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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Tennessee state Sen. Bo Watson makes a comment at the offices of the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Nov. 15, 2019.

NASHVILLE — The relationship between Tennessee Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and his wife, lobbyist Nicole Osborne Watson, is under scrutiny after the chairman's yes vote on the state's $52.8 billion budget bill last month.

The budget includes a $500 million appropriation requested by Gov. Bill Lee and sought by the Tennessee Titans for the football team's new projected $1.9 billion to $2.2 billion domed football stadium.

Osborne Watson works for the Nashville law firm Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, which was retained to lobby the bill in support of the provision. The Titans' lobbying effort was under the name Tennessee Football Inc. She formerly worked at Chattanooga-headquartered Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel.

Watson said in a Chattanooga Times Free Press phone interview that the relationship was disclosed even before the couple married in 2018 and that he and Osborne Watson have a firm policy of not discussing legislation.

The chairman said he was opposed to Lee's budget request for the stadium, and the budget bill emerged from his panel last month without the half-billion-dollar provision.

It also initially passed on the Senate floor without the Titans stadium funding. But the House included the provision. Watson said the lower chamber insisted on it remaining.

"I voted against the Titan funding in the Senate Finance Committee, and I voted against the Titans funding in the Senate version of the budget," he said. "Now, when the budget went over to the House and came back over, at that point we weren't going to go to conference on the budget. It was what it was. And I voted for the budget that at that time had the Titans."

Osborne Watson's participation in the lobbying effort was first questioned by Nashville television station WTVF.

Beth Rotman, director of the national watchdog group Common Cause's Money in Politics & Ethics Program, said in a Times Free Press phone interview Wednesday that Watson should have abstained from voting.

"When it is directly your spouse, for example, or your kid, I'm sorry, the relationship is just too close," Rotman said. "And it defies logic to say that you can just assure people — don't worry it doesn't influence me — and have people feel that passes the test," added Rotman, noting she wasn't accusing Watson or his wife of any wrongdoing.

Watson, who became Finance Committee chairman in 2017, said people are "overlooking the fact" that he initially voted against the funding.

"I voted for an amendment to remove it. I then voted for the budget in committee that didn't include it, and then I voted for that same budget on the floor that didn't include it."

Senate rules require legislators to disclose when they have or could be perceived as having a personal interest in such a bill. In this case, Watson filed such a document with the Senate clerk.

"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 constituents and the citizens of Tennessee," the document said.

Watson said in Wednesday's interview he and his wife "really don't talk about this stuff" and he had made that decision at the onset of their relationship.

"We began this discussion then of, you know, 'Look, you don't lobby me. We don't talk about this stuff,'" he said. "So when she went to work at Waller, when she was at Chambliss, she had a MOU [memorandum of understanding] that says 'I cannot lobby Bo, and I will not lobby Bo.'

"I know if another legislator says to me, 'Hey, Nicole came and saw me about X, Y and Z, usually I'll say I don't know anything about that. That's usually how I find out, because we really have worked really hard to understand the perception that people would have.

"And so, we go above and beyond, I think, trying to not only abide by the law but abide by the spirit of the law, as well," Watson said.

He said he will leave a room when his wife, an attorney, is on the phone discussing lobbying business. When they're traveling together by car, he said, she will tell clients to call her back later, the senator said.

Earlier this year, Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, introduced a measure, Senate Bill 2193, that took aim at such situations.

"A family member of a member of the General Assembly shall not lobby the General Assembly, be employed as a lobbyist or be an employer of a lobbyist while the member of the General Assembly holds office," it said.

Bowling, who never moved the bill forward, said in a phone interview Thursday the bill was not intended to single out Watson but was an effort to address issues of people losing confidence.

"There are going to be those who question everything you do, that you're only doing what you're doing to promote yourself or to aggrandize your own value," Bowling said. "And I think most of us, I would like to think all of us are not elected for those personal advantages, we're there to serve the people of Tennessee and serve our districts and do the things that are not injurious to the people."

