ABOVE: House Democrats Mike Stewart (right) and Bo Mitchell. // J.R. LIND
By J.R. LIND
Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Stewart wants to bring in the feds following reports that the Speaker’s office had the ability to conduct surveillance on presumably private meetings.
The Tennessean‘s Joel Ebert this week reported that Cade Cothren, the now-former chief of staff of House Speaker Glen Casada, had a surveillance system in his office allowing him to monitor committee meeting rooms even when they weren’t being used for official committee business. Those rooms are used for a variety of purposes when not under the gavel — party caucus meetings, discussions between lawmakers and citizens, and the usual sort of dealmaking that greases the skids of a republic — and legislators, and the public, assume those meetings aren’t being recorded or broadcast.
Stewart, joined at Wednesday’s press conference by fellow Nashville Democrat Bo Mitchell, said he would formally ask the United States Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee and the Department of Justice’s Public Corruption Unit to investigate if any state or federal laws were broken.
“We have as a caucus been told the committee rooms are not filmed except during official meetings,” Stewart said. “Democrats, Republicans and private citizens have an expectation of privacy in these rooms.”
Conceding he is not a “surveillance lawyer,” Stewart said his review of the applicable Tennessee statutes “demonstrates secret, unauthorized recordings are a felony under our laws.”
An increasingly fiery Stewart compared the tactics to “third-world countries with weak and developing democracies” and also China and Russia.
“I call on Speaker Casada to answer whether this system was used, and whether he was aware of it,” Stewart said. “It’s not enough to simply have a response to the press. … People in the speaker’s office need to go under oath under penalty of perjury.”
Mitchell and Stewart said they’d formally ask for the U.S. Attorney’s involvement Wednesday afternoon.
“Evidence can be destroyed,” Mitchell said. “We’re calling on the U.S. Attorney to come in immediately. There’s no time to waste. It never surprises me what the Republican leadership of the Tennessee House will stoop to.”
Reports circulated Tuesday that some members of the House — including Casada himself — are asking for sweeps of their offices for bugs and, in Casada’s case, using a “white-noise machine” to flummox surveillance efforts. Mitchell said it never occurred to him to undertake such extraordinary countermeasures because bugging is “dishonorable” and “so outrageous, so beyond the pale.”
“No normal public official would sanction this,” he said. “It’s rare to have a press conference to call for a federal investigation of this body, but that would be an extraordinary breach of faith.”
Meanwhile, the Republican Caucus held a conference call at noon as even some GOP members are turning on the Speaker in the wake of the racist, sexist and sexually-charged text messages, along with the surveillance allegations and allegations that Cothren may have tried to frame a Nashville activist.
Rep. Jeremy Faison, Republican of Cosby, told our Stephen Elliott that Casada would not serve a vote of confidence.
“No. Absolutely not,” he said. “They’re disgusted. … The best path forward is for him to step down as speaker.”
Other Republicans, including House Speaker Pro Tempore Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), are also asking him to step down.