Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, at right: Registry of Election Finance sends charges to Williamson County District Attorney. (Photo: John Partipilo)
It was a spring day in 2019 when Rep. Kent Calfee listened as former House Speaker Glen Casada discussed making state Rep. John Mark Windle a general in the National Guard, part of a last-ditch effort to garner enough votes to pass Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account bill.
Calfee, a Kingston Republican who is stepping away from the Legislature this year, told the Tennessee Lookout Thursday he was standing on the balcony outside the House chamber that April day three years ago when Casada was trying to break a tie vote on the voucher bill.
“What I heard was Glen Casada told John Mark – John Mark and I have been friends since 1990 – and I heard Casada say, ‘I can’t promote you, but the governor can. I’ll call the governor,’” Calfee said.
Windle holds the rank of colonel in the National Guard, and a position as general would have been a plum job. Windle, though, did not change his “no” vote.
Calfee continued, “Now, the governor and I have discussed that, because he also, he called me up to the office. He said, ‘You know, you’re kind of talking bad about me.’ I said I told the truth.”
Calfee said he then discussed some boasting by former East Tennessee Rep. Matthew Hill about his efforts to garner $400,000 for a nonprofit organization to help children. It turned out the money came from a $4 million fund the former House Speaker placed into the state budget that year.
What I heard was Glen Casada told John Mark -- John Mark and I have been friends since 1990 -- and I heard Casada say, 'I can't promote you, but the governor can. I'll call the governor.
– Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston
Critics called it a “slush fund” he used to dole out favors to his legislative entourage. Casada defended the budget line item that year, saying lawmakers approved it.
“(Hill) put in the newspaper up there that the governor was giving him $400,000 for a nonprofit. And I laid out what I knew. The governor got up and hugged me,” Calfee said.
Casada has denied offering Windle a promotion to general, saying he didn’t have the authority to give out military rank. Possibly the only person who could have done it would have been the governor.
Asked this week during a press conference if he offered a general’s position to Windle through Casada during the education savings account debate, Lee twice said, “I don’t know anything about that.”
Yet we know the governor, in his first year, lobbied lawmakers heavily during the ESA vote.
Meanwhile, Casada held the vote board open for nearly 45 minutes that day to work the chamber for a tie-breaker. Finally, Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, agreed to vote for the voucher bill with the understanding Knox County Schools would be dropped from the ESA program, which would allow public dollars to follow low-income students to private schools.
That left Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools as the only school districts where vouchers would be available. The governor’s ESA program was found unconstitutional in two lower courts and was argued recently for a second time in the Tennessee Supreme Court.
The FBI has been investigating allegations of quid pro quo in connection with the voucher vote ever since that fabled day. Some political insiders say the feds have been around the Capitol since the House investigated Rep. Jeremy Durham and voted to oust him.
Casada hasn’t been indicted for anything, but Rep. Robin Smith resigned her position and pleaded guilty recently to a wire fraud charge that implicated the former speaker. He was identified in the charge against Smith as a ‘former House Speaker’ who served from January 2019 until his resignation in August 2019. Likewise, Cade Cothren was targeted in the charge, which identified him as the former chief of staff who resigned amid revelations about illegal and questionable activity.
Smith’s guilty plea says she and Casada pressured House Republicans to direct campaign business to a new vendor called Phoenix Solutions, which Cothren secretly ran. In return, she and Casada received kickbacks.
Casada has denied having any connection to Phoenix Solutions.
But Calfee also previously told Tennessee Lookout the FBI asked him if he knew Cothren and Casada were owners of Phoenix Solutions when agents questioned him.
Federal agents searched Calfee’s office in their January 2021 raid of the Cordell Hull Building, in addition to the offices and homes of Smith, Casada and first-term Rep. Todd Warner of Chapel Hill. Agents went through the computer of Calfee’s administrative assistant, Nadine Korby, who was placed on leave and then fired last week along with Carol Simpson, the former assistant for Casada.
Korby’s daughter, Ava, is reportedly the person identified in Smith’s guilty plea as “Candice,” a girlfriend of Cothren’s who participated in a bogus conversation during the scheme to make money on the House constituent mailer program.
Smith’s guilty plea document says House Republicans wouldn’t have agreed to do business with Phoenix Solutions if they had known Cothren was involved.
Give to the DA
In a unanimous vote Thursday, the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance turned its investigation of former Speaker Casada, Cothren and the Faith Family Freedom Fund over to the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office for possible criminal prosecution.
