Mailer allowance was at the center of Casada, Cothren arrests

Published 12:09 pm Thursday, September 1, 2022

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The Center Square

Tennessee law allows for incumbent legislators to spend up to $3,000 annually for postage and printing of items sent to constituents.

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The representatives are then allow to spend more than that out of their own political campaign funds.

Those rules are at the center of Tuesday’s arrest of former House Speaker Glen Casada and his Chief of Staff Cade Cothren on federal charges of a political mailer conspiracy. The indictment states that, because Tennessee receives more than $10,000 from the federal government, that the alleged conspiracy used federal funds.

“In Tennessee, we will not tolerate public corruption, defrauding our state, or bribery at any level,” current House Speaker Cameron Sexton tweeted on Tuesday. “I commend the Federal Bureau of Investigation for its hard work, diligence, and dedication that resulted in this morning’s arrests.

“As I have previously stated on several occasions, shortly after becoming speaker in 2019, I began assisting the federal authorities during and throughout their investigation — including leading up to today’s indictments, and I will continue to do so if a trial is needed. Together, our legislative body has stood strong over the past two years to take significant actions during this investigation by passing laws to strengthen campaign finance regulations and new ethics laws for elected officials and staff.”

Tennessee House Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis, said on Tuesday that campaign finance reform needs to continue.

“When something like this happens, it reflects poorly on the entire Legislature,” Camper said. “We are elected to serve the public and when that trust is broken, it’s very disheartening and erodes the confidence that our constituents have in government.

“This does however, highlight how badly campaign finance reform continues to be needed and that bi-partisan legislation already passed needs to go much farther.”

In May, Republican Senatorial candidate Gary Humble received one of those mailers from his primary opponent, incumbent Jack Johnson, and forwarded it to The Center Square. The mailer, which arrived 2½ months before the Aug. 4 primary where Johnson won by around 780 votes, touted Johnson’s work in the Legislature on creating tax holidays, cutting regulations on Tennessee businesses and working with Gov. Bill Lee.

The state-funded mailers are restricted from being sent to more than 200 people within 30 days of the actual Election Day, not early voting, and Johnson’s mailer included the disclaimer that “this mailer has been designed, printed and paid for at the taxpayer’s expense.

Humble, Executive Director of the nonprofit Tennessee Stands, also objected to Johnson voting for a campaign finance reform law that requires require 501(c)(4), 501(c)(5) and 501(c)(6) nonprofits to report expenses of more than $5,000 spent on communications with the image or name of candidates on them in the final 60 days before an election.

When the law passed, Tennessee Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said that the bill was “aimed at bad actors like the fictitious Matthew Phoenix and the various shell companies and shadowy PACs used by certain legislators to line their own pockets.”

“I find this practice shameful,” Humble wrote in May. “I also find it incredibly hypocritical that the General Assembly would frown upon a nonprofit and the efforts of private citizens using their own money to educate voters during an upcoming election. But in the same breath, protect themselves legally so that they may use taxpayer money to fund their own bid for re-election.

“Not only did Jack Johnson use state funds to send out what is clearly a campaign mailer, he also voted YES on SB1005 which serves to limit the free speech of nonprofit organizations like Tennessee Stands.”

The mailer program is now the focus of the federal charges against Casada and Cothren as Cothren is accused of using a fictitious name, Matthew Phoenix, and a New Mexico post office box to create a mailer company that received reimbursements from the state that amounted to $51,947 in 2020.

The indictment, in fact, included a late 2019 email telling Cothren that he “may have to assume the role of Matthew again” with Cothren then replying “Matthew, reporting for duty!” with a gif of Han Solo giving a salute from Star Wars.

Cothren allegedly ran into payment issues from the state to a vendor in 2020 and Casada agreed to handle it, at which point Cothren allegedly responded “he doesn’t know me by Cade, only Matthew Phoenix” and later reminded Casada that “Remember I am Matthew haha.”

Overall, a Phoenix Solutions account received $158,165 in payments from June 1 to Dec. 31 of 2020, including the $51,947 from Tennessee.