NASHVILLE — The name of elusive political vendor Phoenix Solutions LLC doesn't appear in any campaign financial disclosures filed last year by Tennessee Republican House candidate and now-Rep. Todd Warner of Chapel Hill in his District 92 race.
But the Times Free Press has learned the New Mexico-based firm later claimed to a prospective client of having done at least one political mailer for Warner, whose home and legislative office was among those searched by FBI agents in January as part of a yet-to-be-specified probe.
A copy of the mailer shows it was paid for by the Warner campaign. While Warner reported spending $75,500 with a company calling itself Dixieland Strategies for unspecified "professional services," his disclosure makes no mention of Phoenix Solutions.
Phoenix was used and promoted by Rep. Robin Smith, a Hixson Republican and business and political consultant whose home and legislative office was also among those hit in the FBI's Jan. 8 raid.
Smith has not publicly described the nature of her relationship to Phoenix. She and her attorney Ben Rose say she is not a "target" of the probe. FBI agents also raided the home and legislative office of former House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, as well as the home of Casada's former chief of staff, Cade Cothren. Warner, Smith and Casada all spent large sums of money during 2020 with vendors having no previously known backgrounds.
Only one of them was registered. That was Phoenix Solutions, which listed a Matthew Phoenix as its head. Repeated efforts to reach him by phone and email have been unsuccessful, by reporters and even those who have worked with the firm in the past.
The address for Phoenix is a postal mailbox at a PostNet store in Santa Fe, N.M., and the phone number listed on invoices no longer works.
Dixieland Strategies, which listed a Rainbow City, Alabama, address also associated with a PostNet store, does not show up in either Alabama or Tennessee state business filings.
It's possible that Dixieland subcontracted at least some of its mailer work to Phoenix, a legal practice which wouldn't necessarily require disclosure of Phoenix payments on Warner's reports.
"I don't know anything about the other company, I just used Dixieland Strategies," said Warner, whose district includes a portion of Marion County, during a brief phone interview with the Times Free Press.
He said he didn't know the Dixieland Strategies people well.
"No, I didn't," said Warner, who has retained an attorney. He didn't specify who recommended the firm to him, saying "I forget the guy's name that I worked with there."
Asked if he spoke with FBI agents who came to his home, Warner said, "I answered some questions there that day, haven't talked to them since then, haven't heard anything back from them. I don't feel like I've done anything wrong. Like I say, this is my first go-around in politics, and I can see now why it's hard to get good people to run."
In the primary, Warner challenged then-Rep. Rick Tillis, R-Lewisburg, who got on the wrong side of then-Speaker Casada and several hard-right Republicans who alleged he was behind an anonymous Twitter account, @CapitolHillMole, which mocked them.
Casada's reign as speaker proved short-lived. Elected speaker in January 2019, Casada's support among GOP lawmakers began imploding following leaks of sexist and racist texts exchanged between the speaker and the much-younger aide Cothren, who at one point acknowledged having used cocaine in the legislative building.
That along with Casada's general hard-charging style, which included his controversial but successful effort to pass Republican Gov. Bill Lee's school voucher bill in 2019, led to a no-confidence vote. Smith, a Casada ally who prior to 2018 had served as the House GOP's campaign consultant, argued against the no confidence vote, other Republican lawmakers said at the time.
Casada was replaced as speaker by Republican Cameron Sexton.
One GOP vendor, who spoke on condition his name not be cited, said he did contract work and was told by Cothren, the former Casada chief of staff, to bill some work to Phoenix and yet other work to a new political action committee calling itself the Faith Family Freedom Fund. Its head was a 2018 Vanderbilt University graduate who was living in Utah. The PAC repeatedly attacked Tillis in direct mail on insider issues related to the @CapitolHillMole account.
VENDOR 'TURF WAR'
While noting his look at circumstances leading to the FBI's Jan. 8 raids is "preliminary and ongoing," Smith's attorney, Rose, sought to blame at another Tennessee Republican political consultant, John "Chip" Saltsman, who has worked at both the state and national level and is close to Speaker Sexton.
