Stockard on the Stump: House speaker avoids questions on Cothren claims

Former Casada chief of staff didn’t accuse Sexton of illegal activity

June 2, 2023 6:00 am
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, gets into a car outside Nashville’s federal courthouse on August 23 after being arraigned on federal charges.(Photo: John Partipilo)

House Speaker Cameron Sexton is declining to respond to assertions that Cade Cothren was a “confidante” and helped him in his 2019 speakership bid, claims the embattled former chief of staff made in a federal court filing.

Asked about Cothren’s proclamations this week, Sexton would only say, “that’s him.” In other words, that’s what he says.

“I’m not gonna talk about him. He’s facing an indictment count and federal prosecution. We’ve been very clear that we’ve helped from day one with the federal (investigation), the FBI, that’s been working with the Department of Justice.”

Sexton, who could be called as a government witness after testifying to a grand jury last year, points out the investigation is ongoing. He based that on a report in the Tennessee Journal about a recent court hearing in which Cothren’s attorney said it is still trying to obtain evidence dealing with the House speaker’s office policy on campaign vendors.

Pressed Wednesday on whether Cothren’s claims are untrue, Sexton basically repeated himself, saying, “I’m not gonna address any of that speculation. It has nothing to do with the case at all.”

Cade Cothren, indicted former chief of staff to former House Speaker Glen Casada -- also under indictment -- has asked a federal court to order records to confidential texts between he and Current House Speaker Cameron Sexton to be opened. (John Cole)
Cade Cothren, indicted former chief of staff to former House Speaker Glen Casada — also under indictment — has asked a federal court to order records to confidential texts between he and Current House Speaker Cameron Sexton to be opened. (John Cole)

Which begs the question: If it’s unrelated to the case, why not answer?

Cothren, who was ousted as chief of staff to former Speaker Glen Casada amid a racist and sexist texting scandal in 2019, filed a request in federal court last week to subpoena records from Verizon Communications and Confide Inc. an encrypted messaging service. He says the records will show numerous communications between him and Sexton during 2019 and 2020 when he claims to have been a confidante of the Crossville Republican and whipped votes from lawmakers who still trusted him despite his dismissal.

Sexton won the speaker’s race, while ultimately Cothren fell from grace.

Before that, however, Phoenix Solutions, an upstart New Mexico-based company Cothren is believed to have run, made nearly $52,000 on constituent mailer work for House Republicans and a total of $200,000 on other lawmakers and the House Republican Caucus.

Caucus leaders, including Rep. Johnny Garrett, a Goodlettsville attorney, said they didn’t know who was running Phoenix Solutions. Former Republican Rep. Robin Smith pleaded guilty last year to directing House business to Phoenix Solutions and taking kickbacks in the scheme while covering up the fact Cothren was running Phoenix Solutions.

Under this scenario, Smith knew more than the top four or five people in House Republican leadership. A lot of folks would say that kind of talk isn’t worth diddly-squat.

If they’re as fiscally prudent as they claim to be when talking about the state budget it’s hard to believe they would write a check for tens of thousands of dollars to a vendor without knowing who ran it.

Cothren’s salary as chief of staff for Casada hit the $200,000 mark before his dismissal, when he suddenly found himself without a source of income. It’s a hard habit to break.

What did they know and when did they know it? Former legislative staffer Cade Cothren, now under indictment with his former boss, disgraced former House Speaker Glen Casada, has been tied to several shady campaign vendors that earned money from the House Republican Caucus — yet the top few caucus leaders claim no knowledge of the scheme.

Thus, the creation of Phoenix Solutions, Dixieland Strategies and the Family Family Freedom Fund, all of which used the same Chattanooga postal code, 383, and identical mode of operation. They’re linked to Cothren through testimony, complaints and federal filings.

Since his indictment late last summer — along with Casada — on federal bribery and kickback charges, Cothren has been saying “the truth” will come out. His request for Verizon and Confide records appears to be the first dribble of that claim.

A spokesman for Sexton didn’t respond to Tennessee Lookout questions last week, but Sexton told a reporter with The Tennessean “any accusations suggesting that I had any part in this criminal behavior are categorically false.” 

Cothren, though, only says in the filing he was tight with Sexton, not that the speaker committed any crime. 

The Oct. 3 trial awaits to see whether Cothren will take Sexton all the way to the rack.

The beat goes on

The State Building Commission this week approved a contract extension for private prison operator CoreCivic, giving it an $8 million-a-year pay increase for the next two years at South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton.

Correction Commissioner Frank Strada told the commission the department will take bids on a new private deal to run the prison when CoreCivic’s five-year $212.9 million contract expires in two years.CoreCivic logo

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, a member of the Building Commission, wouldn’t say Wednesday that CoreCivic has the state “over a barrel,” but he noted it would not be an “easy transition” to shift the state’s four privately-run prisons to a state operation. Most of Tennessee’s prisons are run by the state.