The board is asking District Attorney General Kim Helper to take a closer look into whether Cothren and Casada participated in the political action committee that made independent expenditures in the race between Rep. Warner and Republican incumbent Rick Tillis in 2020. The Registry also will fund Helper’s investigation.
Tillis was a critic of Cothren and Casada as the speakership crumbled amid a sexist and racist texting scandal and complaints about heavy-handed management.
A former campaign worker for Tillis filed a complaint alleging the Faith Family and Freedom Fund illegally coordinated with Warner’s campaign through Dixieland Strategies out of Alabama. The unknown vendor, which has vanished, used the same postal code and mode of operation as the Faith Family Freedom Forum to criticize Tillis, who wound up losing to Warner.
Another former girlfriend of Cothren’s testified to the Registry board in January that he persuaded her to register the Faith Family Freedom Fund so he could run it without anyone finding out because of the embarrassing way he left the chief of staff post.
Casada denied any connections to the Faith Family and Freedom Fund when he was subpoenaed to come before the Registry in early March, similar to denials of any connection to Phoenix Solutions he made to Tennessee Lookout. He also chastised the board for issuing a subpoena instead of simply calling him, words that more than ruffled the feathers of Registry members.
Registry member Tom Lawless called for the Thursday vote to turn all matters over to the Williamson County DA concerning the Casada audit, testimony and other matters that have come before the board over the last year “based on comments and reports and the general inconsistencies between that and the information submitted to this committee.”
Lawless made it on the basis that the Registry is not an enforcement arm but the district attorney general of either Davidson County or Williamson County, where Casada resides and potential violations could have occurred, could work together and handle the case.
In short, the guilty plea and documents involving Smith shed new light.
Registry member Paz Haynes, an attorney with Spencer Fane (formerly Bone McAllester Norton in Nashville,) was absent Thursday, and taking part in the vote could have put him in a difficult position. The firm is believed to be representing Casada in his legal woes.
In reaction to this latest mess, legislation is percolating that would put new disclosure and reporting requirements on lawmakers and some new rules on the Registry.
“It’s a one-story town”
Every 15 years, give or take a couple, the Tennessee governor and/or Legislature get caught in legal snares.
In 1977, just one year into his only term, Gov. Ray Blanton got busted for letting inmates out of prison, either giving preferential treatment to political friends or taking cash for clemency. Someone even wrote a song called “Pardon me Ray.”
In 1991, the Rocky Top scandal rocked the Capitol as federal agents found out bingo parlor operators were running illicit gambling joints through legal charities. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who was a young senator at the time, famously wore a wire to help the FBI gather information.
The investigation netted about 50 convictions, and “Donnie” Walker, a lobbyist and former bingo regulator, pleaded guilty to offering McNally a $10,000 bribe. Secretary of State Gentry Crowell and Rep. Ted Ray Miller of Knoxville committed suicide when they were caught up in the scheme.
In 2005, the Tennessee Waltz came dancing as the feds set up a fake business called “e-cycle” and wound up arresting seven state lawmakers and two “bagmen” on bribery charges. Those included state Sens. John Ford and Roscoe Dixon of Memphis, Rep. Chris Newton of Bradley County, Sen. Kathryn Bowers and Sen. Ward Crutchfield.
Fast-forward to 2021 and the FBI makes yet another raid, leading to one guilty plea so far, with more indictments highly likely.
Hasta la vista, baby
Not that anyone should confuse Rep. Michael Curcio with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he is saying goodbye to the General Assembly after a decade.
The Dickson Republican and chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee announced Thursday he would not seek another term this year.
“Always quit when you want more.” That’s the advice Curcio said he father gave him to avoid burnout when he was playing high school football.
Whatever the case, Curcio appears to be dialing back his political career in favor of family.
Curcio is typically considered one of the adults in the room and isn’t afraid to challenge his colleagues. For instance, he set the record straight last year during a special session when Rep. John Ragan called for nullification of federal rules in response to President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates.
Ragan, an Oak Ridge Republican, told the chamber his move stemmed from a stand-off between South Carolina and President Andrew Jackson in 1832 when the state wanted to secede from the Union in opposition to federal tariffs.
Ragan said Jackson backed down. But Curcio corrected him, pointing out the president opted against invading South Carolina after the state withdrew a nullification resolution. Of course, South Carolina continued to rebel, and the Civil War erupted nearly 30 years later.
Curcio noted that James Pettigrew of South Carolina said, “‘South Carolina is too small for a republic but too large to be an insane asylum.’ I want to make sure that Tennessee doesn’t become an insane asylum.”
