A hulking bronze bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest sits at the beating heart of the Tennessee state capitol, where the two chambers meet. His likeness has sat there since 1978 and engendered various waves of protest and debate, once surviving a violent clubbing to the metallic skull.
It may have never seen anything like this before though.
In the past couple months, what started as a run-of-the-mill protest of the bust ended with a sodden altercation, assault charges, and accusations of doctored evidence. Then a string of racist text messages involving House Speaker Glen Casada (R) surfaced, ending the career of his top political aide who sent them.
And the hits keep coming — as more texts wind up in the hands of Tennessee news outlets, things are looking more and more dire for Casada himself. New messages that surfaced in the last 24 hours between Casada and his now ex-chief of staff Cade Cothren reveal lewd and sexually explicit conversations between the two about women. The texts also show that Cothren used cocaine inside the statehouse.
Now, Casada’s own fate may hang in the balance.
Activism Gone Awry
But let’s go back to the beginning.
Our story starts February 28, when local activist and Vanderbilt Divinity School student Justin Jones was arrested while protesting the Forrest bust with a group. While chanting “Casada is a racist” at the House Speaker, who has refused to remove the statue, Jones hurled a cup of liquid (arrest documents say hot coffee, Jones says iced tea) into an elevator where Casada stood, dripping, with Rep. Debra Moody (R).
Jones was arrested, charged with two counts of misdemeanor assault and one count of disorderly conduct and ordered to stay away from the damp lawmakers until his case is settled. He was released after paying a $4,150 bond.
Days later, Jones learned that his bail was in danger of being rescinded by the office of Nashville District Attorney Gene Funk. Funk’s office filed a motion to revoke the bail citing an email Jones allegedly sent to Cothren, copying the Speaker, after he’d received the no-contact order.
The Nashville-based NewsChannel 5 reported that, as evidence of Jones’ alleged violation of the no-contact order, Cothren provided the DA with a photo that showed an email from Jones to Cothren dated March 1. The email sought to set up a meeting between Jones and Casada to discuss the bust in “the first week of March.”
But Jones gave NewsChannel 5 a copy of the email showing it was sent on February 25, before his arrest on February 28.
“Did House Speaker’s office attempt to frame activist?” NewsChannel 5 mused in a May 2 report.
Emails provided to TPM by the Speaker’s office show Cothren wrote to the DA: “Please see below for an email from Justin Jones. We believe this is a violation of his bond requirement to have no contact with Speaker Casada.”
Will Griffith, the assistant district attorney, responded that none of the emails in the chain were dated after Jones’ arrest on February 28.
Cothren responded: “Here’s the issue — when I try forwarding to you, the date of the email changes to February 25 in the chain. I am not sure exactly what is going on here.”
Cothren ultimately asked Griffith to strike the motion he’d filed since he lacked “100% confidence.”
Casada’s office is sticking with the technical error story, though Jones accused Cothren of doctoring the emails to make it look like he broke the order, a suspicion that NewsChannel 5 reported. “This was an extreme form of retaliation where you are willing to lie to take away somebody’s freedom,” Jones told the outlet.
“The allegations made today by NewsChannel 5 are blatantly false,” Cothren said in a statement via communications director Doug Kufner. “The email that is referenced and is the central focus of this investigation was not edited in any way, shape or form.”
“The idea that my Chief of Staff would alter an email that was also received by nearly a dozen members of the media is absurd,” the statement continues. “It is disappointing that a reputable television station would be so irresponsible to produce a story in such an unprofessional and malicious manner. This calls to question the veracity of their entire story.”
Funk has appointed a special prosecutor to look into the case.
But the accusation that the Speaker’s office altered emails to land an activist in jail was not the only inflammatory information in that NewsChannel 5 report on Cothren and Casada.
While digging up details for the story, the outlet says that it received texts sent by Cothren that include startlingly offhand racist remarks. In one case, the texts were sent as part of a multi-person conversation that included Casada. NewsChannel 5 said the messages were provided by one of Cothren’s old acquaintances.
Here are screenshots of the texts from NewsChannel 5 reporter Phil Williams:
— Phil Williams (@NC5PhilWilliams) May 2, 2019
— Phil Williams (@NC5PhilWilliams) May 2, 2019
— Phil Williams (@NC5PhilWilliams) May 2, 2019
At first, Casada vehemently denied the veracity of the texts.
