Glen Casada, Cade Cothren face corruption charges
Former Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada and his former chief of staff Cade Cothren were arrested Tuesday on a sweeping set of corruption charges.
- An indictment accuses the men of using Casada's position in the legislature as part of a fraudulent scheme to funnel state money to themselves.
- They pleaded not guilty in federal court.
Why it matters: Casada was the ultimate powerbroker in the Tennessee Republican Party, and Cothren was a rising star as a political aide. But their careers imploded under the weight of several scandals.
- Their arrests continued a long fall from the heights of the state Capitol.
Zoom out: Casada was first elected to the General Assembly in 2001 and emerged as a leading figure as the Republicans built a supermajority. He began a short tenure as speaker in January 2019.
- A wave of scandals, including controversies over racist and sexually explicit text messages, helped derail both men's careers.
- Cothren resigned as chief of staff and Casada stepped down as speaker in August 2019. He remains in the legislature as a representative, although he didn't run for re-election this year.
Driving the news: The plan at the center of the corruption investigation lasted from October 2019-January 2021, according to the indictment.
- The 20-count indictment said Casada, Cothren and an unnamed lawmaker collaborated to pocket state money used for legislative mailers.
Flashback: Former state Rep. Robin Smith was previously charged in connection with the scheme but struck a plea deal in March.
Zoom in: Casada and Cothren both face charges including wire fraud, money laundering, theft from programs receiving federal funds, and bribery and kickbacks concerning programs receiving federal funds.
- They each face up to 20 years in prison, according to prosecutors.
What they're saying: "Today is a good day for Tennesseans because we did not turn a blind eye on these criminal activities," said House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who was open about collaborating with federal authorities throughout the investigation.
The other side: Casada's attorney Ed Yarbrough told Axios he would "present a vigorous defense at trial."
- Cothren's attorney Cynthia Sherwood told reporters her client "looks forward to being vindicated," per The Tennessean.
The focus of the indictment was political mail work billed to a company called Phoenix Solutions, which prosecutors say was created by Cothren with Casada's support.
- They concealed their ties to Phoenix Solutions by concocting a fictitious executive named Matthew Phoenix, who they described as a veteran New Mexico-based political consultant with experience working in Washington, D.C., according to the indictment.
- The state pays for lawmakers to hire consultants to send mail pieces to constituents with General Assembly updates.
The intrigue: Prosecutors allege Cothren, Casada and the other lawmaker steered business to Phoenix Solutions. The work can be lucrative, and several lawmakers began using the firm. But Casada and Cothren faced the challenge of building up the company's portfolio without colleagues learning the truth.
- In a text message exchange quoted in the indictment, Casada and Cothren discussed how to maintain their cover if Republican Caucus members asked questions or even requested to meet Matthew Phoenix.
What they said: "I just hope they don't ask the representatives from Phoenix to come and make his case to do caucus mail," Casada said in a text.
- "they live in New Mexico. Will have to get on the phone for it and I could disguise my voice if I has [sic] to," Cothren responded.
Details: In 2020, companies linked to the scheme received approximately $51,947 from the state in payments for the mailer program, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
- Phoenix Solutions also did mail for Republican lawmakers' election campaigns. According to the indictment, a bank account for Phoenix Solutions received about $158,165 in revenue from candidates' campaigns.
The bottom line: Prosecutors say Cothren, Casada and the other lawmaker shared Phoenix Solutions' profits.
- The indictment describes a November 2020 text exchange when Casada asked Cothren why he had received $2,500 from Phoenix Solutions.
- "that was the split profit from your mailers," Cothren wrote. "not bad, right?"
- "Not bad," Casada responded. "Thank you!"
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