Stockard on the Stump: Embattled Warner weary of getting hammered

March 10, 2023 6:01 am
Rep. Todd Warner, R-Lewisburg (Photo: John Partipilo)

Rep. Todd Warner, R-Lewisburg (Photo: John Partipilo)

State Rep. Todd Warner hadn’t even been sworn into office when federal agents raided his home and office. More than two years later, he hasn’t been charged with any crimes, but he’s still feeling the pain, some of which could stem from guilt by association.

“It’s terrible that I keep getting attacked by members of leadership,” the Lewisburg Republican says. “It seems like since day one or before I got down here, it’s something new all the time.”

He didn’t cite many specifics.

But Warner’s latest headlines came in the Tennessee Journal, which detailed a lunch at Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse where the state representative was dining with Cade Cothren, the former House chief of staff now under indictment on federal fraud charges, and his girlfriend, Ava Korby.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison stopped by their table to say hello but then wound up getting into a bit of a disagreement with Cothren and Korby, whose mother was fired as administrative assistant to now-former state Rep. Kent Calfee, whose office was also searched by the feds.

According to a statement released by Cothren’s attorney, Korby told Faison he trusted her mother enough to let her babysit his children but did nothing to keep her from getting fired.

An evening at a Nashville steakhouse devolved into confrontations between onetime Republican allies, indicted former staff members and f-bombs dropped in the dining room.

Faison then prevented House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who axed Korby’s mother, from running headlong into Cothren as he entered the restaurant. But House Majority Leader William Lamberth, who was there too, couldn’t avoid being cussed by Cothren after they had a nice exchange. 

Apparently, Cothren feels House leadership turned on him at some point in 2019, possibly after Sexton won the speaker’s race.

Cothren’s attorney’s statement criticized the Tennessee Journal’s report but wound up confirming much of what was written and ended with a strange kicker in which Cothren did, in fact, say he told Lamberth to “Go f— himself.”

Typically, someone would say, “Go f— yourself.” But when you’re writing the statement for your attorney, it gets a little confusing.

Cothren has been saying for more than a year the “truth” will come out, and now he says lawmakers are going to squirm when he tells all. 

The trial is set in October for Cothren and former House Speaker Glen Casada, who face federal fraud charges for allegedly running a kickback scheme along with former state Rep. Robin Smith to enable Phoenix Solutions to handle taxpayer-funded House constituent mailers for several Republican lawmakers. According to the indictment, Cothren was paying Casada and Smith to bring him business after Casada fired him in 2019 in the midst of a sexist and racist texting scandal.

It appears Cothren is maddest at Sexton, who wound up elevating to the speaker’s post, while Cothren is now awaiting trial.

But while the indictment outlines how Smith and Cothren took great pains – well sort of – to conceal his identity as “Matthew Phoenix,” the vendor did tens of thousands worth of work for the House Republican Caucus, too. Leaders claim they didn’t know Phoenix was really Cothren. It’s unclear how many people buy that story. 

Cade Cothren,ex-chief of staff to former House Speaker Glen Casada, leaving Nashville's federal courthouse on August 23 after being arraigned on federal charges.(Holly McCall)
Cade Cothren, ex-chief of staff to former House Speaker Glen Casada, leaving Nashville’s federal courthouse on August 23 after being arraigned on federal charges.(Holly McCall)

Warner, meanwhile, could be collateral damage in the midst of multiple investigations. A contractor who ran into economic hard times at one point, he defeated incumbent Rep. Rick Tillis of Lewisburg in 2020 with a new vendor called Dixieland Strategies, which used the same Chattanooga bulk mailing code as Phoenix Solutions and the Faith Family Freedom Fund, both of which have been linked to Cothren.

Since then, Warner has stuck with Dixieland Strategies, hiring the vendor again for his 2022 campaign.

