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FILE - In this May 2, 2019, file photo, House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, left, talks with Cade Cothren, right, his chief of staff, during a House session in Nashville, Tenn. Cothren has resigned amid allegations of racist and sexually explicit texts. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE — An attorney for Cade Cothren, the former chief of staff to then-Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada, says her client is invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and won't appear before a state campaign finance watchdog Wednesday regarding his alleged involvement in 2020 as the head of a political action committee that attacked a Casada critic.

"Cade Cothren objects to and will not respond to your subpoena," Nashville-based criminal defense attorney Cynthia A. Sherwood wrote in her Feb. 16 letter to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. "This objection is based on the grounds that these subpoenas were made in bad faith and are an abuse of process.

"Furthermore," Sherwood added, "Mr. Cothren invokes his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination."

Sherwood also accused the registry of acting in bad faith, noting, "The nature of this investigation into Mr. Cothren and the powers vested in the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance can lead to criminal penalties. Indeed, the subpoenas at issue state expressly the opposite: 'Whereas the results of the registry's investigation indicates that a criminal act may have occurred, the registry is obligated to refer the matter to the appropriate law enforcement authorities for prosecution.' Mr. Cothren, therefore, invokes his Fifth Amendment privilege against compelled disclosure."

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The Cothren letter

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Registry officials, who made the letter available to the Times Free Press on Tuesday, had no immediate comment.

The registry moved to subpoena both Cothren and Casada in January after hearing testimony from Cothren's former girlfriend in the agency's renewed effort to audit the "Faith Family Freedom Fund."

The Utah-based political action committee launched attacks against then-Rep. Rick Tillis, R-Lewisburg, in his GOP primary with Todd Warner, who won the contest. Tillis had been a vocal critic of Casada, who earlier had stepped down as speaker following controversies involving Cothren.

Registry members voted to reopen the complaint made by a Tillis campaign aide after Faith Family Freedom Fund Treasurer Sydney Friedopfer — whom officials were unable to contact last year — testified by phone that she opened the PAC at the request of Cothren, her then-boyfriend. She said Cothren assured her there was nothing wrong in what she was doing and that she never took any further actions.

The Faith Family Freedom Fund was used to attack Tillis in House District 92's August 2020 GOP primary race with challenger Warner. Warner, who spent considerable funds with a previously unknown political vendor, Dixieland Strategies in Rainbow City, Alabama, won the contest.

"I asked him if it was illegal to open it for him," Friedopfer, a former Vanderbilt student who now lives in Utah, said of her registration for the Faith Family Freedom Fund on behalf of Cothren. "And he said no. And he said he just couldn't have a name on it, considering everything he had gone through."

In 2019, Cothren lost his job amid controversy over his personal behavior. Among other things, Cothren boasted in a leaked text to a then-associate of having used cocaine in his state office. He also shared lewd texts with the associate and Casada about his sexual relations with women, including female lobbyists and interns. Casada responded jokingly or approvingly on at least three occasions, contributing to his downfall as speaker.

"I'm at a loss on why I got subpoenaed," Casada told the Times Free Press in January. "[A] simple phone call would have sufficed; very unusual activity on their part."

He said he sent a statement to election finance registry members Thursday, saying, "I am writing to inform you that I have no relationship, knowledge, information or documents relating to the Faith Family Freedom pac."

Casada is not scheduled to testify.

In addition to Cothren and Casada, the registry also approved issuing subpoenas to Warner, Tillis and another lawmaker, Rep. Charlie Baum, R-Murfreesboro, and former Casada secretary Carol Simpson, noting registry officials were not saying anyone had done anything wrong but were simply seeking additional information.

In early January 2021, FBI agents raided the home and legislative offices of Casada, Warner and Rep. Robin Smith, a Hixson Republican and longtime political consultant.

Both Casada, who by then was doing work as a political consultant, and Smith were associated with a group calling itself Phoenix Solutions. The firm did political mailers during the 2020 election cycle and also taxpayer-funded legislative mailers on behalf of a number of GOP colleagues.

Cothren's home was also raided.

Federal officials have yet to state the nature of their investigation. Smith has not specified her relationship with Phoenix Solutions and has declined to answer questions about it.

In January 2021, one GOP vendor, who spoke on condition his name not be used, said he did contract work during the 2020 campaign and dealt with Cothren. He said Cothren told him to bill some work to Phoenix and other work to the Faith Family Freedom Fund.

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

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