Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: The Casada chronicles

August 26, 2022 2:00 pm
An unshaven former House Speaker Glen Casada leaving the Fred D. Thompson U.S. Courthouse in Nashville with attorney Jonathan Farmer on Tuesday. (Photo: John Partipilo)

An unshaven former House Speaker Glen Casada leaving the Fred D. Thompson U.S. Courthouse in Nashville with attorney Jonathan Farmer on Tuesday. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“I rode into (Nashville), was feelin’ about half-past dead / I just need a place where I can lay my head.”

The smoke alarm went off in our Vegas hotel about 1:45 a.m. Tuesday. False alarm, but we couldn’t go back to sleep and decided to get the heck out of Dodge.

By the time we landed at BNA, the text messages started flying. With little but airplane sleep, I was frazzled. 

But Glen Casada and Cade Cothren were in much worse shape, rousted from their homes, indicted and looking discombobulated, to say the least, when they exited Nashville’s federal courthouse Tuesday shortly before noon.

The duo looked as if they’d been dragged out of bed, FBI agents arresting them around 7 a.m. at their homes. Casada wore jeans, sneakers and a checkered shirt and Cothren sported a dark gray T-shirt with a Nashletics logo. Someone gave them sports jackets by the time they left court.

These days you can’t take a vacation because you never know when the FBI will drop another bomb. Everyone knows it’s coming, just not when.

Neither did former House Speaker Casada and his ex-chief of staff, Cothren, who now face 20 counts of bribery, theft from federal fund programs, kickbacks and conspiracy to commit money laundering and possibly 20 years in prison.

While Casada appeared contrite, Cothren continued to say “the truth will come out,” according to TV reports. He has told me in text messages that someday he will tell me the entire story. I’m still waiting.

Cade Cothren, ex-chief of staff to former House Speaker Glen Casada, ducks into a car Tuesday after being arraigned on a host of federal charges. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Cade Cothren, ex-chief of staff to former House Speaker Glen Casada, ducks into a car Tuesday after being arraigned on a host of federal charges. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Supporters of Casada and Cothren contend they were set up and that someone in a powerful position pulled the strings that led to their demise. They tried to sell that story earlier this year.

It all came down after revelations of Cothren’s racist and sexist text messages and Casada’s participation in them and his eventual resignation from the House speakership.

They’ve both had plenty of time, though, to make that story public and neither one took the opportunity to do it, maybe because it won’t stand up.

But the federal judge handling their charges gave them the opportunity to do a little soul-searching, allowing them to take Florida trips planned before the FBI came knocking. Trial is set for Oct. 25.

Typically, the feds make a big splash, as they did with a January 2021 raid at the Cordell Hull Building where they went through the offices of Casada, former Rep. Robin Smith and outgoing Rep. Kent Calfee, who is not under investigation. They were more interested in what his assistant (since fired), Nadine Korby, had on her computer. She’s the mother of Cothren’s girlfriend, Ava Korby, a co-defendant in the case according to Cothren’s conditions of release document. Cothren can continue to see her but cannot discuss the details of the case with her.

Smith pleaded guilty to fraud and taking kickbacks this winter, then started cooperating with the feds.

But instead of rocking the General Assembly again this year, they waited until mid-summer when lawmakers were home for the summer (and I was out of town or in mid-flight, oh well).

The reactions

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who stepped into the role after Casada resigned in 2019 after the shortest speakership in modern history, had this to say: “In Tennessee, we will not tolerate public corruption, defrauding our state, or bribery at any level. I commend the Federal Bureau of Investigation for its hard work, diligence and dedication that resulted in this morning’s arrests.

“As I have previously stated on several occasions, shortly after becoming speaker in 2019, I began assisting the federal authorities during and throughout their investigation – including leading up to today’s indictments, and I will continue to do so if a trial is needed. Together, our legislative body has stood strong over the past two years to take significant actions during this investigation by passing laws to strengthen campaign finance regulations and new ethics laws for elected officials and staff. Today is a good day for Tennesseans because we did not turn a blind eye on these criminal activities.”

The indictment deals mainly with about $52,000 in funds used for lawmakers’ constituent mailers. House members who were persuaded to use Cothren’s New Mexico-based Phoenix Solutions are still irritated that they were persuaded to use the company. Calfee famously said he got “hoo-dooed.”

