Tennessee legislators testify before federal grand jury

Several Tennessee state lawmakers gave testimony in front of a grand jury that's looking into corruption on capitol hill.
Published: Mar. 28, 2022 at 8:13 PM CDT
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - On Monday, several Tennessee state lawmakers gave testimony in front of a federal grand jury looking into corruption at the state capitol.

Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, Representatives Jason Zachary, Patsy Hazelwood, Bud Hulsey, Esther Helton, and Director of Legislative Operations for the Tennessee General Assembly Connie Ridley testified before the federal grand jury.

Lawmakers began making their way into the Federal Building downtown around noon. Legislators and others were subpoenaed to the federal building to come before a federal grand jury as part of an ongoing FBI investigation into corruption at the State Capitol.

“Well, I can’t talk about what was asked in the grand jury. But what I can talk about in the statement. I think it’s important to remember that the grand jury, state and federal, are unique and different and the federal process requires individuals to be subpoenaed to either do one of three people,” said Tennessee Speaker of the house Cameron Sexton.

“One’s a target. I’m not a target, never received the target letter. Another one is a suspect, which I am not. And then third is a witness that provides factual information, a factual witness, per se. Today, my role is to provide factual information and be a factual witness, which I have happily done. I answered all the questions under oath, which I was happy to do,” Sexton added.

The subpoena came after Former Representative Robin Smith pleaded guilty to Wire Fraud about two weeks ago. News 4 asked Sexton if his testimony went beyond Phoenix Solutions. This company was part of the investigation with former Representative Smith.

“I can’t answer that question. I don’t know who else they’re talking to today. All I know is I was here as a factual witness, talking about the things. And I’m sure over the course of the next several weeks, you’ll know, and everything will be out in the open,” Sexton said.

“I’m assuming depending on how it goes. There’s a lot in the documents that; Robin Smith charging documents that you can point to and look at, to relay what the criminal activity was,” Sexton added.

Lawmakers spent anywhere from seven to 15 minutes appearing before the federal grand jury.

“I can’t talk about my actual testimony. But I could just simply say I was subpoenaed by the FBI as a witness for them and their ongoing investigation,” Zachary said. “It’s already resulted in one member resigning. I fully support the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office through their investigation.”

“It’s unfortunate that the actions of a few who brought this kind of attention to the Tennessee General Assembly,” Zachary added.

When asked if there was any talk about vouchers, Representative Zachary said it had nothing to do with vouchers. However, Zachary said yes when asked if the subject was related to charges we’ve already seen.

Sexton walked into the grand jury room just before 2 pm and came out at about 2:15 pm.

Connie Ridley went in at about 2:17 pm and came out at about 2:34 pm.

Patsy Hazelwood went into the room at about 2:35 pm and walked out at about 3:05 pm

Bud Hulsey went in to testify at about 3:07 pm and came out of the room at about 3:15 pm

Esther Helton went in to testify at about 3:17 pm and came out at about 3:24 pm.

Times each member took to testify

Zachary was the last to testify before the federal Grand Jury. He went into the room at about 3:25 pm and came out at about 3:33 pm.

Zachary said he doesn’t know if he will be called back.

“No other than walking out after my testimony and saying I may be called back to ask questions then,” Zachary said.

“And let’s just be clear, though, I think what you have here, in any type of criminal type of activity, you also have people who are victims,” Sexton said. “And in this instance, some people could look at members being deceived as victims, the state of Tennessee being a victim. And so, I think that’s important to remember.”

Sexton said that since 2019 when he was first elected Speaker, he’s been working and assisting with the federal authorities in this investigation and plans to continue that.

“And I feel just like them that there’s no need to take a back road to public corruption. Public corruption doesn’t need to happen. So I’ll always stay with the federal authorities and law enforcement to make sure that we stamp out public corruption if it’s happening inside the state of Tennessee,” Sexton said.

“And so I was happy to be here today as a factual witness. And I had to do that because you can’t walk in freely. [I] would have walked in freely, but the federal system requires a subpoena. So that’s why I was here today,” he added.

News 4 asked Sexton if what’s happening is an isolated incident or is this a general tendency at the state capitol.

“Well, you know, we’ve had many things in the past, whether it was Rocky Top or Tennessee Waltz or whatever else, and so you know, it’s bad when members try to do bad things. But we will always be here to make sure that we stamp it out and do things. Last year we passed the strong ethics reform, part of what Phoenix solution was doing this year,” said Sexton.

“We’re doing more ethics reform with campaign finance reform. And so, we’ll continue to stamp it out and work with authorities because that’s what you do. There’s no need to have public corruption. We don’t want our elected officials doing that, and they shouldn’t be there if they’re doing it,’ he added.

News 4 asked Speaker Sexton if this puts state leaders on high alert and has them more intentional about matters like this.

“You can ask all members that I mean, you know, anything opens your eyes, regardless of what it is. But you know, I think the thing is, last year, when we passed the ethics reform. We had 80 plus people who voted for it. I wish it had been unanimous, but it wasn’t,” Sexton said.

“And this year, we’re hoping for the same thing. So, all the members down there, I think the ones who, whoever got subpoena, are here and others. I’m sure they’re working with authorities just like we are,” he added.

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