By Nate Rau / The Tennessean
State Rep. Curry Todd lived rent-free for an undisclosed amount of time in the expensive Nashville home of a prominent lobbyist in 2011.
State ethics law forbids lobbyists from providing gifts, including housing, to lawmakers. The lobbyist, Chuck Welch, regularly worked on legislative issues that passed through the House State and Local Government Committee, which Todd, R-Collierville, chaired until he was removed in late 2011.
That came after Todd, who had sponsored legislation allowing guns in places that serve alcohol, was arrested on DUI and gun charges in October 2011. He was pulled over by Metro police less than a mile from the lobbyist's Green Hills home.
Todd acknowledged last week that he has stayed at Welch's house on a number of occasions, but wouldn't clarify how long he lived at 2004 Lombardy Ave. in 2011. The home sold last year for $460,000, and rent for a four-bedroom house would have been in the range of $2,000 per month.
Welch, who did not respond to a request for comment, is the managing director for the Nashville office of the influential lobbying firm Farris, Mathews and Bobango. Until his arrest, Todd wielded significant power at the capitol in his role as chairman of the House committee.
Thanks to a generous carve-out in the state ethics law, the free housing may not constitute a violation because Todd and Welch are long-time friends.
Both Welch and the firm regularly lobbied on bills considered by Todd's committee, including the ongoing issue of how utility poles are regulated across the state. The lobbying firm's clients include the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association. Welch's other lobbying clients include tw telecom, the American Legal Finance Association and the Tennessee Development District Association.
Todd said his close personal friendship with Welch "has not affected my independent judgment as a lawmaker."
Todd declined to answer questions regarding his living arrangement with Welch. His prepared statement referred to the carve-out in the state ethics law that allows for gifts to be exchanged between lobbyists and lawmakers in cases of close personal friendships. Such gifts are not required to be reported annually.
"(Todd) is absolutely right, that is in the law," said Dick Williams, executive director for the Tennessee chapter of Common Cause and an open government advocate. "But I kind of think he might be pushing the envelope on that exemption. Normally when you think what they meant by that exemption, I think they meant birthday gifts and minor things. A somewhat extended stay rent-free seems to me to be pushing the envelope."
Todd said he met Welch over 45 years ago when he was a student at Treadwell High School, where Welch's dad coached Todd's basketball team.
"To this day, I consider Chuck Welch a true and close friend," Todd said in his statement to the newspaper. "In addition, I have interacted with Mr. Welch on a professional basis related to my duties as a state representative multiple times. Like any lobbyist in Nashville, Mr. Welch visits with all legislators on a regular basis."
The ethics rules specify that gifts given for a non-business purpose and motivated by a close personal friendship are not subject to the gift ban. The rules go on to spell out the tests for whether a gift is motivated by friendship, including if it was paid out of a personal or business account, whether the lobbyist deducts the gift as a business expense and whether the lobbyist has a matter that will come before the lawmaker.
During the year in question, Todd was paid $29,016.22 in per diem and mileage reimbursements, according to state records. On the days before and of his arrest, Todd was paid $185.94 in mileage and $346 in per diem expenses, according to his expense reports. Those funds are supposed to be used for travel and living expenses related to a lawmaker's legislative work.
A pair of Middle Tennessee lawmakers, state Sen. Ferrell Haile and state Rep. Rick Womick, have filed bills this year to withhold hotel reimbursements for legislators who live within 50 miles of the state Capitol. The effort has slowed since state Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, suggested an amendment that would require legislators who live farther than 50 miles away to submit receipts proving they stayed in hotels.
"Over the years, I have stayed at Mr. Welch's home in Nashville on a number of occasions. Likewise, any friends of mine certainly know they have a place to stay at my home in Memphis if they are ever visiting and need a bed for the night," Todd said.
The records also show that Todd went to bat for a client of Welch's on at least one occasion. In 2010, Todd sent a letter to the chair of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority urging the authority to restore federal funding to Nexus Communications, which Welch represented. The funding was ultimately not restored, and the TRA claimed the company misled lawmakers about the authority's ability to do so.
The Tennessean learned of Todd's living arrangement in the lobbyist's home after the newspaper obtained an email sent by Nashville realtor Gloria Houghland to restaurateur Randy Rayburn, a staunch critic of the guns-in-bars law. While Todd was going through his divorce in 2011, Welch allowed him to stay in the Green Hills area home, according to Houghland's email to Rayburn. It was during this same time frame that questions arose as to whether Todd had legal residence in his legislative district. Houghland, who was listed as the realtor for the home sale, did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the email, Welch wanted to put the home on the market, but couldn't because Todd refused to move out. A real estate listing indicates the home was eventually put on the market in late December.
"Chuck knows this isn't ethical and is very upset about it," Houghland said in the email.
Todd, a retired police officer, represents suburban Memphis in the legislature. He won re-election unopposed last year, and pleaded guilty to the DUI and gun charges in January. Under his plea deal, Todd agreed to spend two days in jail, a restricted driver's license, probation and a $350 fine.