The "name we keep hearing in our interviews with members, lobbyists, political folks and even lawyers is that of Chip Saltsman. They are telling us things like: 'This all started with Chip'; 'Chip is behind this'; 'Chip is helping fuel this'; 'We know this is all political.' Keep in mind that many of these folks are actually apolitical and don't have a dog in the fight one way or the other."
The attorney did not provide any names of people saying these things.
Efforts to obtain a response from Saltsman, who served as the state House Republican Caucus' chief consultant in 2020, were unsuccessful. A former Tennessee Republican Party chair, Saltsman later worked as a political adviser to then-U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, when Frist served as National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee chair during the 2002 campaign cycle. He later managed Republican Mike Huckabee's unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign.
In 2010, Saltsman ran now-U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann's ultimately successful 3rd Congressional District campaign in which Fleischmann squared off with Smith, a former Tennessee Republican Party chair, in a GOP primary struggle in which Fleischmann emerged as victor and then handily won the general election.
The primary spurred a defamation lawsuit filed by a top Smith aide against Fleischmann, Saltsman and the state party. It was later dismissed by a judge with that action later upheld by an appellate court. Saltsman served as Fleischmann's congressional chief of staff before they eventually parted ways.
Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, declined to comment for this story.
Smith previously served as the House GOP's chief consultant. Saltsman replaced her. This year, Smith announced a bid to become caucus chair, losing to current Chair Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby.
"It's no surprise to us that some of the accusations about Robin being bandied about in the press come from the caucus," Rose stated in reference to Saltsman. "Even his own employees are involved in this. Nor is it surprising that some of this is coming from the Speaker's office. Everyone knows that Chip is currently consulting for Speaker Sexton.
"It appears to us on a preliminary basis that much of what is currently going on is a turf war between political consultants," Rose added. "One consultant's loss of revenue is another's supposed crime, it seems."
Sexton responded in a Times Free Press interview, saying he was "a bit surprised" by Rose's comments "because I've had many conversations with Robin and she's always complimented Chip and she's always talked about how well they've worked together over the last couple of years. And that they've put all their past dealings behind them and they've moved forward."
The same day the FBI raids became public in August, Sexton held a news conference in which he said that after he became speaker in August 2019, "I was contacted by federal authorities regarding an ongoing investigation related to the former speaker's office."
Sexton told the Times Free Press, "we were approached by the authorities to cooperate. And if this was merely a 'consultant versus consultant' [situation], I'm not really sure why the FBI would be here investigating.
"In the end, anybody can say whatever they want to. And then when the FBI decides to indict or release their findings or have a court case, I'm assuming everything will come out," Sexton said. "And at that point we'll see whose statements match with what was said."
Moreover, Sexton emphasized, "I've never outlined what the initial conversation or any conversation with [the FBI] has been because I'm not at liberty to discuss that."
SCHOOL VOUCHER VOTE
In advance of the August 2019 GOP Caucus meeting to determine then-Speaker Casada's continued tenure as speaker, Nashville television station WTVF and, later, other news outlets reported that Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livington, an attorney, former prosecutor and colonel in the Tennessee National Guard, had rejected Casada's alleged suggestion he could be promoted to be a general in the guard. Casada denied it.
Earlier this week on Thursday, WTVF quoted two unidentified lawmakers who said Casada has since said the FBI had questions about how he helped pass Lee's school voucher legislation.
In an interview last month with the Times Free Press, Casada elaborated some on what occurred when asked what happened when FBI agents came to his door in the early morning hours of Jan. 8.
"They were real clear with me, 'We're gathering information.' That was what they said over and over to me because I kept saying — and they said 'just gather information, that's all.' And I said 'OK, I'm an open book.'"
Asked what sort of information he provided, Casada said "Well, I mean, they just had questions which, again, I just have no comment on the questions that they asked me. Just no comment on the questions."
Casada said he had not spoken with the FBI prior to the raid, nor since.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.