A Chattanooga-area lawmaker resigned Monday morning amid a federal corruption probe at the state capitol. State Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, has been charged with one count of wire fraud, becoming the third legislator in recent months to lose her job.
In an indictment released earlier Monday, federal prosecutors accused Smith of receiving kickbacks as part of a scheme to funnel money to a company controlled by Cade Cothren, the one-time chief of staff to former House Speaker Glen Casada. Smith is alleged to have pressured current House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s office into approving Cothren’s company as a state vendor and hiding his involvement.
Smith is scheduled to appear at a plea hearing tomorrow in Nashville. She is the second lawmaker to leave the state legislature this year amid scandal. Last month, state Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis, was expelled after being convicted of two counts of misusing federal funds.
And last week, state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, announced he would not seek re-election. Kelsey was indicted last fall on five counts of violating campaign finance law. In that case, prosecutors allege Kelsey worked with the owner of a Nashville social club to fund a failed bid for Congress in 2016.
Fallout from previous scandals
Smith announced her resignation in a letter Monday morning to House lawmakers.
Neither Casada nor Cothren were directly named in the indictment of Smith, and so far, neither has been charged. But the indictment released Monday makes their identities clear, and it portrays a plan in which they were deeply involved.
The scheme is said to have begun in November 2019 — just months after Cothren was forced to resign his legislative job and Casada was voted out as House speaker. That followed the release of several sexist and racist text threads that they took part in.
After leaving the legislature, prosecutors say Cothren, identified in their indictment as “Individual 2,” set up a company called Phoenix Solutions LLC that offered mail and consulting services to members of the legislature who faced primary challengers. Prosecutors say Cothren then worked with Smith and Casada, known as “Individual 1,” to come up with a fictitious backstory: that the company was run by a person named Matthew Phoenix, a former Washington political operative living in New Mexico.
Over the next several months, Phoenix Solutions billed lawmakers tens of thousands of dollars for constituent communications and campaign mailers. When Sexton’s office asked to work with the vendor directly, Smith served as a go-between, helping Phoenix Solutions get approval while misleading Sexton’s aides over who was really behind the firm. In exchange, Smith’s consulting company was paid more than $24,000, prosecutors say.
Casada, R-Franklin, has already announced he does not plan to seek another term in the legislature and will instead run for Williamson County clerk.
Sexton said in a prepared statement that the resignation of Smith, who also once served as chair of the Tennessee Republican Party, “is a sad day for all who know her.” But he said he will continue to work with FBI investigators.
“I commend the Federal Bureau of Investigation for their diligence, hard work, and dedication throughout this investigation,” he said. “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.”