What did Tennessee lawmakers under FBI investigation do this session? More than you might think

Far from being sidelined by Tennessee House leadership after FBI raids in January, Casada and Reps. Robin Smith and Todd Warner sponsored 14 bills that became law.

Rep. Todd Warner, R-Chapel Hill, was elected in 2020 and has been under investigation his entire career in the House of Representatives. He still passed several bills. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Todd Warner, R-Chapel Hill, was elected in 2020 and has been under investigation his entire career in the House of Representatives. He still passed five bills. (Photo: John Partipilo)

If you’re under investigation by the FBI—or even facing federal charges—you can still be a productive lawmaker in Tennessee.

Even after FBI agents raided their homes and offices in January—just before this year’s legislative session started—three Republican state lawmakers avoided total pariah status in the Tennessee House of Representatives. The same was true for one Senate Democrat, who got two bills passed despite fraud and money laundering charges.

In fact, Reps. Glen Casada, Robin Smith and Todd Warner sponsored 14 bills that became law, plus a handful more that passed the Tennessee House of Representatives or are awaiting Gov. Bill Lee’s signature.

Judging by the number of their bills that became law, Casada, Smith and Warner were more productive than most Democrats and many of their Republican colleagues.

Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, talks to reporters at opening day of the 112th General Assembly. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, talks to reporters at opening day of the 112th General Assembly. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Smith, R-Hixson, sponsored six bills that became law. Warner, R-Chapel Hill, sponsored five. For Casada, R-Franklin, three bills became law. Smith and Casada each carried one that passed just the House.

The numbers may sound small, but House members are limited to sponsoring 15 bills each year, with some exceptions. Most bills hit roadblocks in committees or subcommittees.

“The committee system determines which bills pass”

To be sure, the three have far less power and influence than they would have if the FBI had not come knocking to investigate the potential laundering of campaign funds. They don’t chair any committees, and most of the legislation they passed was minor.

The investigation was also the subtext of an anti-corruption law promoted by House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

Casada’s fall from grace began in 2019, when he briefly served as House speaker. He resigned amid a scandal involving racist and sexist text messages and an attempt by his chief of staff to frame a racial justice activist for a crime.

Sexton, R-Crossville, succeeded him as House speaker. Casada was reelected last fall.

Rep. Glen Casada, R- Franklin, photographed by John Partipilo on Jan. 12, 2021.
Rep. Glen Casada, R- Franklin, photographed by John Partipilo on Jan. 12, 2021.

Smith was elected in 2018. Warner was elected in 2020, meaning he’s been under FBI investigation every day of his General Assembly career.

Bills becoming law is not a perfect indicator of lawmakers’ quality or ability—sort of like wins as a stat for pitchers—but it says a lot about proximity to power and alliances with other lawmakers.

For example, Lee signed nine of Rep. Mark White’s bills. White, R-Memphis, chairs the House Education Administration committee. Reps. London Lamar and Torrey Harris, both D-Memphis, each had three bills become law, more than many other Democrats.

On the flipside, Rep. Justin Lafferty, R-Knoxville, had no success with any of his seven bills this session. Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, was also unable to get anything passed—she says because she was blackmailed for voting against Sexton as speaker and for other perceived slights. And Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, passed a handful of bills, but Sexton briefly stripped him of his committee assignments after a disagreement in late March.

Sexton said he doesn’t control which bills pass.

“The committee system determines which bills pass, fail, or are amended,” Sexton said, in a statement provided by a spokesman. “All members have the same ability to file and run their legislation; however, you need to actually be present to run a bill and need a simple majority to pass it.”

But non-Republican sources say that leadership in both chambers, as well as Lee, tightly control which bills pass and which don’t. Democrats and libertarians say it’s a foregone conclusion how members will vote before committee hearings start.

Sexton appoints House committee chairs, who have great power over which bills advance and which fail.

What they sponsored

Casada sponsored 12 bills, one of which requires police community oversight board members to take a citizen academy course within six months of being nominated. Those boards will lose their power if all members haven’t taken the course.

The bill passed, according to House Democratic Press Secretary Ken Jobe, because leadership wanted to—regardless of who sponsored it.

“If it’s something that aligns with their principles, it’s going to pass,” Jobe said.

Another Casada bill limits the information that police and detention facilities can publish between arrests and convictions. The bill, which came from the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, is intended to make it harder for lawyers to “bombard” people with requests for business.

Warner’s most notable bill (unless you live in Lewisburg, where he secured some changes to the city charter) was the Tennessee Firearm Protection Act.

It may not be constitutional, but it expands a current law that prohibits the enforcement or implementation of federal gun laws if they interfere with Tennessee laws. (Federal law supersedes state law, no matter what state lawmakers say.)

Smith successfully added more specific language to the criminal charge of aggravated cruelty to animals. She also got a bill through that has to do with “family life education” in counties with high teen pregnancy rates.

“Too much about party loyalty”

Elizabeth Madeira, a Democrat who challenged Casada last year, lamented how hard it is for Democrats to pass legislation as the superminority party, while Republicans under the cloud of investigations don’t face the same obstacles.

Madeira said the scandals that have followed Casada motivated her to get into politics.

“That was one reason I ran for state house,” said Madeira, who is now an organizer for the Southern Christian Coalition. “Politics has gotten to be too much about party loyalty rather than passing common sense, bipartisan legislation that truly helps Tennesseans.”

Casada and Warner did not respond to requests for comment. Smith initially forwarded an email to Sexton’s office, and she answered a text message, but stopped responding after Memorial Day weekend.

Former Rep. Rick Tillis, a Republican who lost in last year’s primary to Warner, answered a call but declined to comment. Tillis lost his House leadership position in 2019 after admitting to criticizing fellow Republicans using an anonymous Twitter account.

Casada’s last Republican primary challenger also did not respond to a request for comment.

Not just Republicans

State Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

But corruption knows no party.

Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis, is facing federal wire fraud and money laundering charges. Federal prosecutors accused her of using federal grant funds, intended for her business the Healthcare Institute, for personal use. Those charges, announced in mid-January, are on top of separate charges alleging she defrauded a client.

Robinson sponsored 32 bills this session, two of which became law.