Rep. Griffey spent $6,000 with Cattleya Group, but work wasn’t done

By: - March 9, 2022 2:07 pm
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.

The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance questioned former House Speaker Glen Casada in 2020 about payments to Cattleya Group, a company that shared the same address as a political consulting firm at the center of a former Rep. Robin Smith’s wire fraud guilty plea.

Casada at first couldn’t remember much about the company.

“They’re out of Santa Fe,” he said. “So I can’t answer exactly what they did, either polling or get out the vote.”

But then he claimed he had receipts for $3,500 he spent on the company and ultimately decided he put it down as “marketing,” telling the Registry board that Cattleya did “advertising” for people.

In all, Registry members questioned Casada about $98,000 in expenses that were unsupported by documents or invoices, including the Cattleya expense, then levied a $10,000 civil penalty against him. 

Whether the company was real is the question. Documents on file with the New Mexico Secretary of State show it had the same address as Phoenix Solutions, a shadow company formed to enable Casada’s ex-chief of staff, Cade Cothren, to secretly do work for the House Republican Caucus and Republican lawmakers, including their taxpayer-funded constituent mailers. 

In a guilty plea filed Tuesday, Smith confirmed that she and Casada knew Cothren was “Matthew Phoenix,” the made-up owner of Phoenix Solutions, and steered House business to him, then took kickbacks. According to prosecutors’ filing, Cothren also signed an IRS W-9 form as “Matthew Phoenix,” stating he was an American citizen in an effort to disguise his identity. That came after the House Speaker’s Office decided it needed to work directly with the vendor in January 2020. 

He was a guy that was supposed to do it. He said that’s who to make the check out to, and I was hiring him to do a job and he didn’t do what he was supposed to do for me.

– Rep. Bruce Griffe, R-Paris, on his $6,000 payment to Cattleya for campaign work in January 2019.

In the federal document, Casada and Cothren are identified as a former House speaker who served from January 2019 to August 2019 and his former chief of staff.

Phoenix Solutions made more than $200,000 in the scheme, and Smith and Casada each earned $4,143 for portions of their work, according to the filing.

In September 2020, Smith deposited checks from Phoenix Solutions for $12,003 and $12,116, according to the information.

Smith, who is set to be sentenced Oct. 17, said she plans to fully cooperate with authorities and provide testimony.

Before Phoenix Solutions took hold, though, Cattleya used the same set-up. 

According to expense reports for Republican Rep. Bruce Griffey of Paris, he paid $6,000 to Cattleya for campaign work in January 2019. According to a review of Griffey’s campaign finance disclosures, the payment, was the largest single sum of money Griffey spent during the 2020 campaign cycle.

However, Griffey told Tennessee Lookout this week the job was never done and he didn’t get his money back.

“He was a guy that was supposed to do it. He said that’s who to make the check out to, and I was hiring him to do a job and he didn’t do what he was supposed to do for me,” Griffey said. That included paying bills and promoting Griffey’s agenda.

Griffey said he didn’t know whether there was any link between Cattleya and Phoenix Solutions. He declined to identify the person who was supposed to do the work but said it wasn’t Casada or Cothren.

“I don’t want to get into it,” Griffey said.

Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, is sponsoring three bills targeting immigrants. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Linking Cattleya and Phoenix Solutions

Cattleya and Phoenix Solutions shared the same address, 530-B Harkle Road, Suite 100, Santa Fe, New Mexico but neither are believed to exist in that city.

During the Registry board’s March 2 meeting, Casada said he had no connection to Faith Family Freedom Fund or knowledge about the political action committee, which was accused of illegal coordination with the campaign of state Rep. Todd Warner, R-Chapel Hill, when he defeated incumbent Rick Tillis in 2018.

Casada also chastised the board for issuing a subpoena for him to provide information about the political action committee and tell the Registry anything he knew about the company.

Previously, Casada denied any participation in Phoenix Solutions to the Tennessee Lookout

Registry member Hank Fincher said this week he would like Registry to investigate Cattleya further, as well as Phoenix Solutions, though he was concerned about the board’s resources. 

The Registry is likely to interview Sydney Friedopfer again and her sister, Deborah, who were listed as the treasurer and chair of Phoenix Solutions. The board voted to subpoena Deborah at its last meeting.

According to Smith’s guilty plea, in December 2019, she emailed Cothren about a “potential future conversation” between Phoenix Solutions and a political party, likely the House Republican Caucus, dealing with a campaign mailing list each incumbent was to receive. In the email, she told him he “may have to assume the role of Matthew again.” Cothren responded, “Matthew, reporting for duty!” and included a .gif picture of a salute from Harrison Ford’s Star Wars character Han Solo.

Sydney Friedopfer testified in January that she was Cothren’s former girlfriend and agreed to set up the company, then let him run it. She claimed she knew little about the company otherwise and was told by Cothren to ignore the Registry if it contacted her.

Cothren’s attorney informed the board he would not accept its subpoena at the last meeting and that he would exercise his Fifth Amendment rights to avoid incriminating testimony.

The Registry board could turn the matter over to a local district attorney general to investigate and potentially bring criminal charges against those involved.

“If (Casada) lied to us,” Fincher said, he considers it a “serious matter.”

He noted federal prosecutors were confident enough with their information that they filed their charge against Smith and implicated Casada and Cothren in the process. 

Not only did Casada appear to “tell a big whopper,” Fincher said, he accused the Registry board of “bias.” Casada also told the board it should have called him instead of issuing a subpoena.

“The timing is poetic,” Fincher said of the charge and guilty plea of Smith.

According to Smith’s guilty plea, in December 2019, she emailed Cothren about a “potential future conversation” between Phoenix Solutions and a political party, likely the House Republican Caucus, dealing with a campaign mailing list each incumbent was to receive. In the email, she told him he “may have to assume the role of Matthew again.”

Cothren responded, “Matthew, reporting for duty!” and included a .gif picture of a salute from Harrison Ford’s Star Wars character Han Solo.

If (Casada) lied to us, it's a serious matter.

– Hank Fincher, Tennessee Registry of Election Finance

In January 2020, Smith emailed Cothren letting him know that “Matthew” should expect a call or email and started an email chain between herself, the acting chief of staff to the House speaker and the General Assembly’s director of legislation. In it she asked about the status of mailer program payments to Phoenix Solutions and any problems with processing them.

The acting chief of staff responded that he was “on it.” Smith replied, “Don’t crush her, but [the director of legislation has] been telling this vendor that the check’s on the way for about two weeks.” Smith then concocted a lie, saying, “It’s guys from [Consulting Firm 1] who did mail two years ago that left and started their own gig … tired of doing the DC/Trump stuff. Thanks.”

She then forwarded the email to Cothren and added the message, “Shhhhhhhh.”

Smith’s guilty plea notes that House Republicans would not have done business with Phoenix Solutions if they knew Cothren was involved. He was a key player in the sexist and racist texting scandal that proved to be the impetus for Casada’s resignation as House speaker after seven months.

 

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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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