by Nathan Warf
This post is the second in a series focusing on Tennessee politics recently in the news. People tend to know less about what is going on in state news than national or even international news. We’ve heard plenty about the pandemic, about inflation, and about Ukraine, to cite three examples. All those things are important, yet it’s easy to overlook state-level politics, which also can have a substantial impact on our lives.
My last post focused on Senator Marsha Blackburn’s disappointing performance in the confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Here, I turn to the Tennessee legislature. Though I wish this examination would reveal something positive, something far less embarrassing, that simply isn’t possible right now. It seems our lawmakers can do nothing that would be safe for us to overlook. This post will look specifically at corruption in the Tennessee General Assembly.
Corruption on Capitol Hill
The FBI is investigating corruption among members of the state legislature. Where should the story begin? In many ways, it goes back to former Speaker of the House Glen Casada. Casada ascended to the role, which Beth Harwell left vacant for her failed gubernatorial bid in 2018. He was initially popular, having played a critical role in helping his Republican colleagues fundraise and capture a supermajority in the House. His popularity began to wane as he alienated House members who were not sufficiently servile. Some members were bothered by his growing staff, which included a chief of staff paid more than $200k annually. This chief of staff, Cade Cothren, brought Casada a lot of trouble. Cothren admitted to using cocaine in government offices. In text messages with Casada, he shared a racist meme and bragged about sexual exploits with a lobbyist.
Cothren was also involved in pressuring legislators to support Governor Bill Lee’s education savings account bill. As Sam Stockard reports, “Federal agents began investigating not long after Casada held the House vote board open for nearly 45 minutes in April 2019 to break a deadlock” on the legislation. Stockard continues:
A tie vote would kill the bill and make him appear incapable of delivering a key vote on the governor’s main initiative. He is believed to have told Rep. Windle, a colonel in the National Guard, he could get him the position of general, an allegation Casada continues to deny. … Ultimately, Republican Rep. Jason Zachary of Knoxville agreed to change his vote and support the voucher bill as long as Knox County Schools would be removed as a voucher-eligible district.
While the bill passed, it was struck down as unconstitutional by a lower court, a decision upheld by the Court of Appeals in September 2020. The Tennessee Supreme Court reheard arguments last month but has not yet issued an opinion.
Casada is also allegedly connected to former Representative Robin Smith, who resigned from office last month and then pled guilty to federal wire fraud, a crime that can carry a twenty-year prison sentence. As The Tennessean reports, federal prosecutors assert that Smith worked with Casada and Cothren to set up a political consulting firm known as Phoenix Consulting. The trio hid their connection to the firm while pressuring other legislators to use its mailing services. Casada and Smith, along with Rep. Todd Warner, spent nearly $200k on three companies in the year before the FBI raided Casada’s home and office. Two of those companies are not registered with Tennessee’s Secretary of State; the third is Phoenix Solutions.
Corruption does not appear to be limited to the House. Senator Brian Kelsey has been indicted on five counts of federal campaign finance violations. Unsurprisingly, he has announced that he will not run for re-election, saying, “I look forward to spending more time with my family.” Interestingly, another individual implicated in Kelsey’s scheme is former Rep. Jeremy Durham who was expelled from the House following an investigation by the TN Attorney General’s Office. Twenty-two legislative staff, interns, and lobbyists alleged Durham made “inappropriate comments of a sexual nature or engaged in inappropriate physical contact.”
While not rising to the level of the incidents mentioned above, several other lawmakers have recently made the news for their behavior.
· Rep. Jeremy Faison (R) went viral when he lost his temper at a high school basketball game, leading him to attempt to pull a referee’s pants down. He was ejected. Faison later said, “I was wanting him to fight me. Totally lost my junk and got booted from the gym. I've never lost my temper, but I did tonight.”
· Sen. Katrina Robinson (D) was “scolded … for sloppy record keeping” by a federal judge as Robinson was being sentenced for two counts of misappropriating federal grant money of over $3,400. Robinson, a Democrat, was expelled from the TN Senate.
