Tennessee House Speaker Sexton says he’s prepared to testify in trial of former speaker, aide

Staff Photo by Andy Sher / Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, prepares to talk to state Capitol reporters in the House chamber March 2.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton said he is prepared to testify if called in the expected Oct. 3 federal public corruption trial of his predecessor, Glen Casada, and Casada's then-chief of staff, Cade Cothren.

"I think they're still doing all of their little preliminary hearings and such," Sexton told reporters Wednesday following a State Building Commission meeting at the Capitol.

"But, I'm sure if the prosecution decides if they need to call me as a witness and others, they'll do it," the Crossville Republican added.

Casada and Cothren are charged with conspiring to operate a bribery and kickback scheme involving the state legislature's taxpayer-funded constituent mail program.

Also charged in the case was then-Rep. Robin Smith, a Hixson Republican and political consultant. Smith pled guilty in March 2022 to a single federal count of honest services wire fraud and resigned from the House.

As part of her plea deal, Smith agreed to cooperate fully with the FBI and federal prosecutors. She awaits sentencing as the other cases proceed.

Casada served for less than a year as speaker before being forced to step down and Cothren dismissed. That came following a no-confidence vote by fellow House Republicans after the release of racist and sexist texts between the two men by a third party and a subsequent call by Gov. Bill Lee for Casada to resign as speaker.

It also didn't help that in one of the leaked texts the much-younger Cothren had boasted of having snorted cocaine in his government office.

Republicans later elected Sexton to replace Casada.  Not long after, a new campaign vendor emerged on Tennessee's political scene — Santa Fe, New Mexico-based Phoenix Solutions. It was run by a "Matthew Phoenix." Federal officials say Matthew Phoenix was actually Cothren, and both Casada and Smith submitted billings to legislative officials for the work done by Phoenix.

Cothren's defense attorneys are contesting federal indictments that allege Cothren, Casada and Smith concealed Cothren's participation in Phoenix Solutions because of concerns Sexton would have disapproved of Cothren.

Cothren's attorneys in court filings said Sexton was well aware of Cothren's involvement in Phoenix. The documents also allege Cothren had "heavily engaged" with Sexton, who launched an ultimately successful bid to win the House GOP Caucus nomination to succeed Casada. Sexton easily won the House floor vote to become speaker with the GOP holding a supermajority of the chamber's membership.

"Additionally," the attorneys said in their filing seeking additional federal documents, "the requested records will show that Speaker Sexton was actively reaching out to state officials, state employees as well as third-parties in an attempt to secure Mr. Cothren a job as a lobbyist as well as other opportunities.

"These communications are integral to Mr. Cothren's defense in this matter because the government's case appears to rely — heavily — on its theory that Mr. Cothren's reputation was so tarnished after his resignation that Speaker Sexton was adamantly opposed to associating or working with him at all, even on administrative matters," the filing states.

Asked Wednesday by reporters about the Cothren legal team's assertion that Cothren helped him become speaker, Sexton offered this: "Yeah, well, that's him. So anyway, I'll leave it at that."

The speaker said in response to another question as to whether Cothren is wrong or lying about his role in helping his bid for the House's No. 1 position that, "I'm not going to talk about him.

"He's facing an indictment and federal prosecution," Sexton said. "We've been very clear that we've helped from Day 1 with the FBI and working with the Department of Justice."

Federal court fireworks, 'ongoing investigation'

The Tennessee Journal, a political newsletter, reported earlier in May that a private investigator working for Cothren's legal team was fired, citing discussions during a federal court hearing. The newsletter quoted Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Klopf telling U.S. District Judge Eli Richardson that "threatening" correspondence had been written to witnesses seeking information in advance of the upcoming trial.

Cothren's attorney, Cynthia Sherwood, told the court that when the emails came to her attention, she immediately fired the investigator, The Journal reported.

But Sherwood described the investigator's emails as more "unprofessional" than threatening, comparing them to the style of an investigative journalist, the newsletter reported.

But while Sherwood said she didn't approve of the emails' tone, she believed the investigator was attempting to raise "legitimate questions," including allegations of marital infidelity and whether Cothren had been "instrumental" in Sexton's rise to power as speaker.

Klopf said responding to the request for additional discovery materials was difficult.

"Our investigation is still ongoing," the prosecutor said, according to The Journal.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-285-9480.