Cothren challenges subpoena order by state registry

By: - August 16, 2022 7:03 am
Cade Cothren, speaking on phone, attends a meeting with lawmakers and fellow staffers on the balcony ouside the House chamber on April 29, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Erik Schelzig, Tenenssee Journal)

Cade Cothren, speaking on phone, attends a meeting with lawmakers and fellow staffers on the balcony ouside the House chamber on April 29, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Erik Schelzig, Tenenssee Journal)

The former chief of staff for ex-House Speaker Glen Casada is continuing to fight a subpoena to testify before the Registry of Election Finance about a political action committee he ran secretly to attack political adversaries.

Cynthia Sherwood, the Nashville attorney for Cade Cothren, claims the court should not hold him in contempt for invoking his right against self-incrimination in response to subpoenas, according to a court filing.

In advance of a September hearing before Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle, Sherwood is arguing that overlapping cases against the former House speaker’s chief of staff should circumvent the state subpoena.

“In spite of the ongoing criminal referral and investigation regarding the exact same matters, the Registry continues to seek enforcement of the subpoenas. Because of the complete overlap between the subjects of the two proceedings, the proceedings in this court should be stayed,” the filing states.

The Registry board referred the Cothren subpoena case to the Attorney General’s Office to force him to testify and also sent matters regarding Cothren, former House Speaker Glen Casada and the Faith Family Freedom Fund Political Action Committee to the Williamson County District Attorney’s office for potential prosecution.

The registry board subpoenaed Cothren Jan. 20, 2022 in connection with its investigation into the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC, which was accused of illegal coordination with the campaign of state Rep. Todd Warner in his race against incumbent Republican Rep. Rick Tillis, a political foe of Casada. Warner, whose home and office were raided by FBI agents the same day they hit Casada, Cothren and now-former Rep. Robin Smith in January 2021, defeated Tillis in the 2020 Republican primary. 

An attorney for Cade Cothren, former chief of staff to ex-House Speaker Glen Casada, is arguing Cothren should not be held in contempt of court for refusing a subpoena to testify about his role in a secret political action committee.

The registry’s decision to subpoena Cothren, Casada and several other people came after a former girlfriend of Cothren’s testified that she formed the political action committee at his request so he could run it secretly. She said Cothren, whom she thought she loved at the time, also told her to ignore calls from the registry.

The court filing acknowledges the Registry’s authority to refer cases for criminal prosecution but says “the authority to subpoena Mr. Cothren should yield to Mr. Cothren’s constitutional right against compelled testimony.”

Cothren’s lawyer points out the Registry board voted to refer Cothren for criminal prosecution to the Williamson County district attorney general as part of its investigation into Casada, Cothren and the political action committee.

“We are not a law enforcement group. We have done our part here, we have gathered the information,” Registry Chairwoman Paige Burcham-Dennis is quoted as saying in the filing.

The filing contends courts have the discretion to hold up civil matters in deference to parallel criminal proceedings. It also argues that under case law, civil action against a person can be averted to prevent evidence from being produced that could be used in a related criminal proceeding.

In addition, the filing claims the “core issues” in the civil action taken by the registry are identical to the criminal court investigation.

“Although no criminal charges have been levied against Mr. Cothren, and likely none will be, the Registry’s actions in ‘gathering information’ regarding the (Faith Family Freedom Fund) and turning it over for criminal prosecution show that any criminal investigation as a result of the Registry’s suspicions about Mr. Cothren would necessarily involve the same operative facts and issues identical to the ones currently before the court,” the filing states.

Further, the filing contends that the Registry’s request for Cothren to provide any and all documents related to the Faith Family Freedom Funds is a “fishing expedition” that has been condemned by the courts in other cases.

The Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC is believed to be connected to Phoenix Solutions and Dixieland Strategies, two new campaign vendors that played a role in the 2020 elections.

Former Rep. Smith pleaded guilty to fraud charges this year after admitting to taking kickbacks, along with Casada, from Cothren after they pushed House Republican lawmakers and the House Republican Caucus to use Phoenix Solutions for campaign work and taxpayer-funded mailers to constituents. Smith and Casada had to keep Cothren’s connection to Phoenix Solutions under wraps because of the role he played in Casada’s 2019 resignation.

Casada stepped down under pressure after he was caught up in a series of racist and sexist text messages initiated by Cothren, as well as complaints about heavy-handed management in the House.

Alabama-based Dixieland Strategies, which used the same bulk mailing postal code as New Mexico-based Phoenix Solutions and Faith Family Freedom Fund, continued to do campaign work for Warner this year. The Chapel Hill Republican, who recently won his primary election, said the company did “a great job” for him. 

The Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC used seed money from a North Carolina restaurant owner named Brandon Crawford to pay for mailers that affected the Warner-Tillis campaign. The Registry board’s staff was unable to find the restaurateur during its part of the 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 from the Tennessee Press Association.