NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A Republican lawmaker who cast the decisive vote for Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's school voucher plan has been subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury next week, NewsChannel 5 has learned.
Two independent sources with knowledge of the investigation tell NewsChannel 5 Investigates that Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, is among a group of House Republicans who were served with federal grand jury subpoenas this week. That group includes House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville.
Zachary refused to comment as he entered the House session Thursday morning.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates was first to reveal the latest round of subpoenas delivered Tuesday.
As the House gaveled back into session on Thursday, Rep. Jason Hodges, D-Clarksville, used time for welcoming remarks to make a statement.
"I would just like to welcome the FBI and thank them for all they do in being here at the state Capitol," Hodges said, drawing a smattering of applause from Democrats and stony silence from Republicans.
It was not immediately clear if Zachary's subpoena represents a new direction for the federal corruption probe which, to date, has publicly focused on a shadowy company that did political mailings for House Republicans in 2020.
Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, recently resigned after pleading guilty to federal wire fraud charges, admitting that she and former House Speaker Glen Casada pocketed "kickbacks" from Phoenix Solutions in exchange for steering business to the company.
Phoenix Solutions, which handled both campaign and taxpayer-funded mailings for House Republicans, was secretly owned and operated by former Casada aide Cade Cothren, according to federal prosecutors.
Among those who did business with Phoenix Solutions was Jason Zachary, who spent $4,408 from his campaign account.
Still, when contacted by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, many of the lawmakers who had the most direct contact with Phoenix Solutions indicated that they had not received subpoenas.
The investigation of corruption on Tennessee's Capitol Hill comes against the backdrop of apparently ongoing interest by the FBI in how then-Speaker Casada managed to pass Lee's plan to create a school voucher program, known as Educational Savings Accounts, to pay for private school tuition in Davidson and Shelby counties.
In April 2019, a House vote on Lee's voucher bill failed on a 49-49 tie vote.
Casada held the vote open for some 45 minutes while he sought the decisive 50th vote.
Zachary eventually switched his vote after Lee's team agreed to exempt Knox County from the legislation. Zachary later denied that he was offered anything improper for his vote.
Still, in May 2019, NewsChannel 5 Investigates revealed that FBI agents had shown an interest in that vote, showing up unannounced at the home of one GOP House member.
That lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said agents wanted to know about campaign contributions offered to support the reelection efforts of those willing to vote for the bill.
In July 2019, Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, confirmed information obtained byNewsChannel 5 Investigates that another lawmaker had overheard Casada suggesting that — in exchange for his vote — Windle could be promoted to the rank of general in the Tennessee National Guard.
Windle, an Iraq war veteran who was a colonel in the Guard, refused to switch his vote, saying in a statement that his vote was "not for sale."
Other lawmakers told NewsChannel 5 Investigates about talk of incentives and even threats.
In January 2021, FBI agents launched surprise early-morning raids on the homes and offices of Casada, Smith and Rep. Todd Warner, R-Lewisburg.
A month later, NewsChannel 5 Investigates reported that Casada had told associates that the FBI had questions about how he helped pass Lee's legislation.
Casada, who was forced to resign his speakership after a texting scandal first uncovered by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, has denied offering any bribes or doing anything illegal.
The current House speaker, Cameron Sexton, has not commented on what he expects to be asked when he appears before the federal grand jury.
"We knew all along that there would be a lot of members called to be witnesses," Sexton told reporters Thursday.
"That's part of a grand jury, is to bring witnesses up to testify and provide factual information as they are looking to indict or charge various people. So we weren't surprised by it."
Democrats had strong words about the investigation.
"The public and the press should not have to be searching out who got a subpoena," said Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville.
"Those folks should step forward and let the public know who is involved in this situation, who knows something about these crimes that are being committed in the House, and let's do something about it."
Connie Ridley, director of the office that handled the political mailings sent through Phoenix Solutions, confirmed she has been summoned to testify.
Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, who spent $10,700 with Phoenix Solutions, confirmed to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press that she was among those subpoenaed.
Rep. Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport, told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that he received a subpoena, even though he never did business with Phoenix Solutions.
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