Books on the bullseye
The House Education Administration Committee sped the librarian demonization bill to the House floor for consideration this week.
The party-line vote controlled by Republicans came after one woman told lawmakers she was a “modest Christian” and then spewed forth words I’ve never heard in my life.
She didn’t give the book’s title but said it was found in school libraries and proceeded to give detailed descriptions about sticking things up the ying-yang.
Talk about the sphincter tightening, Jiminy friggin’ Cricket.
Supporters of the legislation brought by state Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, say it’s needed to set up a procedure for school boards to remove pornographic books from K-12 libraries. It also drops an exception for librarians and teachers to be punished if they allow obscene books to be available for children.
As stated previously, start checking those books now. But seriously, does anyone want to read about the wazoo.
The “three Gs”?
Legislation requiring Shelby County Schools to negotiate the sale of three schools to Germantown Municipal Schools is catching people’s attention.
The municipal school system has had its eye on the county’s schools for several years in an effort to expand its offerings.
But Shelby County doesn’t think the city system will treat children fairly, mainly those who live outside Germantown but are attending the schools within its city limits.
The situation has racial overtones in a county where race bubbles to the surface frequently. Remember, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis.
House Education Administration Chairman Mark White, R-East Memphis, and Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, are sponsoring the legislation. White contends Germantown officials have been negotiating the matter for years but with no budge from county leaders.
According to state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, though, one sticking point could be a federal court agreement reached by the two entities. He doesn’t believe state law will be able to override a federal court settlement.
Sounds like this could be another legislative act headed for litigation. Nothing new.
Competing abortion bills
Lt. Gov. McNally said Thursday he doesn’t support passage of a Texas-style anti-abortion bill that drew a considerable amount of attention this week.
McNally, R-Oak Ridge, says he’s concerned it could “complicate” the Legislature’s “heartbeat bill,” which would prohibit abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually around the sixth week of gestation. Gov. Lee signed the bill into law, but it was immediately struck down as unconstitutional and is making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The bill’s House sponsor this week admitted it could allow a rapist’s family to sue an abortion provider. Senate Republicans, while they oppose abortion by right, are concerned about such a provision.
It might fly through the House. But look for this one to have a hard time making its way through the upper chamber.
Call this a bipartisan paternity test.
Democratic Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis and Republican Sen. Jon Lundberg of Bristol are sponsoring legislation that would require a DNA test for men who sign birth certificates claiming to be the father in child support cases.
According to Parkinson, one of every three signatures on a birth certificate don’t belong to the biological father. This could go some distance toward making sure the DNA matches.
The state, though, is “throwing the kitchen sink” at the bill. Discussion in a subcommittee lasted more than an hour this week.
The state contends it could jeopardize $52 million in matching funds from the U.S. Health and Human Services if it makes these types of DNA tests compulsory in child support cases.
Parkinson says, in response, “The state is motivated by the profit they get from HHS because a lot of people sign the birth certificate blindly.”
He contends it is paternity fraud to sign a birth certificate if you’re not the father. But Parkinson cites one case in which a man thought he was a child’s father and helped take care of the baby for years.
When he found out he wasn’t the real dad, he stopped, broke up with the woman and went to court, where the magistrate told him someone would have to pay for the baby and it might as well be him. He was in arrears and lost everything.
The legislation squeaked through a subcommittee this week and goes next to the House Civil Justice Committee. The Senate was to hear it Thursday morning, but Lundberg sent it back to the Calendar and Rules Committee to be rescheduled.
Before this one’s said and done, someone might have to submit some specimens.
Who’s on first
State Rep. Bo Mitchell came darn close to moving a bill this week that would have undone the state’s education savings account program, which is still held up in court.
The Nashville Democrat appeared to have enough votes – which would have been a victory on any bill for a Democrat – but House Education Instruction Subcommittee Chairman Scott Cepicky declared that because the bill failed last year it would need seven votes to be reconsidered.
Ultimately, the panel voted 6-5 in favor of the bill, yet Cepicky determined it failed for a lack of majority. Come to find out he was counting House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who by the rules is allowed to cast a tie-breaking vote on any bill in committee.
Last week, Sexton showed up to vote in favor of a voucher bill, but it failed anyway.
This time, he didn’t show up but he was still counted. Though it’s seldom used, a House rule says a motion to reconsider committee action is determined by a majority of members “entitled” to vote. Apparently, the Speaker is always there.
One onlooker called it, “Ghost-runner on first.”
When I was a kid, I scored a million runs in kickball with ghost-runners on the bases. But then I grew up, well, just enough to deal with these chuckleheads.
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