Legislators heading upstairs in the Capitol. (Photo: John Partipilo)
In July 1989, I was lying on the sofa of my brother’s Knoxville apartment one night. It was the summer I’d quit work to go back to school and finish the degree I abandoned to work on political campaigns a few years back.
The TV was turned on, the volume low, while I read. And then, a news anchor broke into regular programming with an announcement: Knoxville Democratic Rep. Ted Ray Miller had been found dead at his house from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Miller’s suicide came one day before he was expected to be indicted by a grand jury on bribery charges but the suicide stunned Tennessee’s political world.
And Miller wasn’t the only official to commit suicide. Less than six months later, Secretary of State Gentry Crowell shot himself and died eight days later.
The recent history of Tennessee political scandals may provide lessons for the present.
Former Gov. Ray Blanton, a West Tennessee Democrat, got bounced from office early for giving paroles to prisoners who had bribed members of his administration. In 1979, his successor, Lamar Alexander, was allowed to assume office a few days prior to Tennessee’s official inauguration date to halt Blanton’s actions.
Blanton served time in a federal penitentiary and Democratic lawmakers apparently learned little from him.
Crowell had been outspoken during the period in which Blanton was freely issuing pardons. As Blanton signed off on the parole of a political supporter, he reportedly said: “This takes guts.” Crowell responded: “Some people have more guts than brains.”
But Crowell and Miller got caught in Operation Rocky Top, an FBI investigation into legislative bribery that began in 1986 and culminated in 25 indictments, with several leading legislators being convicted and imprisoned—including Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tommy Burnett— and the two suicides.
In 2005, another crop of lawmakers were caught in another FBI investigation, this one called Operation Tennessee Waltz.
Several longtime Democratic senators, Ward Crutchfield and John Ford, were convicted of taking bribes, Ford for a whopping $800,000. Crutchfield got two years of house arrest and Ford spent more than four years in prison. Another veteran Democrat, Sen. Roscoe Dixon, got a five-year sentence. All three had served through both the Blanton and Rocky Top scandals but apparently absorbed no lessons.
This is more than just a history lesson, though; it’s a lesson for an unfolding scandal, as yet nameless.
Last week, Robin Smith, a Chattanooga area Republican representative, pleaded guilty to federal charges of wire fraud, resigned from the legislature, and announced she is cooperating fully with an FBI investigation.
FBI documents charging Smith made veiled—very thinly veiled—references to former House Speaker Glen Casada. “Individual 1 served as Speaker of the House from in or around January 2019 until in or around August 2019.”
In short, Casada and his former chief of staff Cade Cothren—Individual 2 in the FBI documents—allegedly colluded with Smith to set up a fake consulting firm called Phoenix Solutions. The trio then arranged for the Republican House Caucus and its members to use the vendor for direct mail during the 2020 campaign cycle.
Phoenix may not have been Casada’s first effort at creating a fake firm. The Lookout’s Sam Stockard reported Casada spent money with the Cattleya Group, set up in 2018 at the same address Phoenix Solutions had.
There’s a lot to unpack in the current scheme and much we don’t know yet. Republican insiders, including professional vendors and former GOP staffers, point to the difficulty most vendors have getting approved to do caucus work and the number of hoops to be jumped through—yet the caucus signed off on Phoenix without ever meeting someone affiliated with the company.
No one who spent money with Phoenix or signed checks seems to have much memory of who they dealt with. One GOP lawmaker, Rep. Bruce Griffey of Paris, spent $6,000 with the Cattleya Group—the largest single sum of money he spent in the 2020 campaign cycle—but got nothing in return for the money, wasn’t refunded and wouldn’t identify his Cattleya contact when pressed.
Whatever one may think of Casada, he’s never been called stupid. He’s a savvy, if Machiavellian, politician who worked his way from county commissioner to the third most powerful person in Tennessee politics. But he, Smith and Cothren all felt comfortable sending discoverable emails to each other with incriminating details about fake names and the fake firm.
There are a couple of commonalities with earlier legislative scandals: Power and hubris.
After holding a legislative majority for a century, Democrats became emboldened by power. They thought they could take what they wanted, do what they wanted and they’d never fall. They were wrong, of course. Societal and political changes played a part in the Republican takeover of Tennessee but Democratic graft and lack of regard for laws played right into the collective hand of the GOP.
Smith won’t be sentenced until October and it remains to be seen if any GOP lawmakers get indicted or what other names surface as the investigation proceeds but we are seeing a similar pattern. From partisan gerrymandering to violation of campaign finance laws to the Phoenix scheme that could entrap several officials, Republicans are heading down a similar path as earlier Democrats, in only fraction of the time.
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