Cade Cothren claims he helped Cameron Sexton win TN speaker’s race before indictment

Cothren says numerous communications between him and Sexton show he was a confidante of the speaker in 2019 and 2020

By: - May 26, 2023 9:33 am
Cade Cothren, former chief of staff to ex-House Speaker Glen Casada, leaving the federal courthouse in Nashville following his arraignment on conspiracy charges. (John Partipilo)

Cade Cothren, former chief of staff to ex-House Speaker Glen Casada, leaving the federal courthouse in Nashville following his arraignment on conspiracy charges. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A former House speaker’s chief of staff — under federal indictment on bribery and kickback charges — claims he helped Cameron Sexton win the speakership in 2019 before being paid tens of thousands of dollars through a shadowy campaign vendor.

Cade Cothren, who left his post early that year amid a racist and sexist texting scandal, filed a request in federal court late Thursday seeking to subpoena records from Verizon Communications and Confide Inc., an encrypted message service, to show numerous communications between him and Sexton during 2019 and 2020 when he says he was a confidante of the Crossville Republican and worked on his speakership campaign before being ditched.

Phoenix Solutions, the New Mexico-based company Cothren allegedly ran, was paid nearly $52,000 to do constituent mailer work for House Republicans and made more than $200,000 off members, including the caucus itself.

Sexton replaced Glen Casada as speaker after he resigned amid the scandal involving Cothren and complaints about heavy-handed leadership.

Cothren has maintained “the truth” will come out but has declined to be interviewed by the Tennessee Lookout.

Former House Speaker Glen Casada and aide indicted on bribery, kickback charges

A spokesman for Speaker Sexton did not respond to questions Thursday evening.

Cothren lawyers say their client “remained heavily engaged” with Sexton following his resignation

Rep. Robin Smith of Hixson resigned in 2022 after being indicted in connection with the alleged kickback and bribery scheme and is cooperating with federal prosecutors. According to the indictment, she and Casada steered House Republican work to Cothren in return for payments and went out of their way to cover up his identity.

Casada linked to Phoenix Solutions ownership

Cothren’s filing, as he faces an Oct. 3 trial with Casada, says prosecutors’ argument is based on Sexton’s contention that he wouldn’t have approved Phoenix Solutions or Cothren as a vendor because he resigned “under a cloud of suspicion in 2019” and wouldn’t have thought the vendor was “reputable” enough to do work for House members.

“While Speaker Sexton may insist now, publicly, that he would not have approved Mr. Cothren as a vendor, and that Mr. Cothren was somehow aware of Speaker Sexton’s subjective opinion on the matter, the Verizon records and Confide messaging records – in addition to the text messages Mr. Cothren already has in his possession – will establish otherwise,” the filing says.

State Rep. Johnny Garrett has said he spoke with “Matthew Phoenix,” the person purportedly running the vendor, while vetting it for caucus work but didn’t know it was Cothren. He and other Republican leaders have said they never met Phoenix face to face.

The court filing contends Cothren “remained heavily engaged” with Sexton during the 2019 speaker’s race and was one of his “most consistent confidantes” and that the telephone and messaging records should show hundreds of calls and messages between them during that time and afterward.

Cothren: Sexton tried to help get a job

In addition, Cothren says the records he’s requesting will prove Sexton was reaching out to state officials and employees as well as third parties to secure a job for Cothren as a lobbyist or state staffer.

The filing claims the communications are “integral” to Cothren’s defense because the prosecution’s case relies “heavily” on the assertion that Cothren’s “reputation was so tarnished” that Sexton “adamantly opposed” working with him.

Cothren says Verizon and Confide are the “only comprehensive sources” for the information dealing with his and Sexton’s communications. State employees use their personal cell phones because the state doesn’t provide them. 

The subpoena request covers Feb. 1, 2019 through Jan. 31, 2020, and the filing notes Verizon and Confide do not voluntarily turn over third-party records on request.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton and House Majority William Lamberth confer on April 6 during the expulsion hearing of Rep. Justin Pearson. (Photo: John Partipilo)
House Speaker Cameron Sexton and House Majority William Lamberth confer on April 6 during the expulsion hearing of Rep. Justin Pearson. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sexton is a potential government witness but also a “crucial” defense witness, according to the filing. He testified before a grand jury last year in the case before Cothren and Casada were indicted.

The filing also claims the records of Sexton’s conversations with Cothren and efforts to find him a job will “significantly undercut the government’s theory that Mr. Cothren was persona non grata” to Sexton, his staff and the Legislature.

Besides Phoenix Solutions, Cothren also is believed to have run Dixieland Strategies, an Alabama-based campaign vendor, and the Faith Family Freedom Fund, a political action committee. They used the same Chattanooga postal code – 383 – as Phoenix Solutions and were run through an out-of-state PostNet box.

Dixieland Strategies continued to do work after the indictment for state Rep. Todd Warner, R-Chapel Hill, who has defended the vendor, saying Dixieland did a “great job” for him.

Cothren, Casada, Smith and Warner were raided by the FBI in January 2021, along with former state Rep. Kent Calfee, although he was not a target of the probe.

The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance subpoenaed Cothren to testify about the Faith Family Freedom Fund after a former girlfriend of his told the Registry board that he had her form the PAC so could run it secretly. Cothren refused to talk, invoking his Fifth Amendment rights to not incriminate himself.

The PAC used a donation from a North Carolina restaurant owner – unable to be found by the Registry – for its seed money to pay for attack ads against former Republican Rep. Rick Tillis.

A campaign worker for Tillis filed a complaint with the Registry alleging illegal coordination between Warner’s campaign and the PAC after he lost the 2020 race to Warner. The Registry board initially declined to take action against Warner but ultimately turned the matter over to the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office in 2022.

The relationship between Cothren and House Republican leadership is broken, as evidenced by an incident at Jeff Ruby’s steak restaurant in downtown Nashville this year when he cussed at Majority Leader William Lamberth.

Cade Cothren motion for Cameron Sexton’s communications by Anita Wadhwani on Scribd

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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.