Tennessee Rep. Robin Smith resigns from legislature after wire fraud charge

Rep. Robin Smith, center, looks at an overhead presentation while Rep. Michael Curcio, wearing a red jacket uses phone, during a sexual harassment training for the Tennessee House of Representatives on Jan. 10, 2019.
Rep. Robin Smith, center, looks at an overhead presentation while Rep. Michael Curcio, wearing a red jacket uses phone, during a sexual harassment training for the Tennessee House of Representatives on Jan. 10, 2019.

A Tennessee House member resigned Monday after she was charged with federal wire fraud in connection with a political consulting firm involving former House Speaker and current Rep. Glen Casada.

Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, faces one count of honest services wire fraud, according to documents unsealed in federal court in Nashville on Monday.

Smith resigned from her seat Monday, according to a letter shared by a Chattanooga public relations firm, which declined further comment from Smith or her attorney.

In court documents, Smith's attorney said she has reached a plea agreement on the charge. A plea hearing has been set for Tuesday afternoon.

"I want you to know that serving the great people of this district, and indeed, all of Tennessee, has truly been an honor. I have resigned with the deepest of humility and out of respect for the role of public service," Smith said in her resignation letter to House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

Prosecutors allege Smith, Casada and Casada's former top aide Cade Cothren worked to set up a shadowy firm known as Phoenix Solutions, concealing its operator as Cothren engineered kickbacks to Smith and Casada.

Smith's charging document refers to Casada and Cothren as Individuals 1 and 2, respectively. Neither have returned a Tennessean request for comment, nor have they been charged in the case. But the two have for months been at the center of what appears to be a tightening campaign finance investigation.

Cothren established Phoenix Solutions around November 2019 to offer consulting and mail services for legislative members in competitive primary races, according to court records. The trio told General Assembly members that an "experienced political consultant" named Matthew Phoenix ran the firm.

But prosecutors allege Matthew Phoenix didn't exist, and it was Cothren running the firm behind a false identity. Both Smith and Casada worked to conceal Phoenix's true identity because the firm would not be approved or hired as a vendor under Cothren's name, according to court records.

In 2019, Cothren lost his job with Casada in the wake of a scandal involving racist and sexist text messages and admitted to using illegal drugs in the legislative office building. Casada resigned from his leadership position following the scandal, but he remains in the state legislature.

Then-Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada, left, and his then-chief of staff, Cade Cothren, speak during session in Nashville on May 1, 2019.
Then-Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada, left, and his then-chief of staff, Cade Cothren, speak during session in Nashville on May 1, 2019.

Smith and Casada allegedly received kickbacks from Cothren in exchange for using their official positions to pressure the House Speaker's Office to approve Phoenix Solutions as an official vendor and disburse state funds to the firm, according to court records.

The charge comes 14 months after FBI agents descended on House offices and legislators' homes, including Smith's, in a federal probe.

Sexton, R-Crossville, said in a statement Monday Smith's charging document and resignation is "a sad day for all who know her."

"It is clear in the charging documents that certain individuals used their official capacity to target General Assembly members and the Republican Caucus by using a fake company to siphon off money illegally and deceptively," Sexton said.

"I will continue to cooperate fully with federal authorities as the investigation continues which has been the case since I became speaker in 2019. Due to this being an ongoing investigation, I will reserve any further comments as the FBI continues their pursuit to stop public corruption.”

Cothren faked IRS form, prosecutors allege

Prosecutors allege Phoenix Solutions was first established to offer services to members facing primary challenges, but it was later expanded to take advantage of the legislative "mailer program." Tennessee representatives are allocated $3,000 annually to design and mail legislative updates and surveys to constituents.

In January 2020, Smith learned guidelines had changed and the House Speaker's office wanted to work with third-party vendors directly, according to her charging document.

Smith notified Cothren that the state couldn't pay Phoenix Solutions for its services without a W-9 on file, which prosecutors allege Cothren falsified under Matthew Phoenix's name.

Related: Tennessee House Speaker on FBI raid: Those subject to search warrants on 'administrative leave'

Campaign firms: Tennessee lawmakers in FBI probe recently spent $182K in campaign funds with 3 little-known companies

In Smith's charging document, prosecutors cite multiple emails between Smith and Cothren in which the two acknowledge Cothren's fake identity. Smith allegedly coached Cothren that he "may have to assume the role of Matthew again" in a future conversation with an unnamed "political party" employee regarding a campaign mailing list job.

Cothren allegedly replied, "Matthew, reporting for duty!"

Smith also allegedly provided fake background information on Matthew Phoenix in an email chain with Sexton's acting chief of staff and the General Assembly's legislation director when trying to push for Phoenix payments, according to the court records.

Smith then forwarded the messages to Cothren with the message, "Shhhhhhhhhh," according to court records.

Smith received nearly $30,000 from Phoenix Solutions, which she deposited into the bank account of her own political consultancy firm, according to court records.

The now-former representative has long been a fixture in Tennessee Republican politics. A registered nurse, Smith was elected state chair of the Tennessee Republican Party in 2007. She was elected to the House in 2018.

Campaign finance probes

A 2020 Tennessean analysis found Casada, Smith and Rep. Todd Warner, R-Chapel Hill, all spent tens of thousands of campaign dollars with little-known companies with shadowy origins in the months leading up to the Jan. 8, 2021 raids.

The three spent $182,794 in campaign money with three businesses in the year before the raids, two of which were not registered with the Tennessee Secretary of State. A third, Phoenix Solutions, was registered but under an agent service that conceals ownership details.

More: Legislative staffers remain on paid leave nearly 12 months after FBI raids

The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance is also investigating Casada and Cothren for their connections to the Faith Family Freedom Fund PAC. The PAC's treasurer testified in January she opened the PAC for Cothren, who was her boyfriend at the time, but she said she had no further involvement in its operations.

On March 2, Cothren declined to appear after the registry issued a subpoena. Cothren's lawyer said her client invoked his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination, according to a letter sent to the registry's board.

An unnamed girlfriend of Cothren's was also involved in Phoenix Solutions, prosecutors allege. Smith's charging document cites Individual 3, referred to as Cothren's girlfriend, who pretended to be a fictitious Phoenix employee to fabricate an email exchange with Cothren.

More: Rep. Glen Casada's former top aide declines to testify in campaign finance probe, cites 5th Amendment rights

Rep. Robin Smith's charging document

Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, charged with federal wire fraud by USA TODAY Network on Scribd

Rep. Robin Smith's resignation letter

Rep. Robin Smith's Letter of Resignation by USA TODAY Network on Scribd

Reach Melissa Brown at mabrown@tennessean.com and Adam Friedman at afriedman@tennessean.com

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This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee Rep. Robin Smith resigns after federal wire fraud charge