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'They are trying to hoodoo somebody!' Taxpayer money steered to shadowy New Mexico company, documents reveal

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Posted at 12:45 PM, Jan 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-26 10:19:10-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A Republican state lawmaker steered more than $28,000 in taxpayer money last year to a shadowy New Mexico company with ties to an associate of former Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada, newly obtained documents reveal.

Interest in the company, Phoenix Solutions LLC, has intensified since an FBI raid on the homes and offices of a number of Tennessee Republicans on January 8.

The new documents show that Rep. Robin Smith, a Hamilton County Republican who works as a political consultant and was one of those lawmakers whose home and office were raided, arranged for payments to Phoenix Solutions for constituent mailings for herself and five other Republican lawmakers.

One of those lawmakers, Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston, expressed shock when asked about the charge to his legislative mailing account.

“I have never knowingly sent anything to anybody for the state to pay,” Calfee told NewsChannel 5 Investigates by phone.

The records show that Phoenix Solutions billed the state $5,537 for a constituent update mailer to his district.

Twelve days later, Calfee’s campaign account paid the company the exact same amount for a mailer. Calfee said the campaign mailing was sent at Robin Smith’s suggestion.

“If they billed the state, they are trying to hoodoo somebody,” said the Roane County Republican.

Calfee's office was raided by the FBI, but his home was not searched. Legislative leaders say he is not believed to be a target of the federal investigation.

Tax documents submitted to the state claim that Phoenix Solutions is based in Sante Fe, New Mexico, and headed by a Matthew Phoenix.

But a search of public records does not reveal any person by that name in New Mexico, and the phone number provided to the state for billing purposes is not a working number.

Around Nashville's Capitol Hill, several political insiders say it was widely believed that Phoenix Solutions was actually Cade Cothren, the former chief of staff for Casada when he was House speaker.

Cothren, whose apartment was among those raided, resigned in 2019 amid a texting scandal first exposed by NewsChannel 5 Investigates. Casada, whose home and legislative offices were searched, was forced to give up his speakership as a result of that scandal.

In addition to the $5,537 payment from Calfee’s legislative mail account, the records show that payments of state dollars to Phoenix Solutions came from the following lawmakers:

  • Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, $4,804.04
  • Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta, $4,547.50
  • Rep. Jay Reedy, R-Erin, $4,481.48
  • Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, $3,259.20
  • Rep. Patsy Hazelwood, R-Signal Mountain, $3,257.40
  • Rep. Mark Hall, R-Cleveland, $2,871.53

Neither Casada nor Cothren have responded to requests for comment.

Smith, a close Casada ally, has refused an answer any specifics about her activities.

Her attorney, Ben Rose, never returned NewsChannel 5's phone call, although he posted a comment on Twitter arguing that all of his client's submissions for reimbursement would have been approved by House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

Still, the questions about the activities of Phoenix Solution trace back to questions first uncovered by NewsChannel 5 Investigates last summer about another shadowy political action committee, the Faith Family Freedom Fund, that had launched an attack campaign against then-Rep. Rick Tillis, R-Lewisburg.

Casada and Cothren had openly made it known that they wanted to see Tillis defeated in the Republican primary for his state House seat.

Financial disclosures filed by the Faith Family Freedom Fund claimed that they had neither raised nor spent any money.

But, as NewsChannel 5 Investigates first revealed, mailings from the PAC show it was using Chattanooga postal permit number 383, as did a mailing from Tillis opponent Todd Warner.

A complaint later filed with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance noted that mailings from Phoenix Solutions used the same postal permit number.

Internet registrations show that Phoenix Solutions did not even have a website during last year’s political campaigns, but one was created after the complaint was filed.

Campaign financial disclosures show that Smith and six other Republican lawmakers paid Phoenix Solutions at total of $141,362.85 for its services during the 2020 election.

Smith herself paid the company $37,701.08 out of her own legislative campaign account and $34,678.98 out of the account of her political action committee, Leadership Pioneers.

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