· Sen. Joey Hensley (R) was placed on probation by the state medical board. Hensley “admitted to providing medical care and prescribing opioids and other controlled substances to several family members,” including a cousin who he employed and with whom he carried on an affair. Hensley did not maintain documentation for his prescriptions or follow protocol to prevent drug abuse.
Why is there so much corruption among politicians in Tennessee? What can we do about it? In many ways, the current political environment is reminiscent of the TN General Assembly at the time of the Tennessee Waltz scandal in the early 2000s. After a lengthy investigation, the FBI arrested several lawmakers in 2005. Just like the allegations swirling around former Speaker Casada now, Tennessee Waltz involved bribery, corruption, and even a fictitious company.
The main difference between then and now is that it was primarily Democrats implicated then. By the 104th General Assembly, when the undercover portion of the Tennessee Waltz investigation ended, Democrats no longer held a supermajority in the State House (53-46). Nonetheless, they had held the majority almost uninterrupted since shortly after the Civil War. They also controlled the State Senate and governorship for that period. Republican posed little threat and were, therefore, a weak check to one-party dominance. The situation is reversed now and even more extreme. There are currently 73 Republicans in the House and only 26 Democrats. In the Senate, there are 27 Republicans and only 5 Democrats. Republicans have also held the governorship since Bill Haslam was inaugurated in January 2011.
As a result of the Republican supermajority status, Democrats cannot provide an effective check on Republican power. When the party in power has shown itself unwilling or unable to police its members, the responsibility largely falls on us as voters. The choice is not between reelecting a corrupt politician or supporting the opposing party. We should pay attention. Demand accountability. Support alternatives in primary challenges. Don’t accept corruption as an inevitable part of politics; we can and should expect better.
 See Sam Stockard, “Glen Casada: The Rise and Fall of a House Speaker,” Tennessee Lookout, 10 January 2022. https://tennesseelookout.com/2022/01/10/glen-casada-the-rise-and-fall-of-a-house-speaker/
 Ibid. See also Phil Williams, “Revealed: Key Vote on TN School Voucher Bill Subpoenaed by Federal Grand Jury,” New Channel 5, 24 March 2022. https://www.newschannel5.com/news/newschannel-5-investigates/revealed-key-vote-on-tennessee-school-voucher-bill-subpoenaed-by-federal-grand-jury-sources-confirm.
 See Mariah Timms, “Tennessee Supreme Court Grills Attorneys in Second Hearing on Gov. Bill Lee’s School Voucher Program,” The Tennessean, 24 February 2022. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2022/02/24/tennessee-supreme-court-school-voucher-lawsuit-governor-bill-lee/6913123001/.
 Melissa Brown & Adam Friedman, “Former State Rep. Robin Smith Pleads Guilty to Federal Wire Fraud Charge,” The Tennessean, 8 March 2022. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2022/03/08/robin-smith-pleads-guilty-political-consulting-scheme-glen-casada-cade-cothren/9415427002/.
 “Indicted State Lawmaker Won’t Seek Reelection,” AP News, 5 March 2022. https://apnews.com/article/elections-campaigns-tennessee-nashville-indictments-9c881eefd116d5fa2c2ff9ba339257d9.
 “Report of the TN Attorney General’s Office,” 13 July 2016. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2993307-Final-Report-Into-Inappropriate-Conduct-Rep.html.
 Brett Kelman, “Tennessee Sen. Joey Hensley Placed on Medical Probation for Unethical Opioid Prescriptions,” The Tennessean, 4 November 2020. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2020/11/04/tennnessee-sen-joey-hensley-put-medical-probation-opioid-prescriptions/3714014001/.
 See “Tennessee Waltz,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/tennessee-waltz.
 See “House Archives,” https://www.capitol.tn.gov/house/archives/; “Senate Archives,” https://www.capitol.tn.gov/senate/archives/.