Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Speaker firing two suspended employees linked to FBI investigation

Casada, Cothren, Smith connected

March 11, 2022 6:30 am
(Photo: John Partipilo)

(Photo: John Partipilo)

Two legislative staff members suspended since an FBI raid on the Cordell Hull Building in January 2021 are being fired, just days after Rep. Robin Smith resigned her post and pleaded guilty to wire fraud.

Speaker Cameron Sexton confirmed Thursday the two employees who’ve been on suspension with pay for 14 months will no longer be employed: Nadine Korby, who worked in Rep. Kent Calfee’s office, and Carol Simpson, who worked for former House Speaker Glen Casada.

The charging document against Smith, a Hixson Republican and former state party chair, identified two others – the House speaker from January 2019 through August 2019 and his former chief of staff, Casada and Cade Cothren – as conspirators in the scheme in which they made more than $200,000 on the House Republican Caucus and House members’ taxpayer-funded mailers.

Smith, a member of the House Republican Caucus campaign finance team, and Casada pressured the caucus and members to use Phoenix Solutions for political work, a New Mexico-based company created by Cothren – with their knowledge – to make money on House Republicans and give them kickbacks.

A break in the case came when the House Speaker’s Office told Smith that Phoenix Solutions needed to file a W-9 form in order to keep doing work because of a new policy in which third-party vendors would be required to work directly with the Speaker’s Office, a change in policy for constituent mail.

Cothren then provided an IRS W-9 form with the signature “Matthew Phoenix” stating that he was an American citizen, according to Smith’s plea filing.

Connie Ridley, director of Legislative Administration, said Thursday a W-9 has always been required for anyone doing business with the Legislature.

Asked Thursday if the feds requested him to do that, (potentially an effort to fish Cothren out by getting him to sign a federal document illegally and transmit it by wire), Sexton declined to answer because of the ongoing investigation and referred reporters to the charging document. 

“The facts of what they put in Robin Smith’s charging documents was that the policy was changed in June of 2020, and so we’ll stick with that, and as to the investigation, when it closes, then we’ll be able to answer those questions,” Sexton said.

The documents say that took place in January, but regardless of the month, Cothren bit.

Casada did not respond Thursday to a text message asking him if he is cooperating with federal prosecutors. Smith said in a statement after her guilty plea Tuesday she will be testifying for the federal government in the case.

Korby’s daughter, Ava, is said to be the person who identified herself as “Candice” in documents in which she and “Matthew Phoenix” corresponded about the company’s work, the Tennessee Journal reported.

Irate over betrayal

Sexton has been cooperating with the FBI since taking the Speaker’s post in mid-2019 after Casada’s shamed departure amid a racist and sexist texting scandal involving Cothren, as well as complaints about his management style.

It’s likely the entire House Republican leadership had a window into the scheme’s mechanics. 

Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison noted Thursday all vendors will be scrutinized heavily from now on and will have to be an established firm with a long track record. He acknowledged the caucus received a phone number for “Matthew Phoenix,” contacted him on the phone, obtained employment documents, yet still got fooled.

“When you have someone who can look at you and sit at a table with you and straight dog-face lie like that …,” Faison said.

Tennessee Republican House Majority Leader Jeremy Faison: "Dog-faced lied to" by Robin Smith and the proprietor of Phoenix Solutions.. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Tennessee Republican House Majority Leader Jeremy Faison: “Dog-faced lied to” by Robin Smith and the proprietor
of Phoenix Solutions.. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Yet, nobody in the caucus sat down with “Phoenix.” Caucus Whip Johnny Garrett spoke to a man on the phone and thought he was talking to “Matthew Phoenix.”

Instead, they trusted Smith, who vouched for Phoenix Solutions and pushed business his way, then profited from it.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth remains “bothered” by the whole deal.

“It makes me livid that we were lied to, that we were taken in and we paid a company that we thought was legitimate, that we required W-9s for and everything else and we were bold-face lied to on how that company … even the fact they existed was made up apparently, from what we’ve seen in this plea,” he said.

A Tillis sighting

Former Rep. Rick Tillis showed up Tuesday at Smith’s guilty plea hearing in federal court. He didn’t come to gloat exactly. Let’s just say he was in an upbeat mood.

Tillis, who hails from Lewisburg, lost the 2018 election to Republican Rep. Todd Warner, R-Chapel Hill, whose home and office were raided by the FBI, along with those of Casada and Smith.

