Speaker Sexton Sidesteps “Cyberstalking” Investigation Question

Photo: Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton. Photo Credit: John Partipilo

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

A federal “cyberstalking” investigation into three people critical of House Speaker Cameron Sexton could make it appear the state’s third in command had something to do with the confiscation of their cell phones.

Sexton says not so fast.

Asked Thursday if he requested federal agents to start an investigation into former legislative staffer Cade Cothren, Brian Manookian and Republican activist Larry Grimes, Sexton said, “I appreciate you thinking I have that much power, Sam.”

Based on that answer – which isn’t exactly a denial but probably the best we can get in a filibustered press conference – the feds obviously took it upon themselves to raid the trio and seize their phones last week. The incident led Cothren, former chief of staff of ex-Speaker Glen Casada, to try to quash the search warrants of his phone in federal court. Judge Eli Richardson this week opted to let U.S. attorneys go ahead and search Cothren’s phones so federal prosecutors can see if the phones have evidence.

Cothren and Casada are set to go to trial later this year on a corruption case involving kickbacks from Cothren’s secret vendor, Phoenix Solutions, which allegedly did thousands of dollars worth of work on Republicans’ constituent mailers. Casada and former Rep. Robin Smith, who pleaded guilty in the case and is cooperating with the feds, allegedly directed business to Phoenix Solutions, keeping Cothren’s name hush-hush because he left the Legislature under a cloud in 2019.

Judge Eli Richardson refused Thursday to dismiss the charges and set the trial for Nov. 5. (At this rate, I’ll be retired – or worse – by the time they go to trial.)

Online criticism of Sexton by Manookian and Grimes apparently led to this latest twist in the case.

In social media chatter, they accused the House speaker of living in Nashville instead of his district and having an inappropriate relationship. They also noted his daughter attends a private school in Nashville.

Sexton defended himself last year, saying his official residence remains in Crossville although he has a home in Nashville because of the amount of time he has to spend here to handle the state’s business.

The progressive news outlet, Popular Information, published articles last year showing Sexton’s wife bought a $600,000 Nashville home about the same time they moved to a condo in Crossville. She used a trust shielding their identity to buy the Nashville home.

State Rep. Justin J. Pearson, who has been a bit of a thorn in Sexton’s side since winning election, being expelled and then gaining re-election again last year, said Thursday he’s not sure whether the House speaker asked the FBI to get involved.

“But,” he said, “I realize and I do understand there are a whole lot more issues here that need to be investigated because the way this institution is operating is not only outside just the morality you would expect from legislators but the legality of how we should function.”

And another thing

Pearson contends the expense of several hundred dollars to move an intern allegedly harassed last year by former state Rep. Scotty Campbell should be investigated for a coverup too.

“Where did that money come from?” the Memphis Democrat said, noting he believes Sexton had ultimate approval.

Campbell filed a public records lawsuit this week against Legislative Administration Director Connie Ridley, seeking documents he claims would exonerate him in the case. The former East Tennessee lawmaker claims Ridley refused to let him defend himself against the claims of the intern who filed a workplace discrimination and harassment complaint against him.

Campbell also says in the filing House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison told him to leave the Legislature on the final day of the regular 2023 session or he would be expelled that same day. Thus, just two hours after telling the Tennessee Lookout he would not vacate, he did exactly that.

House Majority Leader Jeremy Faison: lawsuit against him is “meritless.” (Photo: John Partipilo)

Faison declined to say last year whether he told Campbell to leave that day, and he took the same course Thursday. His silence could have been caused by Campbell’s lawsuit.

Speaker Sexton, though, told reporters Thursday the legal complaint is “meritless. We’re looking forward to the day in court.”

Nothing to see here

Sexton also reiterated that no harassment complaint was filed against Faison, even though Campbell alleged in his lawsuit that the caucus chairman was trying to cover up a complaint made against him.

The Campbell case spurred a separate public records lawsuit on the Campbell case brought by Manookian. In a recent decision against opening the records, Davidson County Chancellor Russell Perkins revealed in court documents the state turned in a file folder containing, among other items, two pages of notes about a victim complaint against Faison.

“As an American, you can make any accusation that you want. That’s my statement on that,” Sexton said. He added that he didn’t talk to Campbell last year when news broke about the finding against the lawmaker after a committee found he violated the Legislature’s workplace discrimination and harassment policy.

Manookian recently filed an appeal, and Sexton said that “kind of stymies” anything the state can do. As if he plans to invite the press to his office to review documents.

Despite the hemming and hawing among Republican leadership, Pearson said he supports Campbell gaining access to the documents he is requesting.

“I do not have a single doubt that he’s telling the truth about Jeremy Faison threatening to expel him – less than a week, I believe, after we were expelled – for the crimes that he committed,” Pearson says. 

The Republican-controlled House ousted him and Rep. Justin Jones for violating decorum rules in a House floor protest.

Pearson continued, “And, I believe, in the way that this institution operates, covering up things is the modus operandi of the Republican Party, and they’re trying to cover up not only that (Campbell) was threatened with expulsion but also that Jeremy Faison had and maybe does still have incidents of mistreatment … against some of our interns or people in our building.”

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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