Amid local and federal investigations into shady lawmakers and campaign vendors, State Rep. Sam Whitson plans to introduce legislation that could tighten disclosure requirements and do more, an effort to curb criminal activity .
Timing is a factor, however, if he wants to put it to a vote this year.
Whitson, R-Franklin, says he hopes to bring “more transparency” to the Legislature and “clean up some of the shenanigans” through new reporting and transparency rules.
Among several new measures in the bill, Whitson is preparing two amendments, one to change the makeup of the election finance registry and the other to change reporting requirements on campaign receipts.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton recently said he supports the measure Whitson wants to unveil this week. But the wording of the bill is still being negotiated with the Senate, where the measure must be passed by Sen. Ferrell Haile, a Gallatin Republican and interim president.
“Lieutenant. Governor (Randy) McNally has been working with Speaker Sexton and Rep. Whitson on the subject of ethics reform for the past year. While fully supportive of the spirit of what Rep. Whitson is trying to do, the details are still being worked out and there is no final product at this time,” the spokesperson said. McNally, Adam Kleinheider.
Whitson, a retired army colonel, will introduce legislation that could tighten campaign disclosure requirements, although Sen. Bo Watson said he doubted whether “laws against dishonesty” would be possible.
The other question is whether lawmakers have the guts to drastically change ethics rules just before they go home at the end of the legislative session and start fundraising for re-election. The Legislative Assembly still has to deal with the governor’s K-12 funding formula overhaul, which is just beginning to be heard in committees, with only four to five weeks before lawmakers hope to adjourn.
Whitson’s motivation stems from the corruption swirling around the Legislative Assembly, largely the resignation and guilty plea to wire fraud by Republican Representative Robin Smith of Hixson.
She quit the Legislature two weeks ago, the day before pleading guilty to a scheme in which she admitted pressuring House Republicans to hire a bogus campaign salesman who then told her gave bribes. Smith is expected to testify for federal prosecutors in the case.
Implicated in the case are former House Speaker Glen Casada and his ex-chief of staff, Cade Cothren, who are described in federal documents as the Speaker of the House who served from January 2019 to August 2019 when he resigned and his former chief of staff, who resigned amid questions about illegal and unethical activities.
Lt. Governor McNally recently said the Senate could wait to see if anyone else is charged in the FBI investigation because more grand jury testimony is likely. That could determine whether the Senate wants to take action against mystery sellers that pop up or are owned by lawmakers, he noted.
Senator Bo Watson, however, cast doubt on whether lawmakers could “legislate against dishonesty.”
“You can have all the reporting systems you want, and if they’re dishonest about it, there’s nothing you can do before the facts,” Watson, R-Hixson, said. “Despite all its flaws, the system did what it had to do.”
According to Smith’s guilty plea document, Cothren formed a New Mexico-based company called Phoenix Solutions that earned more than $200,000 from the House Republican Caucus and the House Republicans taxpayer-funded mail program.
The filing says Smith and Casada, who also received kickbacks, withheld the identity of the person running Phoenix Solutions to ensure Cothren would get the business.
House Republican leaders admitted they never had a meeting with Matthew Phoenix, the man who ran the company but would be Cothren, according to documents.
Sexton said he has been cooperating with federal authorities since being elected Speaker of the House in 2019 after Casada resigned. Sexton also said that federal authorities recently opened a “public corruption” investigation more than a year ago.
However, federal agents have reportedly been investigating possible bribes in the Legislature since the April 2019 vote on Governor Bill Lee’s college savings account program, or even years earlier when the representative Jeremy Durham was kicked out.
The questions have been more frequent since January 2021, when FBI agents raided the Cordell Hull building and searched the offices and homes of Casada, Smith and first-term Rep. Todd Warner, a Republican from Chapel Hill. Officers also searched Rep. Kent Calfee’s office and searched the computer of his assistant, Nadine Korby, who was recently fired along with Casada’s former assistant, Carol Simpson. Calfee is not the target of the investigation.
Korby’s daughter, Ava, is believed to be a girlfriend of Cothren who impersonated “Candice” in a bogus email exchange dealing with Phoenix Solutions, according to federal documents.
Another former girlfriend of Cothren’s testified in January to the Election Finances Register that he persuaded her to organize a political action committee called the Faith Family Freedom Forum, which funneled money from a landlord North Carolina restaurant company – nowhere to be found – to an independent expense against former Republican Rep. Rick Tillis in the 2020 election. Warner, who ended up defeating Tillis, also used a mysterious new supplier from Alabama called Dixieland Strategies to do his campaign work.
Phoenix Solutions, Faith Family Freedom Fund and Dixieland Strategies all used a similar modus operandi and the same Hamilton County zip code, 383.
A campaign worker for Tillis filed a complaint with the Election Finances Registry, claiming that the Faith Family Freedom Fund had illegally coordinated Warner’s campaign.
The Registry took no action on the matter initially, but resumed reviewing the PAC and recently asked the Attorney General’s office to take legal action to compel Cothren to testify after he was subpoenaed and refused to appear, saying he would invoke his Fifth Amendment rights against incrimination.
Last week, the court sent the Casada-Cothren case to the Williamson County prosecutor’s office for a criminal investigation.
Governor Lee recently said he believes the Legislature is “committed to integrity,” which is why the FBI investigation resulted in a conviction. “You find out where there’s a breakdown, and you fix that.”
Still, Calfee told the Tennessee Lookout twice that the governor called him into a meeting in his office where they talked about Calfee overhearing Casada discuss a National Guard promotion for Democratic Rep. John Mark Windle in exchange. of his vote on Lee’s voucher bill in April 2019. Calfee said he heard Casada say he could not offer Windle the rank of general but would call the governor.
Casada denied making the offer, and Lee repeatedly said he knew nothing of such an offer to Windle or meeting the Kingston Republican. Calfee said he wasn’t making up Casada’s conversation or meeting Lee.