Initially formed as Corrections Corporation of America in 1983, CCA morphed into CoreCivic in 2016 amid complaints about its policies as critics accused it of cutting corners to make more money, which led to inmate violence and poor health care. The feds broke ties with private prison operators that year.

The company got into business in Tennessee in 1984 at a Memphis juvenile facility, then started running Silverdale penal farm in Chattanooga. One of its founders was Thomas Beasley, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party at the time. A key investor was Jack C. Massey, namesake of Belmont University’s School of Business.

CoreCivic left Silverdale in 2020 amid questions about repairs and medical care for prisoners, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The Legislature passed the 1986 Private Prison Contracting Act  when Gov. Lamar Alexander was in office to allow the state to contract with private companies to see if it could save money and because the state was doing such a poor job with its own penitentiaries. I’m told an inmate riot sparked the move.

Long before that, though, the state leased inmates to private companies for labor, and in the early 1900s, inmates worked in state-owned coal mines, according to a Vanderbilt Law Review article. But when inmate leasing proved less lucrative than putting inmates to work in state coal mines, the governor urged prison leaders to start putting more inmates to work for the state in 1907, leading to the end of convict leasing.

Despite leaving Silverdale, CoreCivic remains a lightning rod for criticism at the four state prisons it runs, not just because of three deaths that led to lawsuits against the state, but because of poor operations practices. In the last three years alone, the Department of Correction levied more than $17 million in fines against the company, money that is simply deducted from its contracts.

Tennessee’s history of prisons and private industry: In the early 1900s, Tennessee leased inmates to private companies for labor. When that became less lucrative that having inmates work directly for the state, Gov. Malcolm Rice Patterson ended convict leasing in 1907, putting inmates to work for the state.

Six years ago, a report found the company was leaving security stations unmonitored, leading to problems mainly at Trousdale Turner in Hartsville.

Amid great grinding and gnashing of teeth, lawmakers refused to renew the department, but since then they’ve all kissed and made up, at least most of them. 

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, is one of the holdouts, saying this week, “Justice simply can’t be for sale.”

Another brick in the wall

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti joined an 18-state group Thursday suing the Biden Administration over a proposed “Circumvention of Lawful Pathways” rule, saying the federal government isn’t following law set by Congress and accusing it of rewriting immigration law through regulations.

Skrmetti has gotten involved in so many fights with the feds we’ve lost count.

The AG’s Office sent out a statement saying the feds characterized the rule as a way to regulate immigrations following expiration of the Centers for Disease Control’s Title 42 public health order, which gave authorities more leeway to stop illegal border crossings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In reality, however, the new rule just worsens the problem by redefining previously illegal border crossings as ‘lawful pathways,’” the statement says.

Fortunately, the state spent $2.25 million this year for Skrmetti to set up a 10-member “strategic litigation unit” to counter what he considers federal wrongdoing — as if the state doesn’t have enough of its own self-inflicted woes.

For your eyes only

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire told the Tennessee Lookout last week that several lawmakers have seen the writings of Covenant School shooter Audrey Hale, or at least portions of them, records now tied up in litigation over whether they should be released.

The Chattanooga Republican made the statement after Metro Nashville Legal Director Wally Dietz raised questions about why Gardenhire wanted to see the information and pointed out he could make a request with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to review it.

Asked Thursday whether TBI had shared the writings with any lawmakers, the agency responded by saying the Metro Nashville Police Department is heading up the investigation and that “the information is theirs to disclose at the appropriate time.”

It added that state law indicates “… such investigative records of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation shall be open to inspection by elected members of the general assembly if such inspection is directed by a duly adopted resolution of either house or of a standing or joint committee of either house …”

“Such a request in this matter has not occurred,” the statement says.

Gardenhire, who says he wants to see portions of the writings to help him form policy, declined to discuss the matter on the record Thursday.

But at least one other lawmaker has intimated to the Lookout that the writings would show mainly that the shooter was very “disturbed.”

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, is a party to suit asking for the Metro Nashville Police Department to open the writings of the Covenant School shooter, but the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation already has a policy that allows for members of the general assembly to inspect investigative records.

The question most people want answered is: Why are Metro Police officials continuing to withhold the information, saying the investigation is ongoing when the shooter is dead. This leads to conspiracy theories and assorted nut-jobbery.

For instance, Franklin Alderman Gabrielle Hanson said publicly she had a premonition about The Covenant School shooting and knew the cause within 30 minutes, a love triangle involving a person who worked at the school. The Franklin Ethics Committee declined to hold a hearing to consider 64 complaints against Hanson, because they didn’t rise to the level of an ethical violation.

If that’s the case, it also must be OK to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Consequently, complaints appear to continue rolling in.

“Got to keep the loonies on the path.”

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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.