Speaker Firing Two Suspended Employees Linked To FBI Investigation

Casada, Cothren, Smith Connected

Image Credit: John Partipilo & capitol.tn.gov

By Sam Stockard [Tennessee Lookout -CC BY-NC-ND 4.0] –

Two legislative staff members suspended since an FBI raid on the Cordell Hull Building in January 2021 are being fired, just days after Rep. Robin Smith resigned her post and pleaded guilty to wire fraud.

Speaker Cameron Sexton confirmed Thursday the two employees who’ve been on suspension with pay for 14 months will no longer be employed: Nadine Korby, who worked in Rep. Kent Calfee’s office, and Carol Simpson, who worked for former House Speaker Glen Casada.

The charging document against Smith, a Hixson Republican and former state party chair, identified two others – the House speaker from January 2019 through August 2019 and his former chief of staff, Casada and Cade Cothren – as conspirators in the scheme in which they made more than $200,000 on the House Republican Caucus and House members’ taxpayer-funded mailers.

Smith, a member of the House Republican Caucus campaign finance team, and Casada pressured the caucus and members to use Phoenix Solutions for political work, a New Mexico-based company created by Cothren – with their knowledge – to make money on House Republicans and give them kickbacks.

A break in the case came when the House Speaker’s Office told Smith that Phoenix Solutions needed to file a W-9 form in order to keep doing work because of a new policy in which third-party vendors would be required to work directly with the Speaker’s Office, a change in policy for constituent mail.

Cothren then provided an IRS W-9 form with the signature “Matthew Phoenix” stating that he was an American citizen, according to Smith’s plea filing.

Connie Ridley, director of Legislative Administration, said Thursday a W-9 has always been required for anyone doing business with the Legislature.

Asked Thursday if the feds requested him to do that, (potentially an effort to fish Cothren out by getting him to sign a federal document illegally and transmit it by wire), Sexton declined to answer because of the ongoing investigation and referred reporters to the charging document. 

“The facts of what they put in Robin Smith’s charging documents was that the policy was changed in June of 2020, and so we’ll stick with that, and as to the investigation, when it closes, then we’ll be able to answer those questions,” Sexton said.

The documents say that took place in January, but regardless of the month, Cothren bit.

Casada did not respond Thursday to a text message asking him if he is cooperating with federal prosecutors. Smith said in a statement after her guilty plea Tuesday she will be testifying for the federal government in the case.

Korby’s daughter, Ava, is said to be the person who identified herself as “Candice” in documents in which she and “Matthew Phoenix” corresponded about the company’s work, the Tennessee Journal reported.

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Irate over betrayal

Sexton has been cooperating with the FBI since taking the Speaker’s post in mid-2019 after Casada’s shamed departure amid a racist and sexist texting scandal involving Cothren, as well as complaints about his management style.

It’s likely the entire House Republican leadership had a window into the scheme’s mechanics. 

Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison noted Thursday all vendors will be scrutinized heavily from now on and will have to be an established firm with a long track record. He acknowledged the caucus received a phone number for “Matthew Phoenix,” contacted him on the phone, obtained employment documents, yet still got fooled.

“When you have someone who can look at you and sit at a table with you and straight dog-face lie like that …,” Faison said.

Yet, nobody in the caucus sat down with “Phoenix.” Caucus Whip Johnny Garrett spoke to a man on the phone and thought he was talking to “Matthew Phoenix.”

Instead, they trusted Smith, who vouched for Phoenix Solutions and pushed business his way, then profited from it.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth remains “bothered” by the whole deal.

“It makes me livid that we were lied to, that we were taken in and we paid a company that we thought was legitimate, that we required W-9s for and everything else and we were bold-face lied to on how that company … even the fact they existed was made up apparently, from what we’ve seen in this plea,” he said.


A Tillis sighting

Former Rep. Rick Tillis showed up Tuesday at Smith’s guilty plea hearing in federal court. He didn’t come to gloat exactly. Let’s just say he was in an upbeat mood.

Tillis, who hails from Lewisburg (Marshall County, TN) lost the 2020 GOP Primary to Republican Rep. Todd Warner from Chapel Hill (Marshall County, TN) whose home and office were raided by the FBI, along with those of Casada and Smith.

Tillis was a political enemy of Casada and Cothren and was critical of their behavior on an anonymous Twitter feed before being forced out of his role as Republican Caucus whip in 2018. Tillis’ campaign treasurer accused Warner’s campaign of illegal coordination with a political action committee called the Faith Family Freedom Fund, which has also been investigated by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. So far, Warner has avoided penalties from the Registry board.

But the board wants to know more about the Faith Family Freedom Fund, which was run by Cothren using a $7,000 donation from a North Carolina restaurant owner who can’t be found, according to testimony. 

A former girlfriend of Cothren’s, Sydney Friedopfer, told the Registry in January she formed the PAC at Cothren’s request, then let him run it. Cothren didn’t want his involvement in Faith Family Freedom Fund or Phoenix Solutions to get out because of the embarrassing way he left Casada’s administration in 2019. Those two entities shared the same postal code, 383, as Dixieland Strategies, yet another new company that did work for Warner.

More than likely, Tillis will be making more trips back to the federal courthouse as more indictments come out. Look for it to take place before the Legislature adjourns this year.

But don’t look for Tillis to run for a House seat again. He’s enjoying life.

About the Author: 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. Follow Stockard on Twitter @StockardSam

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