Caissa Public Strategy and the Caissa Seven

Introduction

Caissa Public Strategy operates behind the scenes.   Their stable of client politicians dominates City Council, they’ve worked for Mayor Strickland’s administration and they have a host of business clients, for whom they perform a range of services, from reputation management to marketing to “crisis management”.  They are one of the best-connected entities in town.

The first section here “The Caissa Seven” is an analysis of the contributions received by each Councilor and their expenditures with Caissa.   It clearly shows how the Caissa Seven dominates Council.  This is motivation for a closer look at some of Caissa’s other activities.

The second section, “Caissa Client: Fellowship Memphis and the Rick Trotter case” shows how Caissa orchestrated the “crisis management” of a previous Rick Trotter sex offense at Fellowship Memphis.   Trotter was fired in 2010 from his job at Fellowship Memphis when the church elders found he had been secretly videoing women in a bathroom at the church.   He then went to Downtown Church, who had been told of his Fellowship history.   In 2016 he was arrested for upskirt photography at his new church, and indicted in October 2017.   Caissa Public Strategy were called in by Fellowship Memphis and engaged in “crisis management”.   The ongoing police investigation of the Fellowship case has apparently stalled.    The insight into how Caissa manages client reputations behind the scenes is revealing.  A further post is planned, a deeper dive into the shenanigans at Fellowship Memphis.  David Bonner termed Fellowship a “cult or cult-like” entity.

caissa_group_shot
Paige Walkup, Gene Bryan, Mae Bennett (formerly Yearwood), Brian Stephens and Mary Joseph (formerly Tanner). Bennett has since left the company.  (Memphis Chamber of Commerce)

Our third section includes basic biographical details on Caissa’s owners, Brian Jefferson Stevens and Paige Walkup.

Caissa, with their massive and mostly secret network, pops up in odd places, generally when an official document has to be filed.    Everyone in the media sees their hand in occasional flashes, and knows they are there, but we see few attempts to document their scope and influence.   This series of articles is an attempt to gain some insight into what they do, and how.

Note to viewers:  I expect some of the links in this article to go away.   Not to worry, I have copies of everything.    Please inform me of broken links and I’ll annotate them with an alternative source.   In this story, broken links are a part of the narrative.

The Caissa Seven.

 

Above: Frank Colvett, Berlin Boyd, Reid Hedgepeth, Kemp Conrad, Worth Morgan, Bill Morrison, Philip Spinosa.   (City of Memphis)

Fig. 1 was created by totaling all contributions, and all expenditures to Caissa Public Strategy, filed at the Election Commission for the period January 1st 2015 to June 30th 2016, for all Council incumbents.

Caissa_Spend_ranked
Fig 1: City Council Incumbents, their total contributions and their spending with Caissa during the 2015 election cycle.

Reid Hedgepeth did not use Caissa in this election cycle.  He was first elected in 2007, before Caissa was founded, and had his own campaign habits set.    We include Hedgepeth in the Caissa Seven on the basis of this Daily News article featuring a Brian Stephens interview, which identifies Hedgepeth as part of the Caissa contingent.   He also donated $5000 to the Republican Party on his Pre-General 2015 campaign disclosure, and Republican affiliation is another marker for the Caissa Seven.

These photos: Kemp Conrad and Brian Stephens, Philip Spinosa and Stevens, and Stevens with Bill Morrison are on Brian Stephens’ Facebook page.  Conrad is wearing a “We need Reid” button, suggesting that the event was a Reid Hedgepeth function during the 2015 campaign cycle.   This confirms that, even though Hedgepeth did not retain Caissa Public Strategy for his campaign, that he is a fully-fledged member of the Caissa Seven.

Kemp Conrad’s expenditures for the Pre-General  2015 disclosure are not on file.   We estimated $30,000, based on other candidate’s patterns.   All the other numbers were taken straight from the campaign disclosures.

Caissa_seven_graph
Overall contributions in blue with Caissa spend superimposed in red.

We can see a clear breakdown of City Council.   The Republican-oriented mostly white Caissa Seven had average contributions of $146K while the African American opposition group had average contributions of only $34K.  The Caissa Seven netted five times the money of the opposition, and spent even more,  because some Caissa candidates also loaned large amounts to their campaigns, including Worth Morgan’s $50,000 loan.

Although the opposition group is a recognizable subset of Council, they don’t vote as a group and Edmund Ford has a lot of similar, big money contributions to the Caissa Seven.   They are an individualistic group.

