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FBI probe of Tennessee lawmakers appears focused on shadowy campaign activities

FBI Capitol Hill Raid.jpeg
Posted at 6:33 PM, Jan 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-08 14:27:31-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Shadowy groups working behind the scenes to settle Republican scores - playing with money that cannot be traced.

That situation, first exposed by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, appears to be driving the latest FBI investigation into Capitol Hill corruption.

Friday, FBI agents hauled away boxes of evidence from Tennessee's Capitol Hill. Included among that evidence, NewsChannel 5 has learned, was computers and other materials potentially linked to a group of shadowy campaign firms.

It was part of a series of early-morning raids that began at the Franklin residence of former Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada.

Related: FBI executes search warrants on former TN House Speaker Casada, other Republicans

Also targeted: two former Casada aides, along with Republican Rep. Robin Smith from Hamilton County and newly elected Rep. Todd Warner from Marshall County.

Last summer, NewsChannel 5 first revealed how attack ads, aimed at Rep. Rick Tillis of Lewisburg, were sent out by a shadowy group, the Faith Family Freedom Fund, that claimed it had not raised or spent any money.

We discovered a postal permit number used for one of those mailers was the same as one used by Todd Warner... who went on to defeat Tillis in the Republican primary.

Related: Anonymous campaign attack targets Republican lawmaker

"A lot of unaccounted for money flowed into that race," said Erik Schelzig, editor of the Tennessee Journal, a well-respected political newsletter. "Nobody really knows where it came from and who was spending it."

Following NewsChannel 5's report, Schelzig conducted a deep dive into the finances behind that shadowy campaign to oust Tillis, whom Glen Casada had targeted for defeat.

Casada backed Warner "who had spent upwards of $120,000 of his own money, which came to the surprise of a lot of folks down there because he had just declared for federal bankruptcy a few years back because he was unable to pay $20 million in debts," Schelzig noted.

That postal permit number led to a little known company called Phoenix Solutions out of New Mexico. Phoenix Solutions did work for a number of Republican candidates.

"Phoenix Solutions is a new player on the scene in Tennessee politics and this is where it links to Rep. Robin Smith, who has pushed to use this vendor since coming to the legislature," the Tennessee Journal editor added.

After a NewsChannel 5 investigation led to Casada's resignation as Speaker in the summer of 2019, an audit of his campaign finances revealed abouyt $100,000 in expenditures for which he had no receipts.

And NewsChannel 5 Investigates uncovered allegations of an alleged bribe Casada had offered to pass school vouchers -- an allegation he denied.

Now, there's this investigation.

"It seems that once they start lifting, peeling the onion back," Schelzig said, "you're going to find a lot of elements to look into more closely - a lot having to do with shadowy fundraising and activities that don't appear above board at first blush."

As for Rep. Kent Calfee, the Roane County Republican whose office was raided, Capitol sources tell NewsChannel 5 that the focus is on his assistant, not him. The assistant's daughter dates Casada's former chief of staff, Cade Cothren.

A lawyer for Todd Warner also sent the following statement:

"Rep. Todd Warner is a successful small businessman, farmer, and freshman legislator. Rep. Warner and his family were shocked by the events of Friday morning, January 8. Federal agents descended on Rep. Warner’s home and business in Marshall County with search warrants, the contents of which remain shrouded in mystery by the government. Significantly, Rep. Warner has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

"Rep. Warner can assure the citizens of his district that he has violated no laws and welcomes any investigation.

"Rep. Warner’s goal now is to serve all the citizens of his district, whether they voted for him or not, and looks forward to being sworn in on Tuesday, January 12."