State asks court to find Cothren in contempt, order him to respond to subpoenas
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 Tennessee Registry of Election Finance is asking a Davidson County chancellor to find Cade Cothren in contempt of court and order him to comply with two subpoenas related to a shadowy political action committee.
Represented by the Attorney General’s Office, the Registry filed a motion this week in Chancery Court to shut down Cothren’s request to indefinitely delay the subpoena process. The state argues he didn’t give a good reason for refusing to testify before the Registry board or providing documents involving the Faith Family Freedom Fund Political Action Committee, which got involved in the 2020 election.
The state also argues that testimony should not be delayed for an extended period.
“If the Registry cannot pursue its investigation of the PAC until some speculative criminal investigation/matter is resolved, there is a ‘particularly harmful’ ‘risk of spoliation of evidence, memories, or witness availability,’” the filing states.
The case is scheduled to be heard in September by Chancellor-elect I’Ashea Myles, who will take over the caseload of Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle as she steps down from the bench Aug. 31.
The Registry board subpoenaed the ex-chief of staff for former House Speaker Glen Casada early this year after Sydney Friedopfer, an old girlfriend of Cothren’s, testified he asked her to form the political action committee so he could run it secretly. Cothren also told her she didn’t need to worry about responding to questions from the Registry.
The court filing was made in response to claims by Cothren’s attorney that he should not have to testify before the board after invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in a letter to the board. Cothren’s attorney claimed the subpoenas issued to Cothren “were made in bad faith and are an abuse of process.” That statement came after Registry board member Hank Fincher predicted Cothren would “go underground” and that if he didn’t show up the board would take action to have him arrested. Fincher, a Cookeville attorney and former House member, said people act differently when they’re wearing “orange,” referring to jail jumpsuits.
In a court filing, Cothren’s attorney also contended that he shouldn’t be compelled to testify in the civil matter at the same time the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office is investigating the matter.
The Registry board, however, argued that the request it made of Williamson County District Attorney Kim Helper did not name Cothren, instead asking the office to investigate connections of Casada to the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC. The political action committee spent money donated in the 2020 campaign by a North Carolina restaurateur, which the Registry has been unable to locate, to pay for campaign ads attacking former Republican Rep. Rick Tillis of Lewisburg.
Tillis, a political enemy of Casada’s, was defeated by Rep. Todd Warner in November 2020. Two months later, the FBI raided the offices and homes of Warner, R-Chapel Hill, Casada, Cothren, and former Rep. Robin Smith of Hixson. Smith pleaded guilty this year to taking kickbacks from Cothren, along with Casada, for steering House Republicans toward a campaign vendor he ran called Phoenix Solutions, which was set up in New Mexico, according to federal documents.
The state’s new filing contends courts don’t have an “absolute right” to postpone testimony while someone is facing “parallel” civil and criminal proceedings. It also points out Cothren has not been indicted and that no criminal proceedings are pending, nor is there any evidence of an ongoing criminal investigation.
The Registry points out Cothren attempted to assert his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination on Feb. 16, 2022 in a letter objecting to the subpoenas “before” the Registry a month before the board referred the Faith Family Freedom Fund case to the Williamson County DA in March.
In addition, the state contends expedited litigation is in the public’s best interests.
“The statutes the PAC may have violated – the campaign financial disclosure laws – were enacted specifically for the benefit of the public,” the filing says.
It notes campaign finance laws were adopted specifically to require political campaign committees to disclose where their donations came from and how they are spent. Enforcing those laws “timely and effectively” ensures the electoral process and government activity are “free from corruption,” the filing says.
The state also argues that Cothren should produce all documents related to the Faith Family Freedom Fund, even if they contain incriminating information. The filing points out turning over the documents is not a form of testimony.
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