“I’ve known Cade Cothren for nearly a decade, and I’ve never known him to act in a manner in which these emails and texts falsely portray him,” he said in a statement.
“If I had received that text message, I would strongly scold whoever sent that to me,” he added to the Nashville Scene. “There’s something not right about that story.”
But now, days later, the Speaker has changed his tone. On Monday, he released a joint statement with Cothren that blamed the chief of staff’s history of cocaine abuse for the racist remarks.
“Nearly three years ago, Mr. Cothren approached me & confided in me that he was dealing with some personal issues and wanted to seek help after his struggles became apparent,” Casada wrote in the statement. “Knowing these issues were impacting his ability to fulfill his job duties, Mr. Cothren sought counseling and forgiveness, and has been doing an outstanding job ever since.”
“Politics has become a game of ‘gotcha’ with no thought of forgiveness and starting anew,” he continued. “I choose to believe that we all deserve a shot at redemption. I gave Mr. Cothren this chance to prove himself, and that’s exactly what he’s done.”
Cothren also spoke for himself in the statement.
“Regarding the texts in question, I readily admit that I sent some of them,” he said. “While I’m not proud of who I was in the past; I am proud that, with God’s grace and a strong support system, I’ve been able to achieve so much in the years since.”
“Like so many young, egotistical men aspiring to a career in politics that came before me, moving up the career ladder was met with unrelenting stress, peer pressure, and unrealistic expectations,” he continued. “I know that this is not an excuse. Nonetheless, I unfortunately turned to maladaptive coping mechanisms. However, I thank God for these experiences because they’ve allowed me a unique opportunity to witness to the young men who will come after me that actions have consequences.”
Casada’s office did not respond to inquiries about the text conversation involving the Speaker, or explain what changed Casada’s mind so abruptly about the texts’ veracity.
Mary Mancini, chairwoman of the Tennessee Democratic party, noted in a statement, “Overt and consistent racism isn’t a side-effect of pressure at work or illegal drug abuse, and it’s time for Casada to address it head-on.”
Drug Use In The Capitol, Sexually Explicit Texts
Things got worse for Cothren from there. Monday night, NewsChannel 5 published more texts in which Cothren bragged about his drug use, one saying outright that he snorted cocaine in the legislative building.
“Just did a gram of cocaine in my office,” he wrote, per NewsChannel 5.
And the texts kept coming.
As published by NewsChannel 5 and the Tennessean, more messages revealed Cothren’s sexually explicit comments about women, many of which he made to Casada.
Here’s one such exchange when Cothren allegedly texted a picture of a woman pole dancing to the Speaker in 2016:
Casada responded: “Nice pics.”
Cothren: “Hands to yourself :)”
Casada: “Can I just touch?”
Cothren: “Lol okay maybe just once.”
In separate conversations not including Casada, the Tennessean reports that Cothren tried to solicit oral sex, naked pictures and details about underwear from an intern.
Cothren politically collapsed under the heap of scandals and resigned Monday evening.
“At this point, the best thing for me to do is step down so House and Senate Republicans can continue focusing on those things that make Tennessee the best state in the entire nation,” he told NewsChannel 5.
Casada announced his aide’s resignation, effective immediately, coupled with his thanks for Cothren’s service.
After the firestorm of news and stunning fall of one of the most powerful legislative operatives in the statehouse, Democrats are now gearing up for a battle with the ex-aide’s boss.
“I’m sure people will be calling for his resignation today,” Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart told TPM Tuesday. “Glen Casada’s position as Speaker is no longer tenable, it’s obvious that he needs to step down.”
He admitted though that Republicans will have to ultimately flip on their Speaker for him to be dislodged.
“We are in a state with a Republican super majority House and Senate and a Republican governor — the Republicans have to decide if this is the kind of leadership they want to represent them.”
Stewart added that criminal charges are not off the table for Cothren, stemming from his drug use on government property and the investigation into his emails by the special prosecutor.
Most of all, he doesn’t think Casada is out of the woods.
“I hear that there are many more texts and documents, much more to be revealed,” Stewart said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”