Former Tennessee House Speaker Casada and ex-aide subpoenaed over faith PAC

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Jan. 15—NASHVILLE — Tennessee's campaign finance watchdogs have moved to subpoena former Tennessee Republican House Speaker Glen Casada and others in a renewed effort to audit the Faith Family Freedom Fund, a political action committee that spent $7,000 attacking an incumbent GOP lawmaker in 2020.

This past week's action by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance also targeted Casada's former chief of staff, Cade Cothren, and Rep. Todd Warner, R-Lewisburg.

The action came after the fund's treasurer, Sydney Friedopfer — whom officials were unable to contact last year — testified by phone Thursday that she opened the PAC at the request of Cothren, her then-boyfriend, but that she never took any further actions.

The Faith Family Freedom Fund was used to attack then-Rep. Rick Tillis, R-Lewisburg, in House District 92's August 2020 GOP primary race with challenger Warner. Warner, who spent considerable funds with a previously unknown political vendor, Dixieland Strategies in Rainbow City, Alabama, won the contest.

"I asked him if it was illegal to open it for him," Friedopfer, a former Vanderbilt student who now lives in Utah, said of her registration for the Faith Family Freedom Fund on behalf of Cothren. "And he said no. And he said he just couldn't have a name on it, considering everything he had gone through."

A year earlier, Cothren had lost his job amid controversy over his personal behavior. Among other things, Cothren boasted in a leaked text to a then-associate of using cocaine in his state office. He also shared lewd texts with the associate and Casada about his sexual relations with women, including female lobbyists and interns. Casada responded jokingly or approvingly on at least three occasions, contributing to his downfall as speaker.

Cothren also used racist language.

Those controversies and others were often highlighted by an anonymous Twitter account that often ridiculed Casada and a number of leadership aides and others. Critics charged it was Tillis. But the controversies as well as Casada's hard-driving governing style cost the speaker his top leadership post. Then-Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, publicly called on Casada to step down, charging he was trying to slant a proposed Ethics Committee legal advisory opinion in his favor. The Republican Caucus in 2019 held a no-confidence vote on Casada. Gov. Bill Lee weighed in, saying it was time for Casada to give up his post, later leading to Casada's stepping down as speaker.

'AT A LOSS'

The election finance registry is not a criminal investigatory agency but regulates matters such as contribution limits, spending guidelines and disclosure requirements. The agency can issue civil fines.

The agency received a complaint in 2020 that there may have been improper coordination between the Faith Family Freedom Fund and the Warner campaign, something Warner denied. The state has laws against certain kinds of campaign coordination to make sure PACs are not used as an end-around for campaign contribution limits and disclosure requirements.

Casada told the Times Free Press in a text Friday, "I'm at a loss on why I got subpoenaed. [A] simple phone call would have sufficed; very unusual activity on their part."

He said he sent a statement to election finance registry members on Thursday, saying, "I am writing to inform you that I have no relationship, knowledge, information or documents relating to the faith family freedom pac."

In addition to Cothren and Casada, the registry also approved issuing subpoenas to Warner, Tillis and another lawmaker, Rep. Charlie Baum, R-Murfreesboro, and former Casada secretary Carol Simpson, noting they were not saying anyone had done anything wrong but were simply seeking additional information.

In early January 2020, FBI agents raided the home and legislative offices of Casada, Warner and Rep. Robin Smith, a Hixson Republican and longtime political consultant. Both Casada, who by then was doing work as a political consultant, and Smith were associated with a group calling itself Phoenix Solutions. The firm did political mailers during the 2020 election cycle and also taxpayer-funded legislative mailers on behalf of a number of GOP colleagues.

Cothren's home was also raided.

Federal officials have yet to state the nature of their investigation, and it's unclear what its status is. Smith and her attorney, Ben Rose, said last year she was not a "target" of the FBI probe. Smith has not specified her relationship with Phoenix Solutions and declined to answer questions about it.

Efforts to reach Smith by phone Friday were unsuccessful. Reached by telephone, Rose offered no comment.

In January 2021, one GOP vendor, who spoke on condition his name not be used, said he did contract work during the 2020 campaign and was told by Cothren, the former Casada chief of staff, to bill some work to Phoenix and other work to the Faith Family Freedom Fund.

Smith's name did not come up during Thursday's registry meeting.

During the meeting, registry chair Paige Burcham Dennis reminded Friedopfer she was under oath.

Friedopfer said she opened the PAC at Cothren's request.

"At the time, I thought I loved him, I guess," Friedopfer said of Cothren as she testified by phone. "But I was young, and he's 10 years older than me. And I trusted him. And so I opened the political action committee."

Friedopfer said she later received a state e-filing document in the mail, emailed a photo of it to Cothren, "and he took over from there."

She said a reporter later called but she never returned the message. Recently, she said she finally heard from a "reputable source" — a registry official who figured out how to contact her.

Registry staffer Lauren Topping told the panel Friedopfer never received most of the correspondence, and officials believe it went to Cothren.

Efforts by the Times Free Press to reach Cothren were unsuccessful.

Friedopfer said in response to registry members' questions that Cothren "told me that none of this was illegal, that he didn't do anything illegal, and that it was no big deal to open the political action committee."

She said she never accessed the PAC's Gmail account.

"But somebody was responding," Dennis noted. "Acting like they were her."

Registry officials were told by someone purporting to be Friedopher the issues raised in a complaint filed by Tillis' campaign manger were simply "rabbit holes." Times Free Press efforts at the time to reach the person were unsuccessful.

Efforts to reach Warner on Friday were unsuccessful. In his written response to the registry last year, Warner denied any coordination with the PAC, saying the accusation "holds no merit and is completely and totally false."

The lowest-price vendor, Warner said, simply "ended up being a large mail house out of Chattanooga" that uses permit number 383, which showed up on a number of other mailings in unrelated contests. Warner noted a "significant number of sitting legislators" use "the same Chattanooga mail house because of the low rate."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on him on Twitter @AndySher1.