On the other hand, the Caissa Seven share a common agenda, and tend to vote as a bloc on issues critical to the big money politics of the Memphis white power elite.   This can be clearly seen in policing-, zoning, budget and property related issues.    Some latitude is allowed on non-critical agenda items, including Berlin Boyd’s and Kemp Conrad’s  divergent votes on Berlin Boyd’s Marijuana measure in August 2016.  The Commercial Appeal called it a “rare split vote”.

Violations of the Open Meetings Law have been alleged.  We don’t  know what mechanisms might have been used to apply an apparent whip to the Caissa Seven, and, in many cases, the other Councilors.   The only apparent linkages are some shared staffers at City Hall, Allan Wade, the Council Attorney, and their handlers at Caissa, all of whom would have had legitimate reasons to talk to multiple Council members.  We don’t want to speculate on whether there was a Whip or how it might have been applied, but we also don’t understand how complex resolutions suddenly formed from whole cloth.

As Caissa operates behind the scenes, the existence of their own “party” in City Council is reason for concern.   Caissa also worked in the Jim Strickland Mayoral transition in 2015.   Their influence, which they exert on behalf of their private clients, is pervasive in City Government.

Bill Morrison worked for Caissa as George Flinn’s campaign manager.  Those campaign disclosure documents are missing from the Election Commission site, but two knowledgeable sources confirm.

Caissa also worked for County Commissioners Heidi Shafer and Willie Brooks.   The 2014 County election cycle candidate disclosures are so incomplete that we don’t want to infer anything , except that Caissa’ influence in the County is also strong.

Brian Stephens and Gene Bryan of Caissa, with Terry Roland at a deannexation meeting in 2016.

Caissa Client: Fellowship Memphis and the Rick Trotter case.

brysons_and_trotter
Beth Bryson, Rick Trotter and John Bryson taken November 2015. Beth is a likely victim of Rick Trotter’s alleged 2010 crime, and John Bryson was involved in Trotter’s firing and subsequent cover-up. (Facebook).

Caissa is a company of secrets, and their client list is one of the biggest of those secrets .   We defer discussion of their clients for a future article in this series and focus on a single case here, Fellowship Memphis.

Rick Trotter was the Grizzlies announcer and employee of Downtown Church, arrested in August 2016 and recently indicted for  up-skirt photography at Downtown Church.

Wondering Eagle blog has done numerous pieces about Trotter’s career over the years.  In this August 2016 post,  David Bonner talks about Caissa Public Strategy’s involvement in the Trotter case.

According to a joint statement by Downtown Church and Fellowship Memphis, Trotter’s previous employer, “Trotter was employed as a Worship Director by Fellowship from August 2005 to February of 2010.  In February 2010, it was reported that Trotter was engaged in inappropriate conduct”.  Trotter had made video of people using a bathroom at the Church.

fellowship_memphis_staff_2010
Fellowship Memphis staff in 2010.

 

From David Bonner’s August 2016 blog post:  Asterisks are inserted by us and refer to the notes at the end of the extract.

“.…In the case of Fellowship Memphis the hiring of a PR firm to supposedly “investigate” the situation creates a number of questions that deserve asking. … Fellowship Memphis recently hired a PR firm called Caissa Public Strategy. …  Caissa is led by Brian J. Stephens * and I am hearing from my sources that the investigator is Jessica Muntz**.  Jessica is a graduate of Mississippi State University, and you can see her background in LinkedIn right here. While Caissa is referred to as a public relations firm in this Christian Post article it says that Fellowship Memphis hired a PI firm. The reality is that it can be both.  In this interview you *** can hear Brian J Stephens talk about how Caissa works. They help clients win and do what it takes to win and allegedly teach organizations and companies that crisis can also be an opportunity. …

trotter_leading_service_CA_2005
Rick Trotter leads the Fellowship Memphis congregation in song during Sunday services in October 2006 when he was named the new voice of the Memphis Grizzlies. (Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal)

For a church to go and hire a PR firm signals a couple of things for me. First is that this place is very cult like or cultish. Second is that its (sic) very much and (sic) indicator that it still is committed to maintaining the alleged cover up. I wonder if the reason why Caissa is hired is because of their knowledge of the news media and if that is a response to the articles about Fellowship Memphis in the Commercial Appeal. …