Cothren had been bounced out of his chief of staff job for several bad decisions, and he needed a way to make money.

House Republican Whip Rep. Johnny Garrett, an attorney and smart guy, said he spoke with “Matthew Phoenix” at least two times about the work the campaign vendor was to do for the caucus. But he never met him in person. Neither, apparently, did anyone meet with “Phoenix.”

Casada and Smith steered lawmakers to Phoenix Solutions in return for kickbacks, according to federal documents.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth and House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison issued this statement: “The illegal behavior outlined in today’s indictments is extremely serious, and disappointing to our entire caucus. We appreciate Speaker Sexton’s leadership on this situation, as well as the efforts of our House leadership team in bringing these crimes to light. We also stand with federal law enforcement and are grateful for their efforts to hold those responsible for these crimes accountable. Now, we can all move forward and continue focusing on meeting the needs of citizens across Tennessee.”

House Minority Leader Karen Camper, a Memphis Democrat, said: “When something like this happens, it reflects poorly on the entire Legislature. We are elected to serve the public and when that trust is broken, it’s very disheartening and erodes the confidence that our constituents have in government. This does, however, highlight how badly campaign finance reform continues to be needed and that bipartisan legislation already passed needs to go much farther.”

Camper could have been harsher.

Meanwhile, Republican statements fail to mention that the House Republican Caucus paid tens of thousands of dollars to Phoenix Solutions for campaign work.

Their caucus whip, Rep. Johnny Garrett, an attorney and smart guy, said he spoke with “Matthew Phoenix” at least two times about the work the campaign vendor was to do for the caucus. But he never met him in person.

Statements by Republican leaders following Casada’s arrest failed to mention that the House Republican Caucus paid tens of thousands of dollars to the phony Phoenix Solutions.

A spokesman for Speaker Sexton declined to answer this week when asked if anyone in House Republican Caucus leadership knew Cothren was running Phoenix Solutions as they decided to spend a large sum with the vendor. 

Sometimes it makes you wonder whether they knew and were just playing a game to lull Casada, Cothren and Smith to sleep. After all, Sexton was cooperating with the FBI when Phoenix Solutions was formed.

Maybe some light will be shed on this at trial.

Where does this lead?

When Casada’s speakership was crumbling in 2019, he purportedly said on Twitter, if Gov. Bill Lee called a special session to remove him, “I will break Lee’s back.”

Since then, speculators have raised the notion that Casada was holding something over Lee’s head.

Much of this stems from part of a conversation Calfee says he overheard while standing on the House balcony the day of the infamous voucher vote in April 2019. In the midst of a tie, Casada was scrambling for one more ‘yes’ vote to pass the governor’s education savings account program, since approved by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Calfee has told the Tennessee Lookout more than once he heard Casada talking to Rep. John Mark Windle about getting him the rank of general in the National Guard. Windle, now a Livingston independent, recently retired as a colonel.

“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 previously told the Lookout.

No proof is available that Casada consulted Lee. But Calfee says he and the governor discussed the matter in a meeting Lee called in his office where the governor told him, “You know, you’re kind of talking bad about me.” Calfee, who has been interviewed by the FBI, says he responded, “I told the truth.”

Gov. Bill Lee at a Sept. 2 press conference. (Photo: John Partipilo)
What did he know, and when did he know it? Gov. Bill Lee photographed by John Partipilo.

The Kingston Republican related that he and Lee also discussed the efforts by former state Rep. Matthew Hill to steer $400,000 to a nonprofit organization in East Tennessee. The money came from a $4 million fund Casada put into the state budget that year.

After they talked about that, Calfee says, the governor got up and hugged him. Some have wondered if he was checking Calfee to see if he was wearing a wire.

Lee, though, has denied any knowledge of the meeting three times, twice saying, “I don’t know anything about that,” and another time saying, “I don’t know anything about this offer that you’re talking about. I don’t know anything about it,” and finally, asked if he thinks Calfee is fabricating the meeting, saying, “I don’t know anything about it.”

Calfee’s colleagues, however, say they hold more trust in him than the governor. And as late as last week, Calfee was sticking by his story, adding the governor was not being truthful when he said he didn’t know anything about the meeting. I softened his words on that one.

“My, oh, my, you sure know how to arrange things/ You set up so well, so carefully.”



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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.

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