NewsNewsChannel 5 InvestigatesRevealed 2022


REVEALED: Titans stadium push shows family connections on Tennessee's Capitol Hill

Posted: 5:44 PM, May 09, 2022
Updated: 2024-01-10 11:23:16-05
Nicole and Bo Watson.jpeg

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — For the Tennessee Titans, a future in Nashville calls for a new stadium to replace the aging structure that opened almost 23 years ago.

Their vision: a domed facility that could cost more than $2 billion.

And just like putting together a team on the field, the organization put together a team of 15 lobbyists to help them move the legislative ball across the goal line.

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Titans lobbying team

Among their lobbyists: the wife of the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the daughter of the state's Commissioner of Tourist Development.

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Nicole Watson and Virginia Ezell Briley

That lobbying effort is the latest example, uncovered by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, that reveals how the lines between public interest and personal interest can get blurred on Tennessee's Capitol Hill.

"Situations like this can further erode faith and confidence in government," said Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs for the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause.

"Certainly, nepotism or this form of nepotism, if not always illegal, certainly looks and smells bad to the public."

In the case of the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Bo Watson, R-Hixson, holds one of the most powerful positions in the state Senate. Any legislation that involves state money is forced to pass through his committee, including the Titans legislation.

So how does Sen. Watson handle the conflicts between the public's business and his wife's business?

NewsChannel 5 Investigates put in a request for Sen. Watson, hoping he would sit down with us to discuss those questions.

Then we waited.

For a week, we heard nothing.

So, finally, we caught up with the Hamilton County Republican outside a Senate session for what would turn into a conversation on the run.

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Phil Williams with Sen. Bo Watson

We asked, "Should the public be concerned about the ethics of the relationship?"

"Ah, no."

"Why not?"

"There are rules in place for our kind of relationship, and I follow all of them."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates pressed, "Do you recuse yourself from legislation that she's lobbying?"

"Well, she doesn't lobby me, first of all," Watson said, "and the law doesn't require that."

In fact, a wedding announcement, published in theNew York Times, describes how Nicole Osborne and Bo Watson met on her first day of work at a lobbying job, that it was love at first sight.

State records show the year before they got married, she had just three clients.

Right before their wedding, she got hired by a big lobbying firm with a roster full of big-name companies.

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Nicole Watson lobbying clients

We asked Watson, "Her client base has increased substantially since the marriage. Is that a coincidence?"

"I don't know anything about that," he answered. "I don't know who her clients are."

While Watson claimed he does not keep track of his wife's clients, senators are required — under what's called Rule 13 — to disclose when they have a personal conflict.

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Rule 13

"My wife has a memorandum of understanding with her firm, which says she cannot and will not lobby me on any issue," Watson continued.

"We go above and beyond the rules to be sure that we are complying with everything that's required of us."

Common Cause's Aaron Scherb noted that "there are kind of end-run ways around that kind of verbal voluntary agreement."

While the finance chairman's wife may not personally lobby him, people know the connection when she comes calling, as do the clients who pay her.

"So even if this significant other was not lobbying him directly," Scherb said, "there are certainly plenty of other ways that lobbyists can get influence over a sitting state legislator, even if not directly lobbying."

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Aaron Scherb

Even if Sen. Watson's wife were paid to lobby him, there is apparently no law in Tennessee against that.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Watson, "Do you stand to benefit from the relationship and from the lobbying relationships?"

"No, " Watson said, "if there is a bill that I am concerned with, the rules require me to declare Rule 13, which I do."

We noted, "Which means you still get to vote on it."

"As every other member does on any kind of conflict," the senator responded. "That's why the Senate has that rule in place."

But when we checked Watson's votes on the Titans legislation, we could find no examples where he publicly declared his conflict.

Then, there's the Commissioner of Tourist Development, Mark Ezell, whose daughter went from being a school teacher to getting hired to lobby for a host of tourism-related companies, including the Titans.

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Virginia Ezell Briley lobbying clients

A spokesperson for the commissioner insisted he keeps his job separate from his daughter's job.

"Commissioner Ezell did not have a role in his daughter’s employment change," spokesperson Amanda Murphy said in an email.

"The department conducts business in compliance with state law, and the commissioner does not discuss business with family members."

Then, there is outgoing Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey's chief of staff.

Valerie Nagoshiner's husband, Jeremy, is a registered lobbyist for Walmart.

Last year, the department agreed to a deal where Walmart got first dibs on some COVID treatments, although a spokesperson insisted the chief of staff had nothing to do with that arrangement.

"Our employees adhere to state ethics standards including following Executive Order 2, which requires additional ethical obligations of employees in addition to those imposed by statute," spokesperson Bill Christian said in an email.

"To that end, Mrs. Nagoshiner has disclosed the contractual relationship her husband has with Walmart as part of her annual ethics disclosure requirements. Furthermore, she has never been a part of discussions on any topics related to Walmart.

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Valerie and Jeremy Nagoshiner

Aaron Scherb, the Common Cause official, noted that "lobbying is a constitutionally protected right. So any sort of law or legislation that's introduced has to be done extremely carefully."

Earlier this year, state Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, introduced a bill to prohibit relatives from lobbying the legislature.

Two weeks later, Bowling suddenly withdrew that bill.

"That was a request, that it was not an appropriate piece of legislation," Bowling told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

We asked, "Was it a request from leadership?"

"That happened a long time ago," she answered.

As for Sen. Watson, he insisted there's no problem with his wife getting paid by special interests as long as he discloses it.

"Other people in the government have to make those same disclosures. So do I."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates told Watson, "But some ethics watchdogs say that it still presents a conflict of interest."

"Well, I disagree," he answered.

"I follow the rules of the Senate. I am chairman of the rules committee. I follow the rules of the Senate."

Many years ago, there was a Democrat Speaker of the House, Jimmy Naifeh, whose wife was a powerful lobbyist.

Like now, the Speaker insisted it did not affect his decisions. Still, back in those days, Republicans frequently expressed concerns about the ethics of it all.


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