If you live in the Memphis area and you are contacted by Caissa this is my advice to you. First of all remember that this firm is not neutral. They are not there to get the truth out. They have been compromised in this one way. Money has exchanged hands and this firm is dedicated to defending the client, which in this case is John Bryson and Fellowship Memphis. It should be stated that you have your rights and you do not have to cooperate with them if you are approached. Their goal in the end is to plug leaks and to do damage control for Fellowship Memphis. When it comes to allegations of criminal activity there is one organization you should go to first and that is the Memphis Police. It’s my understanding that the Memphis Police are investigating the situation with Rick Trotter. They have three years of recordings to go through and they have a lot of victims to identify. But remember if you are approached you are free to walk away and not cooperate. You have done nothing wrong, this behavior is more indicative of what you would see in the dark underworld of the mafia.  I also would suggest that you not get angry at Jessica Muntz as she is just doing her job. Be polite, cordial and treat her with respect but remember you do not have to talk with her and anyone from Caissa. If you have knowledge of an alleged crime I again would implore you to go to the Memphis Police. They exist for that purpose and are trained to handle these kinds of issues. If any of you guys have any experiences with Caissa you are free to post them here on this blog.

Notes:
* Brian Stephens’ bio on the Caissa website.  At the time the blog was posted, the “Leadership” page clicked through to individual biographical pages.   These individual pages have since been removed and Bonner’s link is showing a “HTTP 404” error, indicating that the page was not found.  As of 10/28/2017, none of the Leadership individual entries click through to an underlying bio page.   This is how Brian Stephens bio looked on July 14, 2016, courtesy of Archive.Org.

** Jennifer Muntz’s bio on the Caissa website has been removed since this blog was posted.   Muntz has left Caissa’s employ.  Here’s Jessica Muntz’s Caissa bio, as it appeared on 9/2/1026, at Archive.org.

*** This link pointed to a post in LPBC.com.   The Lipscomb Pitts Breakfast Club is a volunteer outfit run by Jeremy Parks.  The post in question is a radio show broadcast from 1/14/2014 entitled “Gestalt Community Schools:  Copeland Coaching and Caissa Public Strategy featuring an interview with Brian Stephens.  We retrieved the Stephens interview segment from Archive.Org.   Streaming audio here.

trotter_in_court_2016_ca
August 10, 2016 — Rick Trotter appears in general sessions court with his attorney Marty McAfee (left) for a hearing on charges that he photographed individuals without their consent. (Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal)

Although the removed links are fairly trivial, the fact presumably Caissa chose to change their site and also that Parks redacted his own site is interesting.   This is the sort of thing an expert in “reputation management” does all the time.

Caissa was called in to perform “crisis management” when the Fellowship story blew up again at the time of Rick Trotter’s August 2016 arrest.

fellowship_mem_notice
Fellowship Memphis announcement, from Watch Keep blog.

The  screen snip above right is from Watch Keep blog post dated 8/22/2016.    The phone number is Jessica Muntz‘s cell number.

JB Martinez, one of the alleged victims of the Fellowship Memphis alleged voyeur, writes about her experience.  She describes steps taken by Fellowship Memphis  to hide evidence and to browbeat victims to not report the alleged crimes.

Because the Trotter video has been hidden, and was seen only by two Fellowship elders, the alleged victim list is hard to compile, but we do have a list of people who used the bathroom at a time when Trotter was known to be videoing, which we will share with media.

The proof of Caissa’s effectiveness is that, until now, Rick Trotter, despite being fired for sexual impropriety at Fellowship Memphis, was able to go to Downtown Church and continue photographing women up-skirt for another six years, despite Downtown being notified of the reason why he was fired at Fellowship. The sorry episode resulted in no prosecutions and only a few media mentions.

Current Developments

only_morons
Credit: Amazon.com

We have recently seen signs that Caissa is actively pursuing “reputation management” in the late-October – early November timeframe.   Caissa operatives have been contacting Fellowship Memphis alleged victims.

On November 2nd, a mention of Caissa in a post apparently resulted in a Caissa employee joining the group,  less than two hours later.

We are seeing heightened activity.

We invited Brian Stephens to comment on this article, but he did not return two calls to his office and cellphone. His book title is “Only Morons say No Comment”.

Caissa People

Caissa Public Strategy is headed up by Brian Jefferson Stephens and Paige Walkup.   Caissa have removed their personal bios, which were clickable from their Our Team page.   Here’s an archived version of the team page from 2016, where the potted bios are still visible, courtesy of Archive.org

Brian Jefferson Stephens attended Marion Military Institute from 1988 to 1992, was awarded a BS by Appalachian State University 1992-1995, and has a law degree from University of Tulsa College of Law, 1995-1998.

