The spokesman for a group opposing plans to redevelop the Tennessee State Fairgrounds is a registered sex offender who runs an online fantasy gaming site frequented by minors, The City Paper has learned.
Thomas Larry Watson, 62, has issued comments to the media several times in recent months on behalf of the Fairgrounds Heritage Preservation Group, which hired an attorney in January and filed suit last week against against Metro Nashville and the city's Board of Fair Commissioners.
According to a 1995 newspaper account, Watson was arrested in March of that year in Cumming, Ga., where he was a computer software dealer. As part of a nationwide crackdown on distributors of child pornography, he was charged with "activities relating to material involving the sexual exploitation of children."
He was convicted in federal court and sentenced in November 1995 to 15 months of imprisonment, followed by three years of supervised release, court records indicate. In 2005, Nashville authorities arrested him for failing to register as a sex offender, according to Davidson County Criminal Court records. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge the following year and was given a suspended jail sentence. He is now listed in Tennessee's Sexual Offender Registry.
Watson operates RuneVillage.com, a fansite for players of the online fantasy game RuneScape that appears to have more than 40,000 members. Several of the people who have become fans of RuneVillage on Facebook identify themselves as high school students from the U.S. and other countries.
Watson first advanced the argument that it would be illegal for the Fair Board to stop putting on the state fair in an email he sent to board members on Oct. 7 of last year. He cited state laws from the 1920s and earlier to make the case that the board is required to hold a state fair every year at the south Nashville site.
Two citizens who say they will be affected by the fairgrounds' projected closure sued on Friday in Davidson County Chancery Court, relying on legal arguments much like Watson's. Attorney Robert W. Rutherford of Rutherford & DeMarco filed the complaint after the Fairgrounds Heritage Preservation Group retained him.
Reached Tuesday afternoon, Rutherford noted that Watson is "not officially a part of the lawsuit" and remarked that his criminal record, of which Rutherford had not been aware, "doesn't affect the validity of the argument."
Rutherford said: "I'm hoping this boils down to a purely legal argument, and [Watson's past] really has no effect on that. He's not one of my clients. He's a proponent."
Fair Board Chairman James Weaver, an attorney at Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis LLP