NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Almost three years ago, our NewsChannel 5 investigation first raised questions about a possible bribe offered to pass one of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's signature pieces of legislation.
Rep. John Mark Windle, a Democrat from Livingston, confirmed toNewsChannel 5 Investigatesthat then-House Speaker Glen Casada suggested he could be promoted to general in the National Guard if he voted for Lee's school voucher bill to send taxpayer money to private schools.
Now, a veteran Republican lawmaker, in his first television interview, is speaking out, saying he heard that offer by former House Speaker Glen Casada with his own ears.
"I was shocked, I was shocked," said Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed up, "Did it occur to you as being a bribe?"
"It could look that way," Calfee answered.
The short, seven-month tenure of Glen Casada as Tennessee's House Speaker has been the focus of an on-going NewsChannel 5 investigation.
A texting scandal, first exposed by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, led to an unprecedented meeting of the House Republican Caucus that eventually forced the Franklin Republican to give up his leadership post in August 2019.
Our investigation had also revealed the questions about how Casada managed to pass Lee's 2019 voucher plan.
When that voucher bill -- creating what Lee called "education savings accounts" -- came up for a vote in the state House, it failed on a 49-to-49 tie vote.
For close to 45 minutes, Casada kept the vote open while he twisted arms in search of that 50th vote.
Calfee told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that he walked out onto balcony outside the House chambers where Casada had cornered Windle, who had recently been promoted to full colonel in the National Guard.
Casada's words, according to Calfee, were: "I can't promote you to general, but the governor can. I'll give him a call."
We followed up, "I cannot promote you to general, but the governor can?"
NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed up, "And he said 'I can give the governor a call.'"
"That's exactly right," Calfee said.
"Did he call the governor?
"He called somebody. I don't know who," the East Tennessee Republican said.
Calfee first shared his recollection of those events some two weeks ago in an interview with an online news site, the Tennessee Lookout.
In fact, Windle has told colleagues he was put on the phone with Lee several times, although he has never publicly detailed what was said.
When NewsChannel 5 Investigates first broke the story in July 2019 about the alleged dangling of a promotion for Windle, Lee denied any knowledge of the offer.
Still, Calfee says Lee heard he was telling people about incentives being offered in exchange for votes -- and summoned him to the governor's office.
Lee was reportedly upset about how such talk made him look.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "And you had never been called to the governor's office before?"
"Not Governor Lee."
"This stood out?"
"Yeah, it did."
We followed up, "You told him that you overheard Speaker Casada making that offer?"
And did the governor have any reaction at all?
"He kind of mellowed real quick," Calfee recalled.
Did he deny it?
"No, no, but I didn't ask him yes or no."
Still, after Calfee shared his story with the Tennessee Lookout, Lee was asked about that meeting.
"I don't know anything about it," Lee told reporters.
Lookout reporter Sam Stockard asked Lee, "You didn't discuss it with Representative Calfee in your office?"
"Don't know anything about it," the governor repeated.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Calfee, "When the governor says he cannot remember a conversation with you, do you believe him?"
"I'm not going to doubt it," he answered, "because he's got a lot more on his plate than I do mine. He may well don't remember it."
More than a year after the FBI raided legislative offices, as well as the homes of three Republican lawmakers — and following the guilty plea of one of those lawmaker to federal wire fraud charges — many on Capitol Hill question whether this on-going federal investigation is really just about a small company that did mailings for GOP lawmakers.
Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, who gave Casada his 50th vote on vouchers, is among those subpoenaed by a federal grand jury.
NewsChannel 5 asked Calfee, "What do you think is going on with this federal investigation based on what you know? What does your gut tell you?"
Calfee noted that his response would be speculation.
"A lot of people in the legislature have the same speculation. I'll just leave it at that."
We pressed, "the speculation is that this investigation is really about vouchers."
"I think so," he agreed. "A lot of people think so."
Casada has avoided comment since being raided last year by the FBI.
When NewsChannel 5 Investigates first broke the story back in 2019, then-Speaker Casada responded, just as Kent Calfee now suggests, that only the governor had the power to promote someone to general in the National Guard.
Curiously, Casada never denied that the subject was discussed.
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