He worked as an attorney at Allen, Scruggs, Sossaman, and Thompson from 1998 to 2003, Tennessee Law license 1999, operated a lawn care business as Ecosystems Inc  (SOS Control # 000460890) from 2004 to 2010, was Executive Director of Rebuild Government in 2009 to 2010 and started Caissa Public Strategy with Paige Walkup in December 2010.

Stephens was awarded the Army Achievement Medal, according to his Linkedin page.   This is only awarded to lower ranks in the military, so we conjecture that he had an Army Reserve deployment somewhere in his career.   60,000 of these were awarded since 2001.

 

Stephens Links

Rebuild Government from Memphis Business Journal
Rebuild Government from WMC TV5
Channel 3 on the MPA billboards issue with Stephens on the panel.
Daily News discusses Caissa.
Brian Stephens ran for City Council in 2007.  Election Commission has no records.
CEOs For Cities puff piece on Stephens
Stephens is involved in Leadership Memphis
Stephens wrote a book.
Stephens did a 180 from City County merger in 2010 to deannexation in 2017.
Memphis Business Journal article.
Photographer John Pittman quotes Brian Stephens “workout…so vigorous it had made him vomit”.
Memphis Chamber of Commerce features Caissa.

Caissa was registered on 12/28/2010 to take over the business of The Stephens Group Law FirmPaige Walkup is the co-owner and Managing Director

 

Paige Walkup.

Paige Beverly Walkup attended North Carolina State University from 1990 to 1992, has a BA from Elon Univ (1993 to 1996) and an MA in Applied Anthropology from University of Memphis (1997-1999).

She taught at Univ. of Memphis from 2000 to 2009, was Resource Development and Marketing Director at United Housing from 1998 to 2009, Project Administrator at Rebuild Government from 2009 to 2011, and was a founder of Caissa Public Strategy in December 2010.

Paige Walkup Links

Rebuild Government from Memphis Business Journal
Memphis Business Journal profile.
Memphis Connect interview.
Board Member at BLDG Memphis
The Health, Educational and Housing Facility Board Memphis.

Caissa Biographies

Brian Stephens.*   Paige Walkup,*  Rick MassonGene Bryan.*  Mae (nee Yearwood) Bennett.**  Jessica MasseyJacob Ellerbee.   Mary (nee Tanner) Joseph.* Jasmine Pena. * Jessica Muntz.**  PhotosEric Saffold, Mykila Miller, Adrian Bond and Raquel Hinson are now included on the Caissa site, but all bios are now blocked or not included on the site.

*confirmed still at Caissa.  **Confirmed to have left Caissa

Conclusions and Summary

Caissa’s political clients and allies, the Caissa Seven, dominate City Council by a one-vote majority, and also dominate in raising political contributions.   Caissa also has hooks in Jim Strickland’s administration and in various City programs and functions.

Caissa has played a role in helping the elders of Fellowship Church hide from the consequences of their alleged involvement in covering up a sex crime, and enabling the alleged perpetrator, Rick Trotter to work at another church, Downtown Church.   Fellowship Memphis failed in their duty to report the alleged crimes to the authorities, and Downturn Church, despite being informed of Trotter’s firing for sexual misbehavior, failed to protect their own members from similar abuse.

At least three links in the original David Bonner blog, all relating to Caissa, have been removed since the blog was posted.   Caissa conducted interviews with victims and some of those victims have not cooperated with official inquiries.   Evidence in the case may have gone missing.  MPD were never noted for efficient handling of sex and domestic abuse cases .  The seven year delay in handling the Fellowship Memphis cases, despite some victims filing complaints, for a case not involving rape kits, is excessive.   We have questions.

We like to characterize this Fellowship mess as an onion.  There’s an outer layer consisting of Caissa’s “crisis management” of the troubles of the church elders.    The second layer is the role of the Fellowship management in dealing with the Trotter case, which seems to include activities around the disposition of physical evidence and possible interference with victims and witnesses.   This started when the Trotter activities were first reported in 2010 and involved Caissa more recently.  The inner layer of the onion is the alleged crimes of Trotter himself.     It’s three different sets of behaviors, occurring in different time frames and involving three different sets of protagonists.    If there were crimes involved, some of them may have statutes of limitation issues.

We think another layer of “crisis management” is in the process of formation at the time of writing, November 2017.

Next post:  Caissa’s clients and contracts.   Coming soon. 

 

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