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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / State Rep. Robin Smith speaks to the Hamilton County Republican Women's Club at Mountain Oaks Tea Room on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Ooltewah, Tenn.

NASHVILLE — State Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, said she supports an effort by Tennessee's House and Senate speakers to bar lawmakers from contracting with the state for services, including handling their legislative colleagues' taxpayer-funded constituent surveys and updates.

But Smith, a Republican political consultant whose home and legislative office were among those searched by FBI agents in January, said the bill sponsored by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, doesn't go far enough and she intends to try to amend it.

Sexton's measure, House Bill 1040, is scheduled to come before the House State Government Committee on Tuesday. He told the Times Free Press on Monday that he has no interest in Smith's bill, noting that one of her ideas falls outside the legal scope of his measure.

The FBI has yet to specify what it is investigating with regard to its Jan. 8 raids on Smith, former House Speaker Glen Casada, a Franklin Republican representive and political consultant, as well as freshman Rep. Todd Warner, R-Chapel Hill, a former top Casada aide and two legislative staffers. No charges have been filed.

But Smith and Casada both used previously unknown political vendors for their campaign activities. One of them, New Mexico-based Phoenix Solutions LLC, was used extensively by Smith and she recommended the firm to her legislative clients both for their campaign mail and taxpayer-funded constituent surveys and mail.

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Rep. Robin Smith's proposed amendment

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"I support this effort by our leadership to, among other things, reform the constituent mail service program. It is long overdue," said Smith, a former Tennessee Republican Party chair whose Rivers Edge Alliance in 2020 billed the General Assembly $10,969 for work on constituent surveys and mailers on behalf of three colleagues, including Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain. "I would like to make the bill even better with my amendment."

Sexton and McNally's House Bill 1048/Senate Bill 798 seeks to extend the existing 1950s-era ban on legislators selling goods to the state into the arena of services. It also applies the same ban to "relatives, or any other entity in which a member of the general assembly has a controlling interest" to "bid on, sell, or offer for sale, any service to the state" during their tenure or for six months after leaving office.

Still, Smith said, if the selling of services is to be made illegal for legislators, "they should likewise be prevented from avoiding the prohibition by simply allowing" their "consultant or agent" to "do the very same thing. Otherwise, the legislation will not be effective."

Smith acknowledged another provision in her amendment may have legal problems. That seeks to ban lawmakers' use of campaign funds to pay family members more than $100 a month or $1,200 a year for campaign services. It excludes the provision of "constituent communications in the member's official capacity."

Smith also agreed that the Sexton/McNally bill's "caption" may pose problems to her efforts to restrict lawmakers' campaign payments to relatives.

A legislative bill caption, or short title, provides a brief description of a measure's content. The Tennessee Constitution requires every bill to declare up front a general description of its purpose. If a bill is amended to doing something "outside the caption," that is, the areas it originally cites, and is still passed into law, it risks being struck down as invalid if challenged in court.

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Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton's amendment

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It definitely has problems, Sexton told the Times Free Press.

"Her amendment and what she wanted to do would not fit the caption of my bill," Sexton said. "Nor has she come to me about adding an amendment to my bill. What she's wanting to do would not fit the caption, therefore you can't do it even if I gave her the approval I would accept the amendment — which I have not."

Sexton noted his bill caption "pertains to members and it's not campaign finance related."

Last year, Smith had pushed a ban on lawmakers' families receiving payments from their campaigns for political work. It made it through House committees but was never brought to a floor vote amid objections from some lawmakers who pay family members for work, Smith recalled.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, who is carrying Sexton's services-ban bill, recently told the Tennessean he has paid his teenage children in the past for some work on his campaign. Smith's proposed language this year is not a total ban on the practice of using campaign money to pay family members. But it puts limits on such compensation.

During the 2020 election cycle, Smith and former Speaker Casada both used previously unknown political vendors for their campaign activities. One of them, New Mexico-based Phoenix Solutions LLC, was used extensively by Smith. She has not said in response to questions what her relationship, if any, with Phoenix is. Casada poured large sums into Bullet Proof Research, which is not listed in Tennessee business filings.

Smith's attorney, Ben Rose, has said Smith is not a target of the FBI's probe. Nor has she spoken to agents involved in the investigation, he said.

Lt. Gov. McNally, who as a young senator in the 1980s helped the FBI expose bribery efforts on Capitol Hill, said "in my mind the current investigation is focused on "money laundering, that type of thing."

McNally specifically mentioned "Matthew Phoenix," whom documents list as the head of political vendor Phoenix Solutions LLC. Another GOP political vendor previously told the Times Free Press that he did work on several campaigns last year and dealt with Casada's former chief of staff, Cade Cothren. The vendor said Cothren told him to bill some work to Phoenix and other work to a sketchy Utah-based political action committee, Faith Family Freedom Fund.

The PAC attacked Warner's opponent, then-Rep. Rick Tillis, R-Lewisburg, in the House District 93 GOP primary last summer.

"We just need to find out who Mr. Phoenix is. Any ideas?" McNally told reporters.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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