Photo Credit: Gary Paakkonen / CC
The Tennessee Conservative [By Jason Vaughn] –
To secure passage of Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s $52.8 Billion budget, which included $500 Million in state bonds to fund a new domed stadium for the Tennessee Titans, the organization built a team of 15 individuals to lobby legislators to secure their votes.
Among the lobbyists included Nicole Watson, wife of Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson-District 11) and Virginia Ezell Briley, daughter of Tennessee’s Commissioner of Tourist Development, Mark Ezell.
These lobbying efforts and the lobbyists’ family connections to Tennessee officials were discovered through an investigation by NewsChannel5 Investigates which they state “reveals how the lines between public interest and personal interest can get blurred on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill.”
Nonpartisan watchdog group, Common Cause, was quoted as stating, “Situations like this can further erode faith and confidence in the government.”
The group states that this form of nepotism, if not always illegal, certainly “looks and smells bad to the public.”
Senator Watson serves as chairman of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee, which is considered one of the most powerful positions in the State Senate as any legislation that involves state funds must pass through the committee before moving to the floor for a vote, including the legislation dealing with the Titans stadium.
NewsChannel5 Investigates reached out to Senator Watson for an interview to ask how he handles the potential conflicts that arise between the public’s business and his wife’s lobbying business but heard nothing for a week.
However, outside a Senate session, NewsChannel5 caught up with Watson for a conversation on the run.
Reporters asked Watson if the public should be concerned about the ethics of the relationship.
Watson replied that there are rules in place for this kind of relationship, “And I follow all of them.”
Following up, reporters asked Watson if he recused himself from any legislation that his wife is lobbying.
Watson replied that his wife doesn’t lobby him and Tennessee law does not require that.
However, the Tennessee Senate Rules of Order #13 states that Senators must disclose when they have a personal conflict or interest with any legislation presented.
13. PERSONAL INTEREST. When a member of this body arises to address himself or herself to a bill, section thereof, or amendment in which he or she has a personal interest, he or she shall state to the Speaker and members of the body “that it may be considered that I have a degree of personal interest in the subject matter of this bill, but I declare that my argument and my ultimate vote answer only to my conscience and to my obligation to my constituents and the citizens of the State of Tennessee.”
NewsChannel5 reports that prior to their marriage, Nicole Watson only had three clients but right before their wedding, she landed a job with a large lobbying firm and now lobbies for the following:
• Novarits Services
• National Museum of African American Music
• Clearview AI
• Cempa Community Care
• City of East Ridge
• Bristol Motor Speedway
• Accenture LLP
• TN Fire Services Coalition
• TN General Sessions Judges Conf.
• TN Council of Juvenile Judges
• TN Chamber of Commerce
• T-Mobile USA
• Star Community Builders
• Reagan Outdoor Advertising
• i3 Verticals LLC
• Thompson Engineering
• Tennessee Football
Reporters asked Watson if it was a coincidence that her clients had increased so much since their marriage.
Watson replied, “I don’t know anything about that,” and stated that he is unaware of who his wife’s clients are.
Watson went on to say that his wife has a memorandum of understanding with her lobbying firm which states that she is barred from lobbying him on any issue.
Watson said, “We go above and beyond the rules to be sure that we are complying with everything that’s required of us.”
However, NewsChannel5 points out that even though Watson’s wife may not lobby him, fellow legislators, decision-makers and clients are aware of the connection when she comes calling, implying that the connection to a powerful sitting lawmaker grants her additional influence even if it’s not through direct lobbying.
As a final question for Senator Watson, NewsChannel5 asked if he stands to benefit from the relationship and from the lobbying relationships made possible by his wife’s connections.
Watson referred to Rule 13 (mentioned above) that he claims he adheres to whenever there might be a conflict. However, no examples were found where Watson had publicly declared any conflicts with the Titans legislation.
As with all Senators, Watson was permitted to vote on the Titans legislation, regardless of his connection to a lobbyist for the bill.
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Virginia Ezell Briley, daughter of Tennessee’s Commissioner of Tourist Development, Mark Ezell, lobbies for New Era Farms (Bonnaroo), Nashville Predators, Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, Tennessee Football, Tellico Village and Ryan Hospitality Properties.
