Governor again denies any knowledge of National Guard offer for voucher vote

Calfee told FBI about hearing Casada discuss promotion for Windle and conversation with Lee

By: - March 21, 2022 4:51 pm
Gov. Bill Lee at General Motors' Spring Hill plant on Monday. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

Gov. Bill Lee at General Motors’ Spring Hill plant on Monday. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

For the second time, Gov. Bill Lee denied knowledge Monday of a National Guard promotion offer to Rep. John Mark Windle in return for a vote in favor of the Education Savings Account bill in 2019.

But Rep. Kent Calfee confirmed again Monday he had a conversation with the governor about hearing former House Speaker Glen Casada discuss the possibility of giving Windle the rank of general. Calfee also reiterated comments he made last week about a meeting he had at Lee’s office where the governor told him he felt what he said about Casada and an offer to Windle “reflected poorly on him.”

In addition, Calfee said Monday he told the FBI about what he heard Casada say, in addition to details about the meeting he had with the governor in his office.

Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Calfee, a Kingston Republican who is not seeking re-election this year, said the governor asked him to come to his office for a meeting after the voucher vote three years ago. While there, Calfee said he told him about former Rep. Matthew Hill’s announcement that he had been promised $400,000 for a nonprofit entity. Then he said he discussed with Lee what Casada said on the House chamber balcony in the midst of uproar over a tie vote on the governor’s education savings account bill, which was locked at 49-49.

“And when I explained why I said what I did, when I started to leave, he hugged me,” Calfee said again Monday.

The money for Hill’s favored project was to come from a $4 million fund Casada put in the budget that year. The governor later placed a hold on it when reporters started asking questions.

Told Monday that the governor denied any knowledge of their meeting in his office or the topic of their discussion, Calfee gave a disappointed shrug and said, “Well, I told you the truth.”

Earlier in the day after a ceremony at the General Motors plant in Spring Hill for the announcement of a major manufacturing deal surrounding the all-electric Cadillac Lyriq, Gov. Lee denied for the second time in less than a week any knowledge of a potential offer to Windle, a Livingston Democrat who is a colonel in the National Guard.

Despite Calfee’s comments to the Tennessee Lookout last week, Lee said, “I don’t know anything about this offer that you’re talking about. I don’t know anything about it.”

Asked if he thinks Calfee is fabricating the meeting, Lee said, “I don’t know anything about it.”

Calfee last week told the Tennessee Lookout he was on the balcony the day of the ESA vote when he heard Casada say to Windle, “I can’t promote you but the governor can, I’ll call the governor.”

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.”

That’s when Calfee said he laid out what he knew about the $400,000 for Hill’s project and Casada’s comments about trying to get Windle a promotion in the National Guard.

Windle didn’t change his vote against the governor’s legislation. But it barely passed when Republican state Rep. Jason Zachary of Knoxville agreed to switch to a yes vote with the understanding Knox County Schools would be removed as a voucher district.

The ESA law, which was found unconstitutional in two lower courts and is awaiting a ruling from the Tennessee Supreme Court, would provide low-income children in Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools with state funds to enroll in private schools.

Casada has denied offering Windle a promotion to general, saying he didn’t have the authority to give out military rank. 

Told Gov. Bill Lee denied having a meeting with him in 2019 to discuss a school voucher vote, Rep. Kent Calfee shrugged and said, “I told you the truth.”

The FBI has been investigating allegations of quid pro quo in connection with the voucher vote since that April 2019 vote. 

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 two weeks ago along with Carol Simpson, the former assistant for Casada.

The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance last week turned its investigation of 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.


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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 and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.