The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance could consider civil penalties against Cade Cothren, ex-chief of staff to former House Speaker Glen Casada, as it digs into a political action committee he may have run without required disclosure.
Registry board members don't expect him to be forthcoming, and they aren't certain what types of violations they're looking at in a probe of the Faith Family Freedom Fund political action committee, although some sort of fine could be considered for misleading the board in creation of the PAC.
"I was pretty shocked," said registry member David Golden, who added a decision on the type of action the board could take is "wide open." Golden said he was "stunned how blatant" Cothren was in covering up the PAC's formation, if testimony before the board last week was true.
The registry board voted to subpoena Cothren and Casada, both of whom appear to be under federal investigation, to ask questions about the PAC after a young woman testified that Cothren had her register the political action committee in her name and then turn operations over to him during the 2020 election year.
Cothren did not answer a text Wednesday asking him whether he would testify. Casada did not say, either, whether he would respond to the subpoena but in a text told the Tennessee Lookout, "I have no role or knowledge of this PAC."
Casada, who is not seeking re-election this year, also said he's "at a loss" why the registry board sent him a subpoena.
The PAC used a $7,500 campaign donation attributed to a North Carolina restaurant owner named Brandon Crawford, who has not been found, to run attack ads against now-former state Rep. Rick Tillis in his campaign against challenger Todd Warner, who now holds the office.
Tillis was critical of Casada during his short stint as House Speaker, using an anonymous Twitter account to attack the Republican leader.
Casada resigned the speaker's seat in August 2019 amid a scandal surrounding racist and sexist texts involving Cothren, in addition to complaints about his management style after the House Republican Caucus cast a no-confidence vote. FBI agents raided his home and office in January 2021, along with searches involving others including Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson.
The registry board initially audited the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC because of a complaint filed by Greg Hazelwood, the treasurer for Tillis, who claimed the political action committee illegally coordinated with Warner's campaign. Auditors were stonewalled but finally found Sydney Friedopfer, who registered the PAC, in Utah late last year.
Friedopfer, a former Vanderbilt student, said she was persuaded by Cothren to sign off on the PAC and then he ran the political action committee and later told her not to answer questions about it from the registry board because it had no authority over her. Friedopfer said she thought she was in love with Cothren at the time and didn't realize what she was doing was wrong.
"I asked him if it was illegal to open it for him. And he said no. And he said he just couldn't have a name on it, considering everything he had gone through, which I'm sure everyone's aware," Friedopfer said in testimony.
The registry reopened its audit of the Faith Family Freedom Fund last week and is planning to hold a special meeting to take testimony. In addition to Cothren and Casada, the board subpoenaed Crawford, who is believed to be a real person, Rep. Warner, state Rep. Charlie Baum, who received campaign support from the Faith Family Freedom Fund, former Rep. Tillis and Carol Simpson, a staff member. Tillis could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
In addition to testimony, the registry board wants all records, correspondence and electronic communications dealing with the Faith Family Freedom Fund and was to notify those it subpoenaed not to destroy any records.
"I don't know that we'll be able to get the level of proof we need to take serious action. But if we do, we'll take action to uphold the law as strongly as we can," registry board member Hank Fincher said Wednesday.
Friedopfer told board members by conference call she filed the papers, signed her name and sent Cothren a picture of the e-filing and "he took over from there." She testified she didn't hear about it again until a reporter called her. Then, an attorney with the registry board called her a few weeks ago.
Yet, the registry received a Nov. 20, 2020, email, purportedly from Friedopfer, saying, "It is extremely difficult to follow the rabbit holes of Mr. Hazelwood in this complaint and it seems the majority of his grievances are with other people/organizations. To our knowledge, we have disclosed all information required for our PAC in Tennessee and will certainly continue doing so."
Board members are trying to obtain testimony from Cothren and are issuing a letter ordering him to bring all information about the Faith Family Freedom Fund to the meeting when he testifies. But they aren't certain whether they'll get to hear from him.
"I bet he goes deep underground, and I bet he's tough to find, and I bet we have to end up hauling him in under an attachment," Fincher said during a Jan. 13 meeting.
Fincher added, however, if Cothren refuses to show up, the board would then file contempt charges against him and then have the sheriff's office bring him to testify.
"They're a lot more humble after they're wearing orange and have to answer for that," Fincher said.
The Faith Family Freedom Fund used the same postal code as Dixieland Strategies, an unknown Alabama company that has disappeared, in addition to New Mexico-based Phoenix Strategies, another new company that made tens of thousands of dollars doing campaign work for Republican candidates and the House Republican Caucus.
Phoenix Strategies used the same postal account, 383, to run a mailer for Republican state Rep. Paul Sherrell of Sparta, in addition to several House members. It went through a Hamilton County company called Simply Mail to send out campaign mailers.
Friedopfer said she didn't realize the PAC spent money and that she could be responsible, even though she signed her name as treasurer, too. She became aware of some "sketchy" dealings when reporters called her.
"And I reached out to Cade at that time, and he told me nothing was going on, and that it was just the media. I believed him again," she said.
Asked in questioning if she was aware she was liable for civil penalties in connection with the PAC, she said she understands that now.
"[Cothren] told me that none of this was illegal, that he didn't do anything illegal, and that it was no big deal to open the political action committee," she said.
Friedopfer said Cothren also told her the registry board has no authority over her and "that nothing can happen."
Use of the same postal code also potentially links Cothren to all three companies, which have vanished since reporters started asking questions a year ago.
They came under scrutiny after the FBI raided the homes and offices of Casada, Warner and Smith, as well three staff members and state Rep. Kent Calfee, a Kingston Republican who has been cleared in the probe.
The FBI investigation could make it more difficult for the registry board to obtain testimony from Cothren and Casada with a civil subpoena, if their attorneys tell them to clam up in the midst of the federal probe.
The board audited Warner, and he was able to show a receipt proving he paid Dixieland Strategies for campaign work. He has cooperated with the registry's investigation, but members want to talk to him anyway.
Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.