In an email response to NewsChannel5 Investigates inquiries, a spokesperson for the Commissioner stated that he keeps his job separate from his daughter’s and that he did not have a role in Briley’s employment change from school teacher to lobbyist.
The spokesperson also stated that the Tourist Development department conducts business in compliance with state law and that the commissioner does not discuss business with family members.
And finally, there is another connection between a corporate entity and Tennessee Officials with lobbyist Jeremy Nagoshiner, husband to Valerie Nagoshiner, who serves as the Chief of Staff for outgoing Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey.
Mr. Nagoshiner is a registered lobbyist for Wal-mart.
Last year the Tennessee Health Department granted a deal to Wal-mart wherein they received first rights for two oral antiviral treatments for COVID-19, Molnupirvar by Merck and Paxlovid by Pfizer.
However, the Commissioner’s spokesperson claimed that the department’s chief of staff was not involved in the arrangement.
In the email, the spokesperson stated that the Health Department employees adhere to state ethics standards including Executive Order 2, which requires additional ethical obligations of employees in addition to those imposed by statute.
The spokesperson went on to state that Mrs. Nagoshiner had disclosed the contractual relationship her husband has with Walmart as part of her annual ethics disclosure requirements and has never been a part of discussions on any topics related to Walmart.
During this session of the Tennessee General Assembly, several bills were introduced to regulate and/or ban certain types of lobbying, an act which showed that some members of the Legislature have concerns about the ethics of situations such as those described above and about the use of taxpayer dollars to fund lobbying efforts. However, none made it to the floor for a vote.
A couple of bills directly addressed situations like those above.
HB2522 / SB2193 – Legislation sought to prohibit a family member of a member of the general assembly from being a lobbyist while the member of the general assembly holds office. SB2193 was withdrawn from the Senate State and Local Government Committee by Senate Bill Sponsor Senator Janice Bowling.
HB2523 / SB2194 – Legislation sought to prohibit a family member of a member of the general assembly from lobbying state or local governments while the member of the general assembly holds office. SB2194 was also withdrawn from the Senate State and Local Government Committee by Senate Bill Sponsor Senator Janice Bowling.
Other lobbying legislation also failed to make it to the House or Senate floor for a vote.
HB1978 / SB2275 – Legislation sought to prohibit state agencies from lobbying for or against state legislation. In addition, the legislation sought to prohibit the use of appropriated funds or funds under the agency’s control for such purposes. The legislation was taken off notice by the House bill sponsor, former Rep. Robin Smith, due to a likely defeat in the Senate and the fact that the practice the bill aims to address is most likely already in violation of Tennessee Code and the state’s Constitution.
HB2485 / SB2687 – Legislation aimed to require employers of lobbyists to include with their employer disclosure report filed with the ethics commission, the aggregate total amount of all employer expenses that were funded in whole or in part from taxpayer money, including expenses for lobbying, consulting, advocacy, and third-party associations utilized by the employer for such services. The legislation was taken off notice in the House Public Service & Employees Subcommittee due to the House bill sponsor, Rep. Todd Warner, being notified by the Subcommittee chair, Rep. Esther Helton, that the bill would not receive a motion or a second if heard in the subcommittee.
HB0150 / SB0799 – Legislation sought to prohibit the governor’s staff from lobbying 12 months following their departure from office or employment. The legislation was taken off notice by House bill sponsor, Rep. Richard Briggs, in the House State Government Committee.
When the session came to a close, no legislation prohibiting or regulating lobbying had passed the Tennessee General Assembly.
About the Author: Jason Vaughn, Media Coordinator for The Tennessee Conservative ~ Jason previously worked for a legacy publishing company based in Crossville, TN in a variety of roles through his career. Most recently, he served as Deputy Director for their flagship publication. Prior, he was a freelance journalist writing articles that appeared in the Herald Citizen, the Crossville Chronicle and The Oracle among others. He graduated from Tennessee Technological University with a Bachelor’s in English-Journalism, with minors in Broadcast Journalism and History. Contact Jason at news@TennesseeConservativeNews.com