
Casada was forced out of the speakership in 2019 amid a scandal over drug, sex and racially-charged texts sent by Cothren. Current Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, won the 2019 GOP Caucus race to succeed him.
Phoenix Solutions performed political work for individual legislators in their elections. And it also got on the House Republican Caucus' coveted list of approved vendors during the 2020 election cycle. Smith vouched for Phoenix, not mentioning her ties and the "kickbacks" prosecutors say she accepted for recommending the company.
Following the 2020 election, Smith and Casada later branched into performing taxpayer-funded constituent mail and surveys through the General Assembly's legislative services. Smith's own firm, River's Edge Alliance, Casada's Right Way Consulting and Phoenix Solutions received some $52,000 in state taxpayer funds, the federal government says.
Smith faces up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000. But her cooperation agreement is likely to reduce that.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge - who during the late 1980s and early 1990s assisted the FBI in its "Rocky Top" investigation by wearing a wire during the investigation into charitable bingo fraud, bribes and other corruption - said he was still waiting to determine whether additional ethics disclosures are needed.
"We'll wait and see how that comes out and see if we need to on some of these companies that come up that are owned or have ties to certain legislators," McNally said. "Make sure that that doesn't happen."
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, wasn't so sure it's needed.
"I mean we're already doing disclosures," Watson said. "We have to file disclosures of companies we have investments or interests in. We already do that. I mean, I don't know how you legislate against dishonesty."
Describing Smith as his representative as well as a friend, Watson said, "You can't legislate who is dishonest and reports things dishonestly. You can have all the reporting systems in place that you want. If they're dishonest about it, there's nothing you can do about that other than after-the-fact punishing people who've been dishonest.
"And I think actually, for all it's failings, the system did what it's supposed to do," Watson added.
During the 2020 campaign, Watson provided, legally, $76,350 through his BOW-PAC to Waterhouse Public Relations to help Republican senators, including Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who were up for re-election. The money, without Watson's knowledge, wound up going to Phoenix for campaign services. Watson has said he didn't know Smith was involved with Phoenix.
"I think that Rep. Smith acknowledged her bad decisions and poor choices and did not want to be a distraction or a burden to the House or the legislature in general - and knowingly and willingly resigned her position out of respect for the institution," Watson said. "And regardless of the behavior that she's demonstrated, there is a measure of respect for that, for her respect for the institution and the members that serve here."
Top House Republican officials remain angry but believe the system ultimately worked.
"When a legislator acts in the interest of themselves over the interest of the state, they should get caught - and this proves the current laws have worked and people have been caught," House GOP Caucus chair Jeremy Faison of Cosby told reporters on the House floor on Thursday.
Faison was among Republicans who raised questions about Phoenix getting on the House GOP's approved vendors during the 2020 campaign cycle. Smith personally vouched for the firm. Smith later wound up challenging Faison for the caucus chairmanship, ultimately losing.
Sexton, meanwhile, is not calling for Casada's resignation, at least not yet, indicating he will let the legal process play out.
"He has due process until you're charged, until the investigation's done, there's been nothing levied against him except allegations, so we just simply have to wait and see how it works out," Sexton said.
Sexton also confirmed to reporters Thursday that two legislative staffers who had been placed on paid leave following the FBI's raid on the legislature's Cordell Hull State Office Building are no longer employed by the state. One worked for Casada. The other woman worked for another GOP lawmaker.
Federal documents appear to identify the staffer's daughter as having been Cothren's girlfriend and participating in his efforts to maintain the facade that Matthew Phoenix was a real person. She was identified as "Candice" in filings to the state.
"Matthew Phoenix and his associate, Candice, got tired of living in the Washington, D.C. area and decided to move back home to New Mexico, where Phoenix started Phoenix Solutions," Smith told GOP lawmakers, according to the federal government filings.
Smith emailed Cothren at one point, saying that he "may have to assume the role of Matthew again."
According to federal filings, Cothren replied, "Matthew, reporting for duty!"
He included a GIF of "a salute from Harrison Ford's character Han Solo in the movie 'Star Wars.'"