Smith sidesteps questions about FBI raid but won’t deny she could be subject of probe
Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, talks with reporters on the opening day of the 112th General Assembly. She resigned Monday after being indicted on federal wire fraud charges. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Days after the FBI raided her office and home, state Rep. Robin Smith denied being a “target” of a federal investigation but stopped short of saying she’s not a “subject” of the FBI probe.
“My attorney issued a statement on Friday. It’s an accurate statement. I am fully cooperating. I plan to be doing that. And I am here doing the people’s business and representing House District 26,” Smith, of Hixson near Chattanooga, told reporters after coming out of a closed House Republican Caucus meeting Tuesday just before the 112th General Assembly convened for the year.
FBI agents converged on the Cordell Hull Building Jan. 8 and searched the offices of Smith, former House Speaker Glen Casada, new state Rep. Todd Warner and veteran state Rep. Kent Calfee, who is said not to be under investigation. Others involved in the probe are House interim Chief of Staff Holt Whitt, Cade Cothren, the former House chief of staff under Casada, Calfee’s legislative assistant, Nadine Korby, and Casada’s legislative assistant, Carol Simpson. Whitt, Korby and Simpson were placed on administrative leave indefinitely.
Smith’s attorney, Ben Rose, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press she intends to cooperate with the investigation, is not the target of the investigation and has done nothing wrong.
Asked if she was a subject of the investigation, rather than the target, Smith said, “Right now, I don’t know. I’m working with my attorney, and we’re cooperating.” In that case, she may be parsing words by claiming that “subject” is not as bad as being a “target.”
Smith declined to “answer any hypothetical” question, when asked whether she would resign if the federal government brought charges against her.
“Just understand every bit of this is a true honor to serve the people of Tennessee, and I’m here to do the job. But right now I want to be very cooperative and very careful. I respect our justice system, and as a lawmaker that’s what I’m here to do is to make sure that I do so with honesty and integrity,” she said.
Rose responded to the Lookout Wednesday, saying “No, there’s been no parsing of words. That’s inaccurate reporting. My client will provide more comment as the process allows. He referred reporters to an updated statement from Smith on her Facebook page.
Smith also avoided questions about Phoenix Solutions, a New Mexico-based company that used the same Chattanooga postal code for election material for Rep. Paul Sherrell of Sparta as for mailers used by Rep. Warner and a political action committee called Faith Family Freedom Fund to make attack ads against now-former Rep. Rick Tillis of Lewisburg. It is illegal for campaigns to coordinate with outside groups that make independent campaign expenses.
Casada, who attended House proceedings Tuesday, could not be found for comment. Warner previously issued a statement through prominent Nashville defense attorney Peter Strianse saying he is cooperating with the investigation.
In 2020, Tillis’ campaign complained to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance 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.
Warner responded to questions from the Registry of Election Finance that the mail design firm he used, Alabama-based Dixieland Strategies, took bids on the printing and mailing pieces and used the lowest bidder in the state. He said that was a large mail house out of Chattanooga.
“I have found out since being elected that this is the same mail house (and permit number) used by over a dozen members of the legislature as well as a large number of local elected officials from around the state,” Warner said in the sworn response.
In the letter, Warner said his campaign had no coordination with the Faith Family Freedom PAC.
Gregory Hazelwood, Tillis’ former campaign treasurer, said Tuesday he doesn’t plan to refile the complaint since the registry board dismissed it in December, but he added he will wait to see what the FBI does with the investigation before making a final decision.
When first hearing of the FBI raids, Hazelwood said he initially thought they were connected to the education savings account vote of 2019 when Casada held the voting board open for nearly 45 minutes to work the House chamber and break a 49-49 tie. Ultimately, the bill passed, but the program was found unconstitutional.
Then, when he read that Warner was part of the investigation, he felt it had to be tied to Tillis’ campaign finance complaint, which lays out the potential illegal action.
“The biggest thing I saw was matching postal codes. It’s hard to ignore that,” Hazelwood said.
Tillis also filed a complaint against Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, claiming Facebook received payments totaling $649 from the Faith Family Freedom Fund, which formed the page April 4 and started running “false and slanderous attack ads” against him without sources or citations, but that there were no campaign finance disclosures showing payments to Facebook.
“The ads were paid but by whom?” Tillis’s letter to the registry board says. “On the FFFF campaign finance disclosures there are no payments to Facebook.”
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