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House Speaker put political operative on state payroll

Michael Lotfi with bullhorn.jpg
Posted at 5:44 PM, May 10, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-11 18:12:28-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — House Speaker Glen Casada put one of his political operatives on the state payroll earlier this year, giving him a $48,000-a-year job -- with no expectation that he work out of the legislature's offices, submit a formal time card or even work 40 hours a week, a NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered.

Michael Lotfi, who was behind digital ads last year attacking women who had accused Rep. David Byrd of sexual assault, has no state office, no state phone and - until last month - no state email. He said that the only requirement was for him to "be available."

"It's almost like a salary situation, I guess you would say," Lotfi told NewsChannel 5 Investigates in a telephone interview.

"Basically, I just report back to the Speaker's office what hours are sort of kept. But for the most part, it's just I'm available during working hours if I am not up here [on Capitol Hill] - or even after hours if anybody needs anything specific or has any specific questions."

Lofti, 28, went on the state payroll on January 8, the day that Casada was sworn in as Speaker, earning $4,000 a month with full benefits, according to state records.

His official title is "senior legislative advisor."

The political operative said that means helping to advise Casada, as well as House Republicans, on policy as well as political strategy.

"I was hired by the Speaker and I advise the Speaker on policy and narratives -- and Caucus members as well -- as far as if they have any policy questions or how is the district going to react to this or how is the media going to react to this," Lotfi said.

"Then I am available for those conversations and then come in work on special projects and research, stuff like that."

He called his arrangement an "alternative work schedule."

"Sure, you don't have to come in," Lotfi said, "but you just need to be available to take calls if necessary or work whenever is necessary - and be available to come in at any given time."

Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Nashville Democrat, said he had never heard of anyone in legislative offices having that kind of arrangement.

"If you are getting a full-time salary and you are getting benefits, you should show up full time,” Mitchell said.

"The question is: why is someone getting paid this type of money and not having to show up? Everyone else has to show up for work. If he's not adding any value to the Tennessee General Assembly, then why is he getting paid nearly $50,000 a year?"

Lotfi's other job is a company that he owns, Red Ivory Strategies.

Among the services it advertises: Digital Branding and Website Development, Government and Public Relations, and Direct Mail.

Lotfi said his company has actually never done work attempting to influence legislation and he does not believe he could do that as long as he is employed by the state.

“One of the conditions of my employment was to obviously run anything that would be a potential conflict ... by the Speaker and everyone else,” Lotfi said, adding that he could not accept any work that would be “opposing members on a piece of legislation or something like that.”

Financial disclosures show that, last year, Red Ivory Strategies got paid $529,417 for working on state and federal political campaigns.

Of that, $123,300 came from Casada's political action committee, CAS-PAC.

Lotfi admitted that part of his job for CAS-PAC last year was running a shadowy Facebook page, the Alliance for Tennessee Families, that was working to get Rep. David Byrd re-elected. Three women had accused the Waynesboro Republican of sexually assaulting them years ago.

Red Ivory Strategies created digital ads portraying Byrd's opponents as "socialist Democrats" and suggesting "lies" were being told about him.

UPDATE: After NewsChannel 5's story aired, Lotfi responded, arguing that the ad's reference to "lies" was generic language that was also used in other races. "The ad you referenced absolutely makes no mention of the women who accused Byrd, and never intended to." Women involved in opposing Byrd, however, say that - in the context of his race - the implication was clear.

"Those popped up on phones and computers in David Byrd's district - because you can target them via Facebook,” said Emily Tseffos with the group Enough is Enough, which targets candidates who have been accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault.

Tseffos was among the women protesting Byrd this session on Capitol Hill.

She said the fact that Casada put the person behind those ads on the state payroll speaks volumes.

"It's a lack of integrity that Casada has spoken about time and time again, this moral integrity that he has. This is yet another example of how he, in fact, has none and he's willing to reward the people for doing the dirty work for him."

Lotfi previously worked as a legislative aide and was fired by Speaker Beth Harwell in 2016 for his political consulting "being in conflict with his service in the legislature."

But Lotfi said, in this case, he has just been doing exactly what Speaker Casada asked of him, insisting that he did not think his situation was all that unusual.

"You would not believe the amount of down time up here [at the legislature]. It's totally ridiculous."

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NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Capitol Hill