NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) — Glen Casada, the disgraced former Tennessee House Speaker and his top aide, were arrested Tuesday on federal charges including bribery, kickbacks and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Their charges follow the abrupt dismissal in March of Republican Representative Robin Smith, who pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges involving Casada and his chief of staff, Cade Cothren. There has been speculation about what additional costs could come in the corruption investigation.
The 20-count document alleges that Casada and Cothren exploited their positions of power by teaming up with another unnamed lawmaker to funnel money into themselves using a political consultancy — known as Phoenix Solutions, LLC — that hid their involvement.
“It was also part of the conspiracy for Casada and the other conspirator to enrich themselves by getting bribes and kickbacks from Cothren in exchange for Phoenix Solutions’ approval as a mail client provider,” a Justice Department press release said. .
FBI agents arrested Casada and Cothren at their homes Tuesday morning. If convicted, they each face up to 20 years in prison.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who succeeded his fellow Republican to the leadership position, was among lawmakers and former or current staffers required to testify before a grand jury in March. Sexton praised the FBI on Tuesday and said he will continue to assist with the investigation if a trial is needed. Smith also promised to cooperate as a possible witness.
Disclosures about the case have also prompted lawmakers to enact stricter state campaign finance requirements and ethical standards this year.
“Today is a good day for the people of Tennessee because we have not condoned these criminal activities,” Sexton said.
Casada resigned as speaker in 2019, but held onto his seat after revelations that he and Cothren had exchanged sexually explicit text messages about women years earlier. He is not running for re-election this year. Cothren lost his job as a legislator in the texting scandal, but remained involved in Republican politics.
FBI agents searched the homes and offices of several state legislators, including Casada and Smith, and Cothren’s home in January 2021.
According to the documents unveiled Tuesday, Cothren launched Phoenix Solutions with Smith’s and Casada’s “knowledge and support” to provide postal and advisory services to lawmakers. All three claimed the company was run by a “Matthew Phoenix” when in fact it was a made-up alias for Cothren, and Casada knew the name was fictitious, the documents claim.
According to the documents, Smith at one point sent Cothren an email saying that he “may need to take on the role of Matthew again.” He answered and said, “Matthew, report for duty!” and contained a GIF of “a greeting from Harrison Ford’s character Han Solo in the Star Wars movie,” officials said.
Federal investigators said a separate text exchange revealed that Casada texted Cothren in late 2019 saying, “I think this is off to a great start, I’m happy!” Cothren later warned that “we just need to make sure no one knows I’m involved,” they said.
When Casada raised concerns about lawmakers wanting “representatives from Phoenix” to give a face-to-face presentation, Cothren replied that they would remind lawmakers “that they live in New Mexico. Will have to get on the phone and I could disguise my voice as I (sic) must.”
Phoenix Solutions received about $52,000 from the state in payments related to the mailer program, according to billing documents.
Meanwhile, Cothren continues to fight a subpoena over state campaign finance regulators’ investigation into the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC.
Ahead of the 2020 GOP primaries, the Political Action Committee targeted then-Rep. Rick Tillis, brother of U.S. Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Rick Tillis lost to Republican Rep. Todd Warner, who was among those searched by the FBI in January 2021.
The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance decided to reopen the investigation into the PAC after the treasurer testified in January that she is Cothren’s former girlfriend and opened the PAC because Cothren asked her to. She said Cothren assured her that she was not doing anything wrong and that she was not taking any further action.
Cothren has informed the Registrar that he is exercising his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and will not comply with the subpoena. The clerk’s office has transferred the case to the prosecutors. The state has filed a lawsuit over Cothren’s refusal.
Casada was also subpoenaed and told the clerk that he was not involved with the PAC. Casada chose Williamson County clerk this year instead of his seat in the state house, losing in the GOP primary.