By KIMBERLEE KRUESI and JONATHAN MATTISE – Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – A Republican lawmaker in Tennessee resigned Monday shortly after court documents were unsealed revealing she faces a federal wire fraud charge involving a disgraced former state House speaker .
Representative Robin Smith’s legal team also reached a plea deal with prosecutors, according to court documents. A plea hearing for Hixson’s lawmaker is scheduled for Tuesday.
The charging document alleges that Smith worked closely with former House Speaker Glen Casada and his then-chief of staff, Cade Cothren, through a political consulting firm they used to funnel money to each other while concealing their involvement. Casada and Cothren are described but not named in the document.
Smith “conceived and intended to devise a scheme and artifice to defraud and deprive the citizens of the Middle District of Tennessee and the government of Tennessee of their right to the honest services of a public official,” prosecutors said.
Casada resigned from his leadership role in 2019 after revelations that he exchanged sexually explicit text messages about women with Cothren years ago. In January 2021, FBI agents searched homes and offices of several state legislators, including those of Casada, Smith, and Cothren’s home. At the time, federal investigators declined to give a reason for the searches. To date, no charges against Cothren or Casada have been announced.
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However, the revelation of the documents on Monday seems to give more insight into the raid. The documents say Cothren started a political consulting firm called Phoenix Solutions, LLC that was set up to offer mail and consulting services to lawmakers in 2019 with the “knowledge and backing” of Smith and Casada. All three claimed the company was run by “Matthew Phoenix” when in fact, it was Cothren who was using a made-up alias, according to the documents.
Authorities say Phoenix Solutions was originally set up to provide mailing and political counseling services to lawmakers facing opponents in the primary election. His work later expanded to sending taxpayer-funded direct mail to voters, from which Phoenix Solutions, a separate company owned by Smith, and another company owned by Casada received nearly $52,000 combined in 2020. , according to the documents.
Smith, Cothren, and Casada hid Cothren’s involvement in Phoenix Solutions “due to the expectation that Phoenix Solutions would not be endorsed by the Tennessee House Speaker’s Office, acting on behalf of the state, or hired as a supplier by individual members if (Cothren’s) involvement was disclosed.” Furthermore, they concealed that Cothren had “returned” some of the profits to Smith and Casada, allegedly because lawmakers would not use not Phoenix Solutions as a supplier if they knew of Cothren’s involvement, prosecutors claim.
Neither Cothren, Casada nor an attorney for Smith immediately responded to AP requests for comment on Monday.
In a letter on Monday, Smith told House lawmakers she had “resigned with the deepest humility and out of respect for the role of public service.”
In 2020, Cothren’s girlfriend and Cothren exchanged emails as “Candice” and “Matthew” to make it seem like Phoenix Solutions employees had to secure an outstanding payment that the state didn’t have paid, authorities said. This exchange was forwarded to Smith. The girlfriend has not been identified.
According to prosecutors, Smith told several Republican lawmakers in 2020 that “Matthew Phoenix and his associate, Candice, got tired of living in the Washington, D.C. area and decided to return home to New Mexico, where Phoenix has launched Phoenix Solutions”.
At one point, the documents allege Smith emailed Cothren saying he “may have to take on the role of Matthew again.” He responded by saying, “Matthew, report to work! and included a GIF of “a salute from Harrison Ford’s character Han Solo in the Star Wars movie,” officials said.
Officials also say Smith provided false information about Matthew Phoenix to current House Speaker Cameron Sexton and other legislative staff when they demanded payments from Phoenix.
When Smith forwarded those messages to Cothren, she wrote, “Shhhhhhhhhh,” according to court records.
Sexton said in an emailed statement that Monday was a “sad day,” adding that he “will continue to cooperate fully with federal authorities as the investigation continues.”
“Over a year ago, federal authorities opened an investigation into public corruption. Today’s news and Rep. Smith’s ultimate resignation is a sad day for all who know her,” said Sexton, who took over the position when Casada stepped down in 2019.
Still, Sexton added that it was “clear from the charging documents that some people used their official capacity to target members of the General Assembly and the Republican Caucus using a bogus business to siphon off money illegally. and deceptively”.
Smith, 58, was elected to the House of Representatives in 2018. She previously served as chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party and political adviser to Republican U.S. Representative Mark Green.
Casada in November announced that he would not run again this yearand would instead run for Williamson County Clerk.
Cothren, meanwhile, told state campaign finance regulators that he was invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and would not comply with a subpoena in an investigation surrounding a committee of political action.
Regulators decided to reopen the investigation into the Faith Family Freedom Fund after the PAC treasurer testified in January that she was Cothren’s former girlfriend and opened the PAC because Cothren asked her to, claiming that Cothren had assured her that she was doing nothing wrong and was going no further. measure, according to the Chattanooga Times free press.
The PAC attacked the then representative. Rick Tillis, brother of US Senator from North Carolina Thom Tillis. Rick Tillis lost his 2020 GOP primary election to Rep. Todd Warner, who was one of the lawmakers investigated by the FBI.
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