State turns to court after ex-House aide refuses subpoenas

Jonathan Mattise
Associated Press

Nashville, Tenn. – Tennessee’s attorney general is taking the one-time chief of staff of a former House speaker to court after he refused to comply with subpoenas in the investigation of a shadowy political action committee.

Attorney General Herbert Slatery asked a Nashville judge late last week to order Cade Cothren to explain why he shouldn’t be held in contempt of court for not obeying the subpoenas in the investigation of the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC. Cothren worked for Rep. Glen Casada before both resigned their top leadership roles in 2019 amid scandals.

In this May 2, 2019, file photo, House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, left, talks with Cade Cothren, right, his chief of staff, during a House session in Nashville, Tenn.

Cothren’s attorney has informed state campaign finance regulators that he is invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The attorney general’s filing says Cothren’s team hasn’t cited sufficient reasons to do so.

Ahead of the 2020 GOP primary election, the PAC attacked then-Rep. Rick Tillis, who is the brother of North Carolina U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis. Rick Tillis lost to Republican Rep. Todd Warner, who was among those subject to FBI searches at the legislative building and other addresses in January 2021, alongside Casada, Cothren and ex-Republican Rep. Robin Smith.

In federal court, Cothren and Casada have been implicated in an alleged political consulting kickback scheme involving a different political entity that has prompted the guilty plea of another former lawmaker. Last month, Smith resigned and then pleaded guilty to wire fraud in the alleged scheme.

Federal authorities say Smith, Casada and Cothren collaborated on the separate consulting firm, Phoenix Solutions, as a way to funnel money to themselves secretively and illegally through both campaign and taxpayer-funded work. Prosecutors have so far kept Casada and Cothren unnamed and haven’t charged them with anything, but they described the two in easily identifiable terms in court documents.

Some fellow GOP House lawmakers have said they feel betrayed after Smith talked them into using the vendor. Prosecutors said the three claimed the firm was run by a certain “Matthew Phoenix.” In fact, it was Cothren using an alias because they feared lawmakers and the office of his successor, Speaker Cameron Sexton, wouldn’t use the vendor if Cothren’s involvement came to light, prosecutors allege.

Sexton, who has said he is cooperating in the investigation, was among those who testified along with other lawmakers in front of a grand jury last month.

Casada and Cothren had been pressured into resigning as speaker and chief of staff in 2019 over swirling scandals, including revelations they exchanged sexually explicit text messages about women years beforehand.

The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance, meanwhile, has referred its probes about the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC to the Williamson County district attorney’s office.

The registry decided to reopen an earlier probe into the Faith Family Freedom Fund after the PAC’s treasurer testified in January that she is Cothren’s former girlfriend and she opened the PAC at Cothren’s request. She said Cothren asked her to, saying Cothren assured her she was doing nothing wrong. She said she took no further action.

Cothren informed the registry in February that he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and wouldn’t abide by subpoenas for evidence and testimony in an investigation surrounding a political action committee, saying they were “made in bad faith and are an abuse of process.”

In its legal filing last week, the attorney general’s office wrote that Cothren hasn’t provided information to support those claims. The state’s filing further argues Cothren’s objections aren’t sufficient to disobey the subpoenas and that he can’t give a “blanket” assertion of invoking the Fifth Amendment.

Casada, who was also subpoenaed, has told the registry he wasn’t involved with the Faith Family Freedom Fund.

Casada announced in November that he wouldn’t run for reelection this year, and would instead run for Williamson County clerk.