FBI raids homes, legislative offices; Three legislative staff members placed on leave

By: , and - January 8, 2021 11:23 am
Tennessee State Capitol (Getty Images)

Tennessee State Capitol (Getty Images)

The FBI raided the legislative offices and homes of state lawmakers as well as current and former aides, multiple sources confirmed to the Tennessee Lookout.

The raids were first reported by the Tennessean.

State Rep. Glen Casada, state Rep. Robin Smith, newly elected state Rep. Todd Warner and former Casada aide Cade Cothren were among those subject to the FBI searches, multiple sources told the Tennessee Lookout. Whitt previously was an aide to Casada.

State Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, District 63 (Photo: Facebook)
State Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, District 63 (Photo: Facebook)

U.S. Attorney spokesman Dave Boling confirmed the searches, but did not provide additional details.

In a Friday morning briefing, Speaker Cameron Sexton told reporters he was made aware of the federal investigation as he was taking office as speaker last year, but declined to elaborate. He also declined to answer a question about when he was made aware of Friday’s raids.

Sexton was elected Speaker on August 23, 2019. The investigation was not made public until today.

Three employees of the House of Representatives have also been placed on paid administrative leave until further notice, said Connie Ridley, director of legislative administration.  They include Whitt, Nadine Korby, legislative assistant to Rep. Kent Calfee, and Carol Simpson, legislative assistant to Casada. Calfee is not believed to be the subject of an investigation, Sexton said.

Ty Howard, an attorney representing Whitt, released a statement on Friday confirming Whitt was contacted by FBI agents “regarding an ongoing investigation.”

“Mr. Whitt is a well-respected legislative aide with an impeccable reputation, and he has not been charged with any wrongdoing,” the statement said. “He is cooperating fully with the investigation. Out of respect for the legal process, Mr. Whitt will have no further public comment regarding this matter.”

Sexton said he had informed Gov. Bill Lee, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and Republican and Democrat legislative leadership on Friday morning about today’s “activities.” In response to questions from reporters, Sexton declined to say whether the investigation is connected to a controversial school voucher plan or to the unseating of Rep. Rick Tillis, R-Lewisburg, who admitted last year he was involved in a Twitter account that tweeted disparaging messages about fellow lawmakers. Tillis resigned from his post as House Whip in September after his involvement came to light.

“I think this is a sad day for the Tennessee General Assembly,” Sexton said.

During a Friday morning press briefing about the state’s pandemic response, Gov. Bill Lee acknowledged he spoke in the morning with Sexton about the raid but added that agents had not contacted the governor’s office.

“It’s certainly very concerning. I know very little about that. There’s been no FBI outreach to us, but I have confidence that Speaker Sexton’s on top of the situation and we’ll learn more as this unfolds,” Lee said.

The state’s voucher vote was the subject of an FBI investigation in 2019, and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agents looked into the matter as well, according to reports. The investigation stemmed from a tie vote on the education savings account bill in which Casada held the voting board open for nearly 45 minutes to work the House members for one more vote to push the bill to passage.

Ultimately, he persuaded state Rep. Jason Zachary, a Knoxville Republican, to change his vote on the guarantee that Knox County schools would not be a voucher district.

Numerous lawmakers also said Cothren, Casada’s former chief of staff, approached them and asked what it would take for them to vote for the voucher bill.

Rep. Smith, who voted for the voucher bill, is entering her second House term after previously serving as chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. She made a failed run this year for House Republican Caucus chair.

The voucher program, which allows families to spend government funds on private school tuition, was Lee’s trademark legislation during his first term. The legislation only applied to Davidson and Shelby counties, and was subsequently deemed illegal following a court challenge by those county governments.

The investigation will cast a pall over the 112th General Assembly, which begins Tuesday. But Sexton said he expects the body to assemble and conduct its business.

Lt. Gov. McNally, who wore a wire that led to arrests in a sting operation in the 1980’s dubbed “Operation Rocky Top,” said he is grateful for Sexton’s leadership.

“While this is a sad day for the Legislature, I know he will shepherd the House through this difficult time with the utmost integrity,” McNally said on Twitter.

Even though Democrats vehemently opposed the voucher program, the House Democratic Caucus declined to pile on and criticize those targeted in the investigation.

“It is never a win for any of us when any of our colleagues are thrust into the spotlight of a federal investigation,” Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie of Nashville said.  “It would be premature to comment at this time on the apparent investigation into several Republican lawmakers and the raids of their offices and homes.  At this moment, it’s not a time for speculation.  We will wait until more is known before we issue further comment.”

Casada, a former speaker of the House, is one of the most prominent and influential figures in state government. He represents a portion of Williamson County in the legislature and has been a powerhouse fundraiser for the House Republican Caucus. But he’s also been at the center of controversy.

State Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Casada was on the receiving end of sexist and crude texts from Cothren, his chief of staff at the time and a then-rising star in Republican politics. The revelation of the texts, and the swirling rumors of the federal investigation into the voucher vote, created pressure for Casada to resign as speaker.  

Warner was just elected to the House in November, unseating incumbent Rep. Rick Tillis in the Republican primary then cruising to victory in November. Tillis was considered a whistleblower of sorts during the fall of Casada, posting items online that raised questions about the former speaker’s actions.

Casada resigned from his position as speaker two years ago and Rep. Cameron Sexton became House Speaker after the Republican Caucus passed a no-confidence vote in the Williamson County Republican.

“This has been a trying week for our country, and this will be a difficult time for our state as well as we go down this road. Personally, these are our friends and colleagues of ours that we worked with for many years,” Sexton said. “It’s important to remember this is just the start of the investigation and the process and not the end. Today does not necessarily imply guilt.” 

No ethics investigation has been initiated into the actions of the legislators whose officers were searched, Sexton said. He did not say whether he would ask for an ethics probe.

The connection between Casada, Smith and Warner is unclear. But Warner, a Chapel Hill Republican, defeated Tillis in the Republican primary after spending more than $154,000 from his own pocket, despite filing for bankruptcy, while raising only $15,970 for the race, according to a Tennessee Journal report. 

Tillis filed a complaint with the Registry of Election Finance about an alleged connection between the political action committee Faith Family Freedom Fund and Warner, both of them sending out campaign mail using the same Chattanooga postal code, according to the report. The Registry declined to take up the matter.

The same postal code was used on a mailer sent out by Rep. Paul Sherrell of Sparta, who hired Phoenix Solutions of New Mexico to handle the work. Reps. Smith, Calfee and Dan Howell of Cleveland also used Phoenix Solutions.

Smith runs Rivers Edge Alliance, a Hixson consulting firm that previously pushed legislation and works on campaigns, including for Republican Reps. John Ragan, Esther Helton, Jay Reedy and Howell.

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Nate Rau
Nate Rau

Nate Rau has a granular knowledge of Nashville’s government and power brokers, having spent more than a decade with the Tennessean, navigating the ins and outs of government deals as an investigative reporter. During his career at The Tennessean and The City Paper, he covered the music industry and Metro government and won praise for hard-hitting series on concussions in youth sports and deaths at a Tennessee drug rehabilitation center. In a state of Titans and Vols fans, Nate is an unabashed Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cubs fan.

Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.