Bowling said she had been told, she didn't specify by whom, that there were five lawmakers in the Senate and House who were in marital relationships with lobbyists.

There was speculation among some in the Capitol lobbying community that the bill might have been intended to target Watson, possibly for Bowling sponsoring some legislation that didn't make it through Watson's committee.

That's not true, Bowling said.

"I had information that there were several, and it certainly was not targeting anyone and certainly not for petty personal reason," Bowling said.

She later added: "If it were just one person, I wouldn't have sponsored the bill."

The House bill's sponsor, Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, said the bill in his view wasn't ready to try to move.

"We never did get [the bill] finished up," Sexton said. "So until you get everything the way you wanted, you just don't need to move forward. And we didn't feel like we were ready to move."

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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Nicole Watson at City Hall on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

Other clients

Osborne Watson was registered this year to lobby on behalf of 17 clients. Others included the city of East Ridge, where state Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, is a city councilwoman.

Officials there sought a $13 million appropriation for help with public infrastructure such as sewers for a planned $200 million retail and residential development by Chattanooga Red Wolves soccer team owner and developer Bob Martino.

The funding was supported by the entire Hamilton County legislative delegation and was whittled down during the budget-making process to $5 million.

Meanwhile, city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County government efforts to obtain $20.8 million in state funding for plans to move the Chattanooga Lookouts minor league stadium to the South Broad District went nowhere. The city used a lobbying firm started by Todd Womack and fellow staffers of former U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, and later brought on the Ingram Group.

But Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, House Finance Committee Chairwoman Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, and other delegation members pointed out that the South Broad District area had previously been the beneficiary of a $35 million, state-funded highway exit in the area. Moreover, they said, Martino spent millions of dollars of his own money on the soccer stadium and intended to plow tens of millions of dollars more into the residential and retail development. They questioned why the Lookouts and property owners weren't putting up any money.

Lawmakers did approve a bill near the end of the legislative session allowing the Lookouts to keep a portion of state sales tax revenues on items sold in the proposed new baseball stadium.

Relationships between lobbyists and legislators or other officeholders are nothing new in Tennessee.

Former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, a Covington Democrat, dated and then married Betty Anderson, a lobbying powerhouse. Former Sen. Carl Moore, a Bristol Democrat, was married to Elliott Moore, another accomplished lobbyist, before his death in 2021.

One-time state Economic Development Commissioner Matt Kisber, a former legislator, was married to Paige Kisber, another lobbyist. The brother of then-Rep. Ben West, D-Nashville, was then-Metro Nashville Councilman Jay West.

According to a review of Tennessee Ethics Commission records, Watson and Nicole Osborne Watson are the state's only current legislator/lobbyist couple, although several lobbyists have reported being married to state executive branch workers or officials in independent agencies.

Watson, whose first marriage ended in divorce, began disclosing his relationship with Nicole Osborne some two years before the couple married in the summer of 2018. The announcement of the marriage was published in The New York Times.

He said in Wednesday's interview he felt the relationship should be disclosed even before they were married.

Watson said that as Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, a Franklin Republican who also opposed the Titans funding initially, explained on the floor, lawmakers were dealing with a $52.8 billion budget and had to accept some provisions they didn't like.

"There are compromises in the budget," Watson said. "The Senate had not agreed to do the Titans funding. The House wanted it. We didn't want to go to conference committee on the budget. It was one item in the budget against the totality of the budget, there's a lot of other things in the budget that I was really for."

Common Cause's Rotman said "people are not supposed to guess what's in your head or just completely take your word for it.

"The idea is you want a system of rules to ensure public confidence in government and that these are actually arms-length transactions and judgments that are in the best interest of the wide swath of the public, and so when they get this close and this much nepotism appears to be involved, that's where we have a problem and the rules need to be strengthened," she said.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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Staff photo / Senator Bo Watson, Jim Coleman, Amy Walker, Nicole Watson, Sheila Boyington, and Dane Boyington stand for a portrait during the 100 dinner at Crabtree Farms on Saturday, July 18, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
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