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Rob Briley’s volatile relationship with lobbyist contributed to his crack-up, friends say

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His home has been sold and his wife is packing up this week to start a new life in Vermont with the kids. His mother changed the locks on her doors to keep him out, and his brother dismissed him as a partner in their Nashville law firm.

And things probably could get worse for state Rep. Rob Briley, who has been drying out at a treatment center for a month since his drunken-driving arrest and subsequent humiliating YouTube appearance, courtesy of the Watertown police’s dash-cam video.

Until now, it has gone unreported in the media that, as his personal life disintegrated, Briley was having an affair with a lobbyist named Mary Littleton. Their relationship was common knowledge at the Capitol and eyebrow-raising even among its jaded denizens—not because of personal impropriety but because Littleton lobbies for the state trial lawyers association and Briley, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, controlled legislation important to her employer. Notably, Briley tacked on amendments that effectively killed a Senate-passed medical malpractice reform bill, a primary target of the trial lawyers during this year’s legislative session.

Numerous Scene sources, including one who has spoken with both Rob Briley and his wife about it, confirm the legislator’s relationship with the lobbyist. Briley’s affair with Littleton caused his wife, Pier, to file for divorce, sources say.

Pier Briley forced her husband to agree in their divorce proceeding to let her sell their East Nashville house and move to Vermont with their two young children, sources say. She has a few friends in Vermont and “she wants to go somewhere where the Briley name is not known,” a friend says. “She’s worn out. She’s had enough.”

The grandson of Beverly Briley, Metro Nashville’s first mayor, Rob Briley was once touted as a rising star of Tennessee politics. In rehab at Cumberland Heights, he has been “shaking uncontrollably” during visits from his family and may need more time than the standard 28-day course of treatment, according to one source.

“ ‘If you could only see him,’ ” one source says Pier Briley told her. “ ‘I truly want to cry.’ ”

Briley, who wants to stay in rehab, may have to leave on Tuesday because his state health insurance is balking at paying for a longer treatment.

Speaking to the Scene from rehab, Briley declined comment for this story. His lawyer, Wade Davies, says, “I have advised Rob to stay focused on his recovery and not to make any statements at this time. There will be a time when Rob can tell the public about what he has gone through during these past months. This is not the time. What Rob needs to do for the next few weeks is to focus on his treatment and to make sure he regains his health.”

After his Sept. 8 arrest, Briley resigned his committee chairmanship but not his legislative seat. His friends say his psyche is so shaky that he should leave the legislature to reduce stress and avoid temptations, chief among them Littleton and the almost nightly drink-a-thons (a.k.a. legislative receptions) thrown by special interests.

These friends, who ask not to be named, blame the Capitol’s well-publicized culture of sleaze for contributing to Briley’s troubles. They question why House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh never intervened to stop Briley’s affair with Littleton—a volatile, on-again, off-again relationship they say destabilized the tormented young politician. But it’s hard to imagine Naifeh objecting, given that the speaker himself romanced his now-wife Betty Anderson, a lobbyist, in the 1990s.

“Rob’s gotten up in something he can’t handle, but he’s not willing to give it up,” one source says. “All these people knew what was going on. Every one of these people knew he was out of control, but they overlooked it. Every time I leave there, I need a bath. It’s so dirty and contaminated.”

The trial lawyers also allowed the Littleton-Briley relationship to go on. And the association went into damage-control mode after it was reported in the media that, when Briley was arrested in September, he gave Wilson County jail officials Littleton’s name as next-of-kin or contact person. Littleton and Briley both claimed at the time that he named her because she was going to be his lawyer in the DUI case, but later they acknowledged she wouldn’t represent him.

The Scene phoned more than a half-dozen board members and none returned calls. “I don’t want to speak about this,” says board member Lisa Rowan, a Nashville attorney.

Association executive director Suzanne Keith spoke with the Scene but was not forthcoming, reading from a statement at first and refusing to say even whether she knew about the Littleton-Briley relationship. She also won’t say whether Littleton will continue to work for the group, which changed its name this year to the Tennessee Association for Justice. Keith calls any internal discussions “private association matters.”

Scene: You don’t want to talk about whether it’s proper or improper, their relationship?

Keith: I don’t delve into people’s personal lives. All I can tell you is she was his legal representative for a while and she’s no longer serving in that capacity.

Scene: Well, what some people are saying is that she used sex to gain access and influence in the legislature. Do you think that’s true?

Keith: I don’t think I can help you anymore.

But one source says at least some lawyers in the association are disturbed by Littleton’s conduct as their lobbyist. “They think it’s unprofessional,” this source says. “They think it’s sleazy. There are some trial lawyers who are as ethical as anyone I know.”

Neither Littleton nor Naifeh returned calls for this article.

According to numerous lobbyists contacted by the Scene, Littleton’s behavior has made her unpopular even within their ethically challenged membership. There is a certain grudging admiration for her tactics, however.

“Mary’s a huge flirt,” one lobbyist says. “She’s one of the better femme fatales that I’ve seen work the legislature. She cuts a wide swath.”

Rob Briley began his affair with Littleton in 2005, according to sources. His life began twirling out of control not too long afterward. His wife filed for divorce at Christmas 2005 after discovering text messages and emails from Briley to Littleton in her husband’s BlackBerry, sources say. Briley, who has had an alcohol problem in the past and used to credit his wife for helping him become sober, had started drinking again and spent four months in rehab last year.

Even though Briley was obviously deeply troubled and his mercurial affair with the trial lawyers’ lobbyist was well known at the Capitol, Naifeh elevated the five-term legislator to the high-powered chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee to start the 2007 session. It was apparently a reward for Briley’s loyalty in various leadership fights. His return to the bottle was almost inevitable at that point, friends say.

Some weeks before Briley’s DUI arrest, when the lawmaker was drinking heavily yet again, his family decided to try “tough love” to make him stop and get help, one source says. His mother changed the locks on her doors, and his brother David—a former at-large Metro Council member and mayoral candidate this year—kicked Rob out of their law firm. It didn’t work.

In August, David Briley became concerned about Rob’s emotional well-being and thought he might be suicidal. He went to Legislative Plaza but, at Rob’s request, state troopers turned his brother away. Later, police got another call and found Rob Briley “very intoxicated, unstable on his feet, speaking with slurred speech and uncooperative” a couple blocks from Mafiaoza’s pizzeria on 12th Avenue South. He had been making suicidal threats in the restaurant, police say. He was driven to a hospital for evaluation and released.

His now-infamous rampage on Sept. 8 began when authorities say he rear-ended a truck with his SUV, then led police on a 100-mph chase through Watertown. After he finally stopped, he took a final swig of bourbon as officers approached with guns drawn. The police video showed Briley on his knees, crying and screeching as he was handcuffed. Later he called police “Nazis” and asked officers to “do everyone a favor” and shoot him in the head.

In addition to DUI, he was charged with two felonies: evading arrest and vandalism, for trying to kick out the police car window. A preliminary hearing in Wilson County is set for Oct. 31.

It’s doubtful that Briley’s crack-up will curb bad behavior at the legislature. The House leadership isn’t showing any inclination to act in any way against the troubled lawmaker. He resigned as Judiciary Committee chairman only after Gov. Phil Bredesen said he should. House Republican leaders have demanded Briley’s resignation, but Naifeh hasn’t said much, except to call the GOP comments “pretty low-life.” Still, some of Briley’s friends are holding out hope that his travails might at least do some good by leading to reform. As one asks, “Have they all become so pathetic that they think this kind of stuff is OK?”

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