Tillis was a political enemy of Casada and Cothren and was critical of their behavior on an anonymous Twitter feed before being forced out of his role as Republican Caucus whip in 2018. Tillis’ campaign treasurer accused Warner’s campaign of illegal coordination with a political action committee called the Faith Family Freedom Fund, which has also been investigated by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. So far, Warner has avoided penalties from the Registry board.

But the board wants to know more about the Faith Family Freedom Fund, which was run by Cothren using a $7,000 donation from a North Carolina restaurant owner who can’t be found, according to testimony. 

Out and about: Former Rep. Rick Tillis, the apparent target of Rep. Casada’s wrath, attended former-Rep. Robin Smith’s guilty plea in federal court Tuesday. He appeared upbeat.

A former girlfriend of Cothren’s, Sydney Friedopfer, told the Registry in January she formed the PAC at Cothren’s request, then let him run it. Cothren didn’t want his involvement in Faith Family Freedom Fund or Phoenix Solutions to get out because of the embarrassing way he left Casada’s administration in 2019. Those two entities shared the same postal code, 383, as Dixieland Strategies, yet another new company that did work for Warner.

More than likely, Tillis will be making more trips back to the federal courthouse as more indictments come out. Look for it to take place before the Legislature adjourns this year.

But don’t look for Tillis to run for a House seat again. He’s enjoying life.

What ammo sales?

The Senate confirmed Gov. Bill Lee’s appointment of Knoxville businessman Jordan Mollenhour to the Tennessee Board of Education Thursday morning.

The Republican-controlled vote came despite complaints that Mollenhour was sued after his company, LuckyGunner.com, sold more than 100 rounds of shotgun and handgun ammunition to Dimitros Pagourtzis, a 17-year-old who killed 10 people and wounded 13 more at a Santa Fe, New Mexico high school, without checking his ID. The company also had another case of lax sales.

Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Yarbro raised questions about Mollenhour’s appointment, noting he remains tied up in a lawsuit over the deadly shooting. Yarbro pointed out the state school board is in charge of the welfare and safety of some 1 million students.

The Tennessee Senate confirmed Gov. Bill Lee’s appointment to the Tennessee Board of Education, a man who sold ammunition to the shooter who killed 10 people in a 2018 New Mexico high school shooting.

“There are almost 7 million people in Tennessee. Surely to God we could find one person to serve on the state board of education,” Yarbro said, rather than someone caught up in a lawsuit over illegal ammo sales.

Republican leaders argued that Mollenhour is a respected businessman and that some of the litigation against him was dismissed with prejudice.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said the matter didn’t put a “black mark” on Mollenhour’s candidacy.

"There are almost 7 million people in Tennessee. Surely to God we could find one person to serve on the state board of education," said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, of Lee's Board of Education pick. (Photo: John Partipilo)
“There are almost 7 million people in Tennessee. Surely to God we could find one person to serve on the state board of education,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, of Lee’s Board of Education pick. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Still Public Enemy No. 1

Legislators on both sides of the aisle have been vouching for the sweetness and purity of their hometown school librarians over the last two weeks while others have been calling them perverts and pornographers.

Either way, the Republican-dominated Legislature appears ready to put a target on them, making them criminally liable for any obscene books and magazines that show up on their shelves. I suppose if a kid sneaks a Hustler into school and leaves it in the library, they’re gone.

Anyway, the House Criminal Justice Committee passed the bill on to the Education Administration Committee, so we’ll have to listen to this again next week. It contains an amendment requiring a challenged book to come off the shelf for 30 days before a school board could consider the matter. Under current rules, books under investigation remain in the library until the matter is decided.

Of course, it’s already illegal for obscene or pornographic books to be in school libraries. This bill by Rep. Scott Cepicky, though, would remove exceptions for librarians and teachers and hold them criminally liable.

Lawmakers kept tiptoeing around that point this week, even though it’s the crux of the legislation. They make it seem as if librarians are slipping pictures of “Debbie Does Dallas” into the pages of their books.

Rep. Bill Beck, a Nashville Democrat and attorney, contended the bill is constitutionally suspect because it automatically removes books for 30 days before a decision, a violation called “prior restraint.” 

Democrats also argue that instead of emphasizing book removal, the state needs to find a better method to keep questionable books out of libraries in the first place.

Republicans, in contrast, appear bound and determined to push this bill to passage, putting the blame on librarians and teachers for the ills of Tennessee. They’d better start scanning every page for dirty words because it’s gonna pass.

A display in New York's Strand Bookstore, Jan. 30. (Photo: Cindy West)
A display in New York’s Strand Bookstore, Jan. 30. (Photo: Cindy West)

Higher ed crackdown

As if it weren’t enough to quell any teaching in K-12 schools about race and America’s role in perpetuating slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow laws and segregation for 400 years, the Legislature is doing the same in universities.

