A new Marshall County Republican legislator targeted by the FBI in a Friday morning raid has hired a prominent Nashville criminal defense attorney to represent him.
Todd Warner, a Chapel Hill farmer and businessman, retained Peter Strianse after federal agents swooped down on his home and business early Jan. 8.
Warner also could face renewed discussion about his campaign finances to determine whether he illegally coordinated with a dark money group in his primary race in 2020 against incumbent Republican Rick Tillis, according to officials with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.
Tom Lawless, chairman of the registry board, said it would be proper under the board’s rules to rehear the matter if a new complaint is filed.
“It’s that damn dark money crap that keeps going around to and fro. If they can tie it together and not just a guess at it, I think it should come back, personally. I don’t like dirty politics,” Lawless said Monday.
Meanwhile, Strianse defended Warner in a statement released Monday, a day before he was to take a seat in a first House term after defeating incumbent Rick Tillis of Lewisburg in the House District 92 Republican primary last spring. The 112th General Assembly is set to open its session today.
“Rep. Todd Warner is a successful small businessman, farmer and freshman Legislator. Rep. Warner and his family were shocked by the events Friday morning, January 8. Federal agents descended on Rep. Warner’s home and business in Marshall County with search warrants, the contents of which remain shrouded in mystery by the government. Significantly, Rep. Warner has not been charged with any wrongdoing,” Strianse said in the statement.
“Rep. Warner can assure the citizens of his district that he has violated no laws and welcomes any investigation. Rep. Warner’s goal now is to serve all the citizens of his district, whether they voted for him or not, and looks forward to being sworn in Tuesday, January 12.”
FBI agents also raided the homes of former House Speaker Glen Casada of Thompson Station and Rep. Robin Smith of Hixson.
According to a Chattanooga Times Free Press report, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said lawmakers should resign if they are arrested.
“If there are arrests in the current investigation and those charges took place during their tenure as legislators or are related to their service as lawmakers, it is Lt. Gov. McNally’s opinion that they should resign,” spokesman Adam Kleinheider said.
He pointed out charges filed against Democratic Sen. Katrina Robinson of Memphis for alleged misuse of a federal grant predated her time in the General Assembly and were not related to her service in office.
Smith’s attorney, Ben Rose, reportedly told the Chattanooga Times Free Press she intends to cooperate with the investigation and that she is not the target of the investigation and has done nothing wrong.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, however, confirmed last week that Smith was among those under investigation by the FBI. Sexton said Republican Rep. Kent Calfee of Kingston was not a target of the probe even though agents searched his office. Calfee’s legislative assistant, Nadine Korby, and Casada’s legislative assistant, Carol Simpson, were placed on administrative leave after the FBI targeted them.
Holt Whitt, interim House chief of staff, also was placed on indefinite leave. His attorney said last week he is cooperating with the FBI.
Cade Cothren, Casada’s former chief of staff, was raided as well. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Casada, who resigned as House speaker in 2019 after being tied to racist and sexist tweets made by Cothren, was the target of an anonymous Twitter feed criticizing his administration. Lawmakers also objected to Casada’s heavy-handed administrative style, including a “kill list” emanating from his office designed to get rid of certain legislation.
Tillis later admitted to making the anonymous tweets and was forced out as House Republican Caucus whip before the 2020 session. Tillis, whose brother Thom Tillis is a Republican U.S. senator from North Carolina, complained to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance that campaign ads by Warner and a group called Faith Family Freedom Fund were illegally coordinated because they sent mailers with the same postal code out of Chattanooga, according to a Tennessee Journal report.
Warner spent $154,100 of his own money on the campaign, despite previously declaring bankruptcy, while bringing in only $15,970 from other donors, according to reports. He received $500 from Smith, of Hixson whose home and office were raided, in addition to that of Casada of Thompson Station.
Tillis’ campaign complained that a $7,000 independent expense targeting Tillis reported by the Faith Family Freedom Fund, which has a Utah apartment address, should have cost about twice as much. A North Carolina restaurateur donated $7,500 to form the PAC, state records show.
The registry did not take up the matter, in part because nobody representing Tillis showed up at the meeting and because of a sworn denial, but it might not be dead.
Lawless and Bill Young, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said it could be reconsidered at the Feb. 10 meeting of the registry board if someone files a new complaint.