Ogles wants checks on Registry of Election Finance subpoena power

By: - January 26, 2022 12:00 pm
Rep. Brandon Ogles, R-Brentwood: Bill to deter referee assault not spurred by pantsing. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Rep. Brandon Ogles, R-Brentwood. (Photo: John Partipilo)

State Rep. Brandon Ogles, days after threatening a “deep dive” into the Registry of Election Finance, says he is drafting legislation that could change the board’s subpoena power.

Ogles, a Franklin Republican, took a step back from incendiary comments he made last week at a Williamson Inc. legislative gathering but said he wants to look at subpoena authority across the state’s boards to make sure they are “transparent.”

In fact, he told the Tennessee Lookout his plans have nothing to do with the Registry of Election Finance, which voted recently to subpoena former House Speaker Glen Casada, his ex-chief of staff Cade Cothren and several other people to gather information about the Faith Family Freedom Forum, a shadowy political action committee that ran attack ads on Casada’s political enemy, former Rep. Rick Tillis of Maury County.

Still, Ogles, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee said, “There’s a line of communication and an invitation is granted that’s a professional courtesy in most fields, without issuing a subpoena … anything that says you’re gonna be at a certain place and time without voluntarily complying is somewhat hostile.”

The subpoenas stem from testimony by an ex-girlfriend of Cothren’s, Sydney Friedopfer, who told the Registry board at its latest meeting that Cothren persuaded her to register the PAC, then took over operations. She testified she didn’t send several emails the Registry received from the PAC and didn’t realize the PAC spent money, even though she signed her name as treasurer.

Cothren could face civil penalties dealing with fraud for perpetrating a phony political action committee.

Rep. Glen Casada, who was subpoenaed by the Registry, said he had no knowledge of the PAC in question. At a Friday event Casada compared the subpoena to feeling “like a kid sitting on the side of the road, and someone’s just come and punched me in the nose for no reason.”

The Tennessee Journal reported Casada and Ogles took exception to the subpoenas, with Casada saying at the Williamson Inc. gathering that he felt “like a kid sitting on the side of the road, and someone’s just come and punched me in the nose for no reason.”

In his comments, Ogles predicted “ramifications” for the subpoenas and said, “And to issue subpoenas that have weight, or credit, or value – and are not signed by a judge – circumvents every judiciary process we have in this state, both criminally and civilly.”

Ogles said this week he would like to see requirements for a judge’s signature on subpoenas issued by the Registry board in addition to invitations before subpoenas are issued. In this case, the Registry board issued subpoenas requiring people to testify and to produce any and all information they have on the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC.

Ogles called it a “professional courtesy” to invite someone to speak before the board. Board members, though, pointed out during the latest Registry meeting they were trying to gather information, not accuse anyone of wrongdoing, in order to determine their next step in an investigation of the PAC.

At the Williamson Inc. event, Ogles said the Judiciary Committee is “going to deep dive into this, this threat to subpoena people.”

Apparently, he was irritated by comments made by Registry board member Hank Fincher, who said he believes Cothren will “go underground,” and if he doesn’t show up to testify, the board will take action to have him arrested and brought in by the sheriff’s office. Fincher, a Cookeville attorney and former House member, said people act differently when they’re wearing “orange,” referring to the jumpsuits worn by jail inmates.

Responding to comments from Ogles and Casada, Fincher wrote a Facebook statement pointing out he has served on the Registry board for 20 years without pay and has seen it handled in a bipartisan manner during that time.

“At our last meeting, we heard testimony that someone had tricked a woman into serving as a fake treasurer for a political action committee. As is our power and duty under the law (TCA 2-10-207 to be precise), we issued a subpoena for the person who she said procured her signature and his boss,” he said.

Asked what might happen if someone doesn’t respond to the subpoena, Fincher described the process, which includes two hearings and then an attachment for an arrest.

“It has apparently caused quite a kerfuffle among some of the people allied with the witness, with a sitting member of the legislature actually questioning the Registry’s long standing right to issue subpoenas and investigate campaign finance violations, and making thinly veiled threats of retaliation for daring to do our job,” he said in the statement. “Must’ve hit a nerve.”

He added that, “Sometimes doing the right thing makes people mad.”

Cothren did not respond to text messages seeking comment.

But Casada, who hired Cothren to be his chief of staff and paid him a $199,000 salary, denied any knowledge of the Faith Family Freedom Forum PAC during the Williamson Inc. event and then reiterated that to the Tennessee Lookout.

“I didn’t even know it existed until the subpoena came through,” he said in a Tuesday text message. “So I’m being redundant. I have no answer for the questions related to the (PAC) as I (am) not even familiar with it.”

It has apparently caused quite a kerfuffle among some of the people allied with the witness, with a sitting member of the legislature actually questioning the Registry's long standing right to issue subpoenas and investigate campaign finance violations, and making thinly veiled threats of retaliation for daring to do our job. Must've hit a nerve.

– Henry Fincher, Tennessee Registry of Election Finance

Nevertheless, Casada said he is “definitely” showing up to discuss this “unusual action” by the Registry board.

Casada went before the board in 2020 and testified after the Registry found he spent $99,000 from his political action committee without keeping receipts on the expenses. It levied a $10,500 civil penalty against him.

Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance Executive Director Bill Young confirmed this week the Registry board has the power to subpoena witnesses, conduct audits, hold hearings and take other actions, based on state law. Subpoenas were sent out last week.

He noted the Registry board is “just casting a wide net” to try to figure out what to do with the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC.

A special meeting could be held in February to look at responses from those subpoenaed, and then another meeting would be set for testimony.

In light of comments from Casada and Ogles, Registry member Tom Lawless wonders if the board is “supposed to turn a blind eye” after Friedopfer’s testimony.

“I don’t have an agenda. I’m just trying to do the job the Legislature has charged us to do,” he said. “I firmly believe that’s how other members of the Registry are looking at it.”

If those subpoenaed are innocent, what better way to clear the air than to come out and “be transparent and then we move on and we’re through with it once and for all,” Lawless added.

In addition to Casada and Cothren, the Registry board subpoenaed Tillis, state Rep. Charlie Baum, R-Murfreesboro, Brandon Crawford, a North Carolina restaurant owner believed to have made a $7,500 donation to the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC (if he is a real person) and state Rep. Todd Warner, who has been under investigation by the FBI since January 2021 when he took office. Warner has come before the Registry once already to show receipts for expenses with Dixieland Strategies.

Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, photographed during a recent special legislative session. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, photographed during a 2021 special legislative session. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Warner’s campaign, which paid tens of thousands of dollars to Alabama-based Dixieland Strategies, a new vendor in the 2020 election, was accused of illegal campaign coordination with the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC.

Those two entities used the same Hamilton County postal code, 383, as Phoenix Solutions, yet another new 2020 vendor, which made tens of thousands of dollars off the House Republican Caucus and several members for re-election work. It vanished when reporters started asking questions.

Casada, meanwhile, remains under investigation by the FBI, which raided his home and office in January 2021 as part of a potential money laundering investigation, though the feds haven’t said why they’re conducting the probe. Casada has said more than once he doesn’t know why the feds are investigating.

The FBI began looking into Casada’s actions in 2019 in connection with the House vote on the governor’s voucher bill to see if any improper offers were made for votes after he held the board open for more than 40 minutes to garner passage.

Casada resigned in August that year amid a sexist and racist texting scandal involving Cothren and a group of friends. The House Republican Caucus passed a no-confidence vote because of concerns about Cothren and Casada’s heavy-handed management style.

 

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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.

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