NASHVILLE — Tennessee House Democrats are demanding an investigation into allegations departing Republican Speaker Glen Casada offered to get a reluctant Democrat a top National Guard promotion in an effort to muscle Gov. Bill Lee's controversial school voucher bill through the chamber in April.
Casada, who is resigning Aug. 2 under pressure from an unrelated scandal, denied the allegation in a Facebook posting Sunday.
Over the weekend, WTVF reported that Rep. John Mark Windle, a Livingtson Democrat, said he rejected an effort by Casada to "buy" his vote on Lee's education savings account bill as they stood on an outdoor balcony adjoining the House chamber.
The Nashville television station reported that another lawmaker overheard Casada suggesting to Windle, a National Guard colonel, he could be promoted to general in exchange for his vote.
Windle said in a later statement that he "voted no on the bill as a matter of principle and that vote decision did not change. The people of Fentress, Jackson, Morgan, and Overton counties are fiercely independent, and their vote is not for sale."
He said following the vote "as a former prosecutor, I sought the guidance of Tennessee ethics authorities and followed their recommendations."
Casada, a Williamson County Republican, also refuted another charge that he offered up pork-barrel projects to wavering lawmakers in his desperate effort to secure the required 50th vote to pass Lee's bill after it stalled in a 49-49 tie for 40 minutes.
As the bill hung in limbo, Casada called a number of lawmakers to the outside balcony. The bill eventually passed 50-49 after a Knoxville Republican, Rep. Jason Zachary, switched his vote from no to yes.
Minority Leader Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat and attorney, told reporters at a news conference on Monday "both the administration, the governor himself, and Speaker Casada need to give the people straight answers — not this sort of shilly-shallying around that we've seen so far."
Stewart also charged "it can only be assumed to represent bribery. And it needs to be fully investigated as a criminal matter."
He said he was filing a public records request for all of the Lee administration's text messages, emails and other communications as the voucher bill was being pushed through the legislature.
Asked whether Lee played any part on the offer of a promotion to Windle, the Republican governor's spokesman, Chris Walker, said the answer "is is an emphatic no."
In Casada's statement posted Sunday to his Facebook page, the speaker called all allegations of a "quid pro quo" by his office on the voucher bill "or any bill, is unequivocally false."
Noting he had become "aware of an allegation that I promised a member a promotion in the Tennessee National Guard in exchange for his vote," Casada said "I did not. The Office of the Speaker does not have the authority to hire or promote persons in the Executive Branch. That power belongs solely to the Governor."
He also said "to suggest" the speaker's office "has the authority to trade infrastructure projects for votes is false. Any project that has a cost must be funded in the state budget, subject to public scrutiny and the approval of the General Assembly, and the Governor.
"Anyone who thinks so is mistaken. Anyone who says so is not telling the truth," Casada's letter says.
Casada has said he will resign as speaker on Aug. 2, following a texting scandal involving sexually explicit conversations about women with his former chief of staff Cade Cothren.
The speaker is resigning Aug. 2 following a scandal involving sexually explicit, racist and other text messages exchanges with or sent three years ago by his then-top aide, Cade Cothren, and leaked to Nashville news organizations by a third person said to be a disgruntled former political operative.
The explosion into public view of the texts — in one, Cothren boasted of using cocaine in a legislative office — opened Casada up to a variety criticisms and allegations. Some members feared Casada, who became speaker in January, had several political operatives hired for "no-show" jobs who were spying on them. And there was considerable resentment over his hard-charging style.
Republican Caucus members voted in May to say they no longer had confidence in Casada's ability to lead. After initially balking over resigning, he agreed to after Lee, who became governor in January, publicly stated he needed to or he would call lawmakers into special session to remove him.
Republican Caucus members are to meet Wednesday to nominate a new speaker who is expected to be a shoo-in on the House floor since Republicans account for 73 of the 99 members. Representatives return to the Capitol on Aug. 23 to elect a new speaker.
Candidates running for the GOP nomination include Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, who quarreled publicly with Casada over language in a proposed ethics advisory opinion Casada had requested regarding his various actions involving Cothren.
Other candidates in Wednesday's caucus election are: Republican Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton of Crossville, Deputy Speaker Matthew Hill of Jonesborough, former Speaker Pro Tem Curtis Johnson of Clarksville, former GOP Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams of Cookeville and Rep. Jay Reedy of Erin.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.