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Activist says Tenn. House Speaker's Chief of Staff altered email in attempt to keep him behind bars

Investigation finds CoS sent racist text messages
Posted: 11:34 AM, May 02, 2019
Updated: 2019-05-02 11:34:27-04
Activist says Tenn. House Speaker's Chief of Staff altered email in attempt to keep him behind bars

NASHVILLE, Tennessee — District attorneys in Nashville have requested a special prosecutor to investigate whether the Tennessee Speaker of the House's top aide altered an email an activist sent in the hopes of keeping a student activist behind bars.

This year, Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada has repeatedly found himself at the center of protests — most notably, one in which activists called for the removal of the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state Capitol building. Forrest was a Confederate general and a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Justin Jones is among those who have called for the statue's removal. He is currently a divinity student at Vanderbilt University and a civil rights activist.

Jones says that Tennessee's former House Speaker Beth Harwell routinely met with activists to hear their concerns. Casada has refused — and protests have escalated.

At a protest at the Capitol in late February, Jones was arrested during an incident in which a cup was thrown at Casada as the speaker entered an elevator.

Jones was released on bond on the condition he have no contact with Casada or his staff. He says he's obeyed the no-contact order.

"This many months later, I have not had any contact with Casada or have not been at the Capitol. So I followed the no-contact order," Jones said.

But in early March, district attorneys filed a motion to revoke Jones' bail, citing an email Jones had allegedly sent to Casada's chief of staff that was copied to the House Speaker. Such an email would have been a clear violation of the no-contact order — but Jones claims the email had been digitally altered.

Jones later learned that the DA's motion was based on a photo of an email with the date of March 1 — a day after the no-contact order was issued. But Jones' copy of the email says the message was sent on Feb. 25, the day before his arrest.

"It was done to put me in jail," Jones said. "Which is scary that somebody in such a public office — an office that swears to uphold the state constitution, an office that is in charge of a $38 billion budget — is doing something like this. I mean, it's shameful."

The DA's office admits its evidence came from the Speaker's chief of staff, Cade Cothren.

Strangely, the DA's office says that, before Cothren gave them the picture with the altered date, he had actually given them an email with the original date. The office blamed the inconsistency on an IT issue.

When prosecutors could not verify the date, they eventually dropped the motion to revoke Jones' bond.

"It was a shock because it was my freedom," Jones said. "If this would have went through to revoke my bond, I would be in jail right now until my court date. So this is not something I take lightly."

When asked about the email and Jones' claims Casada said he knew "nothing." Cothren repeatedly chose to ignore reporters' questions when asked about the incident, and also did not respond to an email asking for comment.

"You have some of the most powerful people in this state who are willing to file a false report and to file a false paperwork and to manipulate paperwork to take your freedom away," Jones said. "That's something that's scary."

"This was a mean group ... you see a sort of drunkenness with power. There is an extremism that's happening."

Cothren's relationship with Jones has been contentious.

When Jones had tried to find out why his request for a meeting hadn't been acknowledged, Cothren had falsely tried to convince him he had misspelled the word "capitol" in his email address.

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In addition, a former acquaintance of Casada shared copies of racist text messages sent by Cothren.

The following tweets contain offensive language. Reporters have chosen not to censor them in order to provide full context to the story.

In a text message with friends, Cothren called black people "idiots."

He also insisted that Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston be called a "thug n***er" in a separate text message.

Finally, in an exchange with Casada, Cothren responded with a "black people" meme when asked about the apparent deployment of field operatives to a West Tennessee district.

When emailed about the above text messages, Cothren did not deny that he sent them. When approached for an on-camera interview, Cothren refused to comment.

"I question, is that how they see us each time we go up there and say we would like a meeting with the Speaker to talk about voter suppression and how it is racialized, and we would like to talk to the Speaker about why we have a KKK statue in our state capitol?" Jones said.