Registry sends Cothren subpoena to AG’s Office after he refuses to testify, claims the Fifth

By: - March 2, 2022 2:37 pm
(Photo: John Partipilo)

(Photo: John Partipilo)

An irritated Registry of Election Finance sent subpoenas for former House Speaker’s Office chief of staff Cade Cothren to the state Attorney General’s Office.

The board opted against sending Cothren’s case to District Attorney General Glenn Funk’s office for criminal investigation. But if Cothren refuses to answer subpoenas through Chancery Court for testimony and information, once the Attorney General’s Office gets involved, he could be arrested. Registry members, however, don’t expect the AG’s Office to act quickly.

The decision came Wednesday in response to a Feb. 16 letter from Cothren’s attorney, Cynthia Sherwood, saying he would not testify or provide information about the Faith Family Freedom Fund political action committee and would invoke his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

Sherwood, who said subpoenas issued to Cothren “were made in bad faith and are an abuse of process,” declined to show up for Wednesday’s board meeting in downtown Nashville. Instead, she had prominent Nashville attorney Trey Harwell attend the meeting and ask for a delay on the matter. Harwell, who is not officially representing Cothren, said he was called the previous night to step in.

Cothren is the former chief of staff for ex-House Speaker Glen Casada, who resigned in 2019 amid a sexist and racist text message scandal and complaints about his management style. 

Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, photographed during a recent special legislative session. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, is off the hook of a campaign finance investigation. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The board accepted Casada’s explanation that he had nothing to do with the PAC. But Cothren remains on the hook.

A former girlfriend of Cothren’s, Sydney Friedopfer, told the Registry board in January that Cothren persuaded her to sign off as treasurer of the Faith Family Freedom Fund political action committee, so he could run it. She said he later told her not to answer questions from the Registry board.

The Registry board also voted Wednesday to subpoena Friedopfer’s sister, who is listed as chairman of the PAC.

Board members initially audited the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC because of a complaint filed by Greg Hazelwood, the treasurer for former Rep. Rick Tillis, who claimed it illegally coordinated with the campaign of Rep. Todd Warner, a Chapel Hill Republican who defeated Tillis in 2019. Tillis was a political enemy of Casada and circulated criticism of him on an anonymous Twitter account before he resigned his post.

Casada, who is stepping away from the Legislature this year and running for county clerk in Williamson County, was also subpoenaed to testify because Cothren worked for him until 2019.

The former House speaker criticized the Registry board during its Wednesday meeting, accusing members of being a “little reckless” in issuing the subpoena without calling him first. 

Casada noted he hasn’t been involved in politics for three years. He said he had no knowledge of the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC, nor did he participate in it. The PAC did play a role, though, in the 2019 election.

“I do feel there was a bias toward me on this issue,” Casada said. 

He noted the media grabbed hold of the Registry’s decision to subpoena him and “assumed the worst, which they do, and to judge me as I’ve done something wrong.”

FBI agents swarmed the homes and offices of Casada, Warner and Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, in addition to Cothren’s home in January 2020. No indictments have been filed, and the FBI hasn’t said what it was looking for. 

Registry member Hank Fincher, a former House member who attended the meeting by conference call, responded to Casada by pointing out he had leveled a “very serious charge” against the body by calling it biased, which insinuates it was being unfair. 

“You can coat it with honey all you want to, but it’s a very serious affront to our board,” Fincher said.

He pointed out Casada’s former chief of staff is potentially accused of “aiding and abetting perjury” and of submitting a false statement in a political race “of interest to someone involved with the (House Republican Caucus), as you were involved for many, many years.”

Fincher contended that the board thought Cothren was working for Casada and “had a duty to investigate.”

Fincher had said in a January meeting that he didn’t expect Cothren to respond to the subpoena. He noted that, as an attorney, people who are issued subpoenas tend to react differently when the sheriff’s office picks them up and they have to wear “orange” jumpsuits issued by the county jail.

Casada told members of the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance they were “reckless” and “biased” towards him, comments that didn’t sit well with Registry member and former State Rep. Henry Fincher. “You can coat it with honey all you want to, but it’s a very serious affront to our board,” responded Fincher.

Sherwood complained in her letter that “inflammatory” comments made by board members before their vote “expose the motives.”

The attorney also noted the subpoenas issued for Cothren’s testimony and any information he has on the Faith Family Freedom Fund: “where the results of the Registry’s investigation indicated that a criminal act may have occurred, the Registry is obligated to refer the matter to the appropriate law enforcement authorities for prosecution.” As a result, Cothren opted to take his Fifth Amendment privilege against “compelled disclosure.”

Registry board member Tom Lawless contended that Sherwood failed to provide context for Fincher’s statements at the January board meeting.

In addition to taking exception to Casada’s comments, Fincher wanted the board to send Cothren’s case to District Attorney General Glenn Funk for investigation. Lawless, however, said he wasn’t ready to take that step until the board can obtain more information.

The Registry’s attorney, Lauren Topping, told members everyone who had been subpoenaed made an answer except Brandon Crawford, an alleged North Carolina restaurateur who made the donation to Faith Family Freedom Fund that enabled it to operate. The Registry has not been able to contact Crawford.

The PAC used the same Chattanooga postal code as Phoenix Solutions and Dixieland Strategies, which was used by Warner in the 2019 race. Both of those are no longer operating.


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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.