Asked if he thinks his use of Dixieland brought unflattering attention, Warner says, “It may have for some, but I don’t think it really has. This man’s still innocent until proven guilty. He’s done me a fantastic job. The little work he’s done for me, I’ll put it up against anybody’s. It’s good work.”

Faison, who claims he simply stopped to say hello to Warner at the restaurant then tried to de-escalate things, says he wants to know exactly how leadership is attacking Warner. He says he hasn’t spoken to Warner since last spring when he found out the representative was still using Dixieland Strategies and asked him if he thought it was a good idea.

Despite those concerns, Warner and Cothren, who is tied up in a lawsuit for back pay against the operators of his mother’s burger joints, have become friends. Warner doesn’t want to say too much about his or Cothren’s case, noting only that, “we all are still innocent in this country until proven guilty.”

Warner, who contends he hasn’t done anything wrong, could have been wrapped into the federal investigation because he used Dixieland Strategies, or Tillis could have gotten his brother, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis to pull some strings.

Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, said his visit to Rep. Todd Warner's table was the first time the two have spoken in almost a year, despite serving in the legislature together. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, said his visit to Rep. Todd Warner’s table was the first time the two have spoken in almost a year, despite serving in the legislature together. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A campaign worker for Tillis asked the Registry of Election Finance to investigate whether Warner’s campaign illegally coordinated with the Faith Family Freedom Fund. The registry initially found Warner did nothing wrong but then turned over the whole case to the Williamson County District Attorney General’s Office.

As for the whole ordeal, Warner says, “My dad told me at a very young age it wasn’t very smart to throw rocks from a glass house.”

And about that incident at Jeff Ruby’s, Warner notes he tried to avoid escalation. (Have you noticed how everyone wanted to stay low-key but failed miserably?)

“I just feel like it’s another attack on me,” Warner says.

Keep your hands off my primary

State Rep. Kelly Keisling said in committee this week it’s already illegal in Tennessee for people of one party to vote in the other party’s primary, but he still sought to pass a bill that would block voters from crossing over to vote on Election Day.

Under the measure, county election commissions would be allowed to identify voters as a Democrat or Republican and stop them from voting in the other party’s primary. 

Keisling, a Byrdstown Republican, contended his bill “helps the voter avoid the threat of punishment” while enabling candidates to identify voters. It supposedly would have allowed independent voters to continue voting as they choose.

Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden backed Keisling’s argument, saying he knew a situation in which a Williamson County Democrat voted in the Republican primary so he could “choose his opponent.”

I don’t want the public to be misled that it’s only Democrats cheating.

– Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, noting Republicans have been known to cross over and vote in Democratic primaries.

State Rep. Johnny Shaw scoffed at such a notion, questioning how one vote could swing an election. Shaw, a Bolivar Democrat, also pointed out he’s seen Republicans cross over and vote in the Democratic primary to sway the outcome.

“I don’t want the public to be misled that it’s only Democrats cheating,” Shaw said.

Ultimately, the bill failed on a voice vote in which House Local Government Chairman John Crawford made the call, siding with the no votes. It sounded as if an aye voter shouted into his mic. But Crawford would have none of it, and the bill died for the year.

Democratic Rep. Harold Love of Nashville had pointed out that a Republican voter in his district might not have any choice during a primary to vote for anyone but a Democrat. Otherwise, the person would be disenfranchised.

Hallway chatter focused on the possibility that a Nashville voter doesn’t have many chances to elect a Republican. The same could be said for a Democratic voter in the doughnut counties. 

But as former House Speaker Glen Casada once said, he wanted Republicans to hold every seat in the House. Casada might be gone, but the goal appears to be the same, which most people realize can backfire like a ’57 Chevy.

Shooting down gun bills

A spate of gun bills is dwindling in a game of Whac-A-Mole on Capitol Hill. 

State Sen. Joey “Mr. Monotone” Hensley lost two fights this week in the Senate Judiciary Committee, one in which his legislation would have redefined carrying a gun with intent to go armed and another that would have allowed people to carry guns and knives on school property.

Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, witnessed his "drunks with guns in parks" bill go down in flames. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, witnessed his “drunks with guns in parks” bill get shot down. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Another bill by Sen. Frank Niceley and Rep. Chris Todd to lower the gun-carry age to 18 and to allow people to carry rifles around downtown Nashville and into the Cordell Hull Building was postponed until next year.

But while those bills were defeated and dealt an early fate with Moms Demand Action lobbying against them, another big one continues to live.

Senate Bill 1503 sponsored by Sen. John Stevens and House Bill 1005 by Rep. Rusty Grills appears to be the vehicle this year for dropping the gun-carry age to 18 from 21. It was postponed until Monday at 1 p.m., but they’ve got 90 bills on the calendar. So don’t sue me if they don’t get to it. They will soon enough.

Bailing out Kelsey

State Sen. Paul Rose is the latest person to write U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw to request leniency for former Sen. Brian Kelsey in advance of his March 28 sentencing.

Kelsey was convicted of directing a scheme to illegally shift money from his state campaign fund through a PAC to the American Conservative Union, which bought radio/digital ads for his failed 2016 congressional run. 

Rose, a Covington Republican, says in his letter that Kelsey encouraged him to run for office and that Kelsey showed compassion when he experienced illness and death in his family.

The problem is that Kelsey hasn’t exactly shown contrition throughout his legal fight. Instead, he took to the Senate floor to blame President Biden and throw everything at the feet of former friend, ex-Rep. Jeremy Durham, who was present at The Standard when Kelsey gave its proprietor, Josh Smith, a fat check that wound up going to pay for the ads. Kelsey was set to go to trial and didn’t cop a plea until Smith pleaded guilty in the proceedings late last year.

While Kelsey and Rose might have developed a close relationship over the last few years, the fact is Kelsey, an attorney, tried to deflect all blame from himself in this case, knowing full well he was violating federal law when he initiated this scheme – and all for naught.

Pay with strings attached

Gov. Bill Lee promised in his State of the State address to bring starting teacher pay up to $50,000 by the time he leaves office. It’s a laudable goal.

But the bill designed to bolster those salaries also contains language prohibiting automatic payroll deduction for dues to professional organizations. It’s considered a method for taking another poke at the Tennessee Education Association, but it also affects members of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a relatively new kid on the block.

House Education Administration Committee Chairman Mark White points out it’s similar to bills the Legislature sees every year.

“No rhyme or reason, but that’s also on there,” says White, an East Memphis Republican. 

The governor’s people testified that the governor wanted that sticking point on the bill, which raises the question: If he loves teachers so much and wants to increase their pay, why does he continue to throw hurdles in their way. Some might call it petty.

A bill backed by Gov. Bill Lee that would boost teacher pay also prohibits automatic payroll deductions for teacher’s unions or organizations.

Kicking Piercey around

It’s been a tough year for just about anyone trying to win confirmation to serve on a university board of trustees. And the timing couldn’t have been worse for former Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey.

While others such as former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey won an endorsement from the House and Senate Education committees this week to serve on the East Tennessee State University board, Piercey couldn’t escape the scorn of the House Education Administration Committee, which refused to recommend her for ETSU board.

Dr. Lisa Piercey, former Health Commissioner, failed to be confirmed to the board of East Tennessee State University in likely retribution for urging Tennesseans to get COVID-19 vaccinations.

Piercey declined to speculate about the reasons after the vote. But more than likely, it’s because she urged people to get vaccinations during the COVID-19 pandemic while working for Lee. Piercey was forced to walk a tightrope in 2020 as the state struggled to bring the virus under control, and she got no help from lawmakers who forced the firing of Michelle Fiscuss, who headed up vaccination efforts, after she sent a letter to drugstores explaining the state’s mature minor doctrine under which teens could receive shots without their parents’ permission.

