Tennessee ethics bill designed to clamp down on legislative corruption still in works

Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin, plans to introduce an ethics bill to cut down on corruption. / Photo by John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout
Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin, plans to introduce an ethics bill to cut down on corruption. / Photo by John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout

Amid local and federal probes into lawmakers and shady campaign vendors, state Rep. Sam Whitson is planning to introduce legislation that could tighten disclosure requirements and do much more, an effort to cut out criminal activity.

Timing is a factor, though, if he wants to bring it to a vote this year.

Whitson, R-Franklin, said he hopes to bring "more transparency" to the legislature and "clean up some of the shenanigans" through new reporting and transparency rules.

Among several new measures in the bill, Whitson is putting together two amendments, one to alter the makeup of the Registry of Election Finance and one to change reporting requirements on campaign receipts.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said recently he is backing the measure Whitson wants to unveil this week. But language in the bill is still being negotiated with the Senate, where the measure is to be carried by Sen. Ferrell Haile, a Gallatin Republican and speaker pro tem.

"Lt. Gov. [Randy] McNally has been working with Speaker Sexton and Rep. Whitson on the subject of ethics reform since last year. While he very much supports the spirit of what Rep. Whitson is trying to do, the details are still being worked on, and there is no final product at this time," said McNally spokesperson Adam Kleinheider.

McNally is a Republican from Oak Ridge.

The other question is whether lawmakers have the stomach for sweeping ethics rule changes right before they go home at the end of the legislative session and start raising money for re-election. The legislature still has to deal with the governor's K-12 funding formula overhaul, which is just starting to be heard in committees, with only four to five weeks left before lawmakers hope to adjourn.

Whitson's motivation stems from corruption swirling around the legislature, largely the resignation and wire fraud guilty plea by Republican Rep. Robin Smith of Hixson.

She left the legislature two weeks ago, the day before pleading guilty to a scheme in which she admitted pressuring House Republicans to hire a phony campaign vendor who then gave her kickbacks. Smith is expected to testify for federal prosecutors in the case.

Implicated in the case are former House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, and his ex-chief of staff, Cade Cothren, who are described in federal filings as the House speaker who served from January 2019 to August 2019, when he resigned, and his former chief of staff, who stepped down amid questions about illegal and unethical activity.

McNally recently said the Senate could wait to see whether anyone else is indicted in the FBI's probe, since other grand jury testimony is likely. That could determine whether the Senate wants to take action on mysterious vendors that pop up or that are owned by legislators, he noted.

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, however, raised doubts about whether lawmakers could "legislate against dishonesty."

"You can have all the reporting systems you want, and if they're dishonest about it, there's nothing you can do until after the fact," said Watson. "Despite all its failings, the system did what it had to do."

According to Smith's guilty plea document, Cothren formed a New Mexico-based company called Phoenix Solutions that made more than $200,000 on the House Republican Caucus and House Republicans' taxpayer-funded mailing program.

The filing says Smith and Casada, who also received kickbacks, concealed the identity of the person running Phoenix Solutions to ensure Cothren would get the business.

House Republican leaders have admitted they never had a sit-down meeting with Matthew Phoenix, the man who ran the company but who is believed to be Cothren, according to documents.

Sexton has said he has been cooperating with federal authorities since he was elected to the House speakership in 2019 after Casada resigned. Sexton also said recently federal authorities started an investigation into "public corruption" more than a year ago.

However, federal agents are said to have been investigating possible bribery in the legislature since the April 2019 vote on Gov. Bill Lee's education savings account program, or even years earlier when Rep. Jeremy Durham was expelled.

Questions have been more rampant since January 2021, when FBI agents raided the Cordell Hull Building and searched the offices and homes of Casada, Smith and first-term Rep. Todd Warner, a Chapel Hill Republican. Agents also searched Rep. Kent Calfee's office and went through the computer of his assistant, Nadine Korby, who was recently fired along with Casada's former assistant, Carol Simpson. Calfee, R-Kingston, is not a target of the investigation.

Korby's daughter, Ava, is reported to be a girlfriend of Cothren's who posed as "Candice" in a fake email exchange dealing with Phoenix Solutions, according to federal documents.

Another former girlfriend of Cothren's testified in January to the Registry of Election Finance that he persuaded her to organize a political action committee called the Faith Family Freedom Forum, which funneled money from a North Carolina restaurant owner - who can't be found - to an independent expenditure against former Republican Rep. Rick Tillis in the 2020 election. Warner, who wound up defeating Tillis, also used a mysterious new vendor out of Alabama called Dixieland Strategies to do his campaign work.

Phoenix Solutions, Faith Family Freedom Fund and Dixieland Strategies all used a similar mode of operation and the same Hamilton County postal code, 383.

A Tillis campaign worker filed a complaint with the Registry of Election Finance contending the Faith Family Freedom Fund coordinated illegally with Warner's campaign.

The Registry took no action on the matter initially but started looking into the PAC again and recently requested the attorney general's office take legal action to force Cothren to testify after he was subpoenaed and refused to show up, saying he would invoke his Fifth Amendment rights against incrimination.

Last week, the Registry sent the Casada-Cothren matter to the Williamson County District Attorney's Office for a criminal investigation.

Lee said recently he believes the legislature is "committed to integrity," which explains why the FBI probe led to a conviction.

"You find out where there is a breakdown, and you correct that," he said.

Yet Calfee has told the Tennessee Lookout twice the governor called him to a meeting at his office where they talked about Calfee hearing Casada discuss a National Guard promotion for Democratic Rep. John Mark Windle in return for his vote on Lee's voucher bill in April 2019. Calfee said he heard Casada say he couldn't offer Windle the rank of general but that he would call the governor.

Casada has denied making the offer, and Lee has said repeatedly he doesn't know anything about such an offer to Windle or meeting with the Kingston Republican. Calfee has said he isn't fabricating Casada's conversation or the meeting with Lee.

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.

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