Under House Bill 2670, which passed the House this week on a party-line vote, no “divisive concepts” can be taught on Tennessee campuses.

No race can be declared inherently inferior or superior to another, nor can the United States be called fundamentally racist or sexist and so on.

Some might consider this a violation of the First Amendment. But if you’re on salary at a state university, you’d better toe the line and quit blaming white folks for everyone else’s woes.

Rep. Ron Gant, a West Tennessee Republican who carried the bill in the House, argued that it “does not stifle free debate in the classroom.”

“So it’s not the legislative intent to rewrite history?” Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell responded.

Obviously, Gant responded in the negative.

But as one onlooker viewed it, soon we’ll be teaching that George Washington, the father of our nation, really did chop down that cherry tree. He needed it for new teeth, instead of borrowing his slaves’ teeth. 

And Nazism? We can only teach that thousands of Americans died in an attempt to crush Adolph Hitler, not that he was a bad man for exterminating hundreds of thousands of Jews and pulling the entire world into war. 

It’s going to be Joe Friday at the chalkboard: Only the facts ma’am. Whose facts will be another question?

Baby, you can drive my car

And while you’re at it, fill up the tank.

Democratic Reps. Mitchell and John Ray Clemmons of Nashville sent Gov. Bill Lee a letter Tuesday urging him to suspend Tennessee’s 27-plus-cent fuel taxes for 90 days to give people a break at the pump amid Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Since the invasion started two weeks ago, prices have jumped about a dollar per gallon to more than $4 in Tennessee, even though Russia supplies only 3% of America’s oil.

“While this may require a financial sacrifice temporarily on behalf of our state, we think this is a signal and a strong investment in democracy abroad,” Clemmons said in an impromptu press conference this week.

The moratorium would cost the state about $224 million in fuel tax revenues that would go back to motorists. It could be done by executive order, through the budget or a standalone bill.

By Wednesday morning, Gov. Lee said he had not discussed the proposal.

“We’ve certainly seen fuel taxes rise over the last year,” said Gov. Bill Lee. The last time the gas tax in Tennessee was raised was in 2017 when the IMPROVE Act passed.

Instead, when asked if he would consider it, he blamed higher gas prices on the policies of President Joe Biden, a popular tactic among Biden’s political foes. Lee missed the mark a little bit on his answer, however.

“We’ve certainly seen fuel taxes rise over the last year as well as prices of everything. There’s a number of reasons for that,” Lee said. 

(If anyone knows of fuel taxes going up in Tennessee over the last year, please let me know. Our legislators would like to know if they raised taxes.)

Lee added, “I’ve spoken publicly about our country’s decision to stop drilling, to shut down pipelines, to move from energy independence and that’s the result of it in this country,” he said. “We’ll look at any opportunity in our state to improve the impact of that on Tennesseans, that was proposed yesterday, I haven’t had any conversations about it.”

Lee takes the view that America should be energy independent. But according to my reading, shutting down the Keystone Pipeline development had little, if any, impact on prices. 

Oil prices, which are affected by market forces, import agreements with countries such as Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as supply lines and consumption, are hard to figure out.

But from a relatively elementary angle, gas prices go up immediately when a disaster happens, then take forever to come back down. Some people call it gouging.

Check your bags at the state line

Morgan Ortagus. (Photo: WinRed)
Morgan Ortagus, Republican candidate for Congress, may get bounced from the ballot. (Photo: WinRed)

As reported – almost ad nauseum – the Senate passed legislation setting a three-year Tennessee residency requirement for anyone seeking a congressional seat.

Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, says he brought the legislation to keep “carpetbaggers” or “Gucci baggers” from flying over Tennessee and landing to run for office. 

Questions were raised a week ago about whether Niceley’s bill would pass in the House as he wrote it. But Rep. Dave Wright, the House sponsor, said Thursday morning he plans to concur with the Senate bill, making it effective immediately. The filing deadline to run in the Republican primary is in April.

That means former President Donald Trump’s pick, Morgan Ortagus, could be out of the race. So far, she has said she’s not concerned about legislative action, only trying to pursue Trump’s agenda. 

But even if Ortagus winds up getting bumped, the number of candidates running for the newly-drawn 5th Congressional District seat, which takes in only a third of Davidson County, is reaching well into double-digits, too many to name here.

Niceley makes no secret about being a supporter of former Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell. But as he said Thursday morning, “We’ll still have plenty to choose from.”

 

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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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