To date, we have not opined about the FBI raid of legislative offices in Nashville in January because we don't know enough about what is being investigated. So far, no law has been alleged to have been broken and no wrongdoing has been alleged to have occurred.
But as the story has unfolded, bits of information have dribbled out from legislators who have been interviewed by the FBI.
What has become clear is that the saga revolves around a vendor called Phoenix Solutions, allegedly a New Mexico-based company organized in December 2019 that did about $231,000 in work for legislators during the 2020 campaign cycle. And then recently, in articles in the Times Free Press and the Tennessee Lookout, former House Speaker Glen Casada was first linked to Phoenix Solutions and then said to be the owner of the firm.
That, in itself, is not likely a problem since Casasda, R-Franklin, and state Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, for that matter, have been political consultants for other legislators.
Casada's former chief of staff, Cade Cothren, who was fired two years ago for sending racist and sexist text messages, also has been linked to the firm. The text message scandal eventually led to a no-confidence vote by the GOP Caucus in Casada, who had responded to Cothren's messages, and to his resignation from the speaker's post.
We won't speculate on what aspect of the existence of Phoenix Solutions — and its mysterious principal Matthew Phoenix, who has been unavailable for interviews — the FBI is examining, but we think some lessons from this saga should be apparent.
Legislators should know with whom they are doing business, should know where their money is going, should ask more questions and should never feel pressured to do business with a certain firm.
Since the January raids, various legislators have said they have paid Phoenix Solutions for constituent services, for campaign materials, for research and polling, and for legislative updates and surveys.
Several have admitted they didn't talk to the firm themselves when engaging the work and that they didn't know who was behind it. Some have said they used the firm because colleagues suggested they do, were told to do so, were "hoo-dooed" into using it (in the case of state Rep.Kent Calfee, R-Kingston), or were told work by the company already had been approved.
In each of the cases, it shows at best naivety and at worst a complete disregard of the use of constituent and campaign funds.
State Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, who used Phoenix Solutions for a legislative mailer but didn't hire the firm directly, may have said it best in early March.
"It would be good to know who you're dealing business with," she said. "I thought I did, but maybe not."
Hazlewood later said she used Phoenix Solutions on Smith's recommendation.
"I just don't get into that part of the business," she said. "All I did was look at the mailer and approve. We talked about what to put in it and all that. But as far as who actually did the work, it was her recommendation and they billed me and I paid them."
It was Calfee, who isn't a subject of the federal investigation, who recently said the FBI asked him "if I knew Cade Cothren and Glen Casada were owners of Phoenix Solutions." He said investigators had told him he would know more about their probe when they finished interviewing him.
Casada has declined comment on the matter, saying he knows nothing. But his office and home were among those raided in January, along with those of Smith, newly elected state Rep. Todd Warner, R-Chapel, and the home of Cothren.
If Phoenix Solutions is an open and above-board firm, we believe its operations, operators and operatives would be widely known by legislators, that it wouldn't share the same Chattanooga postal code as another agency and another organization, and that it would make itself and its owners available to clear up any misconceptions the FBI may have about anything it did or might have done. The fact it isn't, and hasn't, leads one to believe the federal agency is checking into it for good reasons.
The General Assembly itself is a chummy body where legislators often exchange names of companies they deal with and advocate to others the use of one firm or another for campaign or constituent services. But that chumminess should never stop legislators from doing their due diligence in checking out those firms, from not relying on a wink and a nod that the firms are reputable, and from not throwing up a red flag when their questions about a firm cannot be readily or positively answered.