You’d have thought she injected heroin straight into kids’ arms, and she wound up being the scapegoat for the Lee administration, which urged people to get vaccinated but without mandates.

It’s unclear what COVID-19 vaccinations have to do with serving on the ETSU board. But obviously, the university doesn’t need a doctor with state government experience overseeing college policies. Who knows, she might also support diversity and equity, which are curse words among this collection of intellectual giants.

To be a third-grader again

That was back when riding bikes, climbing trees and playing ball in the backyard meant everything. Reading and drawing found a way in there too, and of course, my favorite book was the Bob Cousy Story. (Does anyone remember Cousy of the Celtics?)

But nobody worried about scoring high enough on standardized tests to move on to the fourth grade. Most kids who were held back repeated the first grade. It must be noted, this was in the dark ages, long before the Internet, Instagram and Twitter. Heck, we didn’t even have computer games at home.Sally Dick and Jane book cover, with text saying "I get to go to third grade again!"

These days, they tell us only 33% of third-graders in Tennessee are reading at their grade level, and under current rules, they’ll have to repeat if they perform poorly on the state test and don’t take tutoring and summer school – as if those are revolutionary concepts.

A lot of folks don’t like it, and they’re trying to come up with a way to quit hammering those kids over the head and threatening to hold thousands back. 

According to House Education Administration Chairman White, language is in the works to let students move on to fourth grade if they test in the 50th percentile or above, allowing them an automatic waiver.

Whether that works, who knows? But it’s enough to keep educators scurrying around acting as if they’re solving the world’s problems.

Reading isn’t rocket science. If parents and schools would put books – maybe even banned books – in the hands of kids and just let them sit and read for a while, they’d have time to go outside and play without worrying about whether they’re going to escape third grade.

Blocking marriages

Predictably, the House voted along party lines Monday to allow people who solemnize marriages to refuse to marry people if they object to the union based on religious or whatever type of beliefs they want to use to block those folks from kissing legally.

The argument might go that if the good old First Baptist preacher refuses, they could go find another minister. After all, we don’t want to damage anyone’s sensibilities. But what if someone goes to the justice of the peace or the mayor and asks them to conduct the marriage, and they get turned down? Or what if the county clerk refuses to issue a marriage license because they don’t agree with the relationship. 

Nevermind the fact we have millions of marriages between heterosexual people of the same race that wind up in divorce. Also, forget about the fact that we all came out of Africa a jillion years ago.

Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari points out her father is from Iran and her mother is a Black American and that she has a close family member who is LGBTQ. 

“Is this 2023 or 1953?” she asks, wondering why anyone would move to Tennessee if they’re going to “endure threats.”

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, is concerned that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade could lead to a reversal of rulings on same-sex marriages and interracial marriages.

In the wake of the high court’s decision last summer, “there were lots of people who said people are being alarmist. But you look at what passed in the House, and it puts those exact fundamental rights into play and into dispute, rights that, in the case of interracial marriage, haven’t been disputed in 60 years.”

The state is creating a “dangerous place” for that right, and he hopes the Senate will reject it. The bill could be considered Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Will we require blood tests next to make sure everyone is pure-bred?

Men without hats

Cover for the 1982 hit by Men Without Hats, "The Safety Dance."
Cover for the 1982 hit by Men Without Hats, “The Safety Dance.”

Each week, Senate Judiciary Chairman Todd Gardenhire starts his meeting reminding people that he’s old-fashioned (as if we didn’t know), thus men can’t wear hats inside but women can, no signs can be held and no facial expressions allowed. He also mentioned something about prohibiting monkeyshines this week, which is mischief for the uninitiated.

That’s why they call him “Dr. No.” 

The first time the Chattanooga Republican made these declarations, fortunately I had stepped outside the room, or the sergeant at arms would have had to kick me out for laughing.

One message for Gardenhire: “We can dance if we want to.”

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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.