Campaign finance probes of ex-speaker, ex-staffer head to DA

Mar 17, 2022, 1:03 PM | Updated: 3:00 pm

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee campaign finance regulators voted Thursday to pass prosecutors their investigations surrounding a former House speaker and his then-chief of staff, who have been implicated in an alleged political consulting kickback scheme.

Another former lawmaker recently pleaded guilty to carrying out the scheme with the former House speaker and his ex-aide.

The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance’s vote refers the probes about former House Speaker Glen Casada, his former chief of staff Cade Cothren and the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC to the Williamson County district attorney’s office, according to a recording of the proceedings.

The action comes the week after a federal wire fraud charge was unsealed against former Republican Rep. Robin Smith. She resigned and then pleaded guilty a day later, pledging her cooperation with authorities as the investigation unfolds.

Federal authorities say Smith, Casada and Cothren collaborated on a separate consulting firm, Phoenix Solutions, as a way to funnel money to themselves secretively and illegally through both campaign and taxpayer-funded work. Prosecutors have so far kept Casada and Cothren unnamed and haven’t charged them with anything, but they described the two in easily identifiable terms in court documents.

Some fellow GOP House lawmakers have said they feel betrayed after Smith talked them into using the vendor. Prosecutors said the three claimed the firm was run by a certain “Matthew Phoenix.” In fact, it was Cothren using an alias because they feared lawmakers and the House speaker’s office wouldn’t use the vendor if Cothren’s involvement came to light, prosecutors allege. Casada and Cothren had been pressured into resigning as speaker and chief of staff in 2019 over swirling scandals, including revelations they exchanged sexually explicit text messages about women years beforehand.

State campaign finance regulators, meanwhile, have also sought to get to the bottom of another shadowy entity, the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC.

Ahead of the 2020 GOP primary election, the PAC attacked then-Rep. Rick Tillis, the brother of North Carolina U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis. Rick Tillis lost to Republican Rep. Todd Warner, who was among those subject to FBI searches at the legislative building and other addresses in January 2021, alongside Casada, Cothren, Smith and others.

The registry decided to reopen its probe into the Faith Family Freedom Fund after the PAC’s treasurer testified in January that she is Cothren’s former girlfriend and opened the PAC because Cothren asked her to, saying Cothren assured her she was doing nothing wrong and that she took no further action, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Cothren has informed the registry that he is invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and won’t abide by a subpoena in an investigation surrounding a political action committee.

Casada, who was also subpoenaed, has told the registry he wasn’t involved with the Faith Family Freedom Fund.

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Campaign finance probes of ex-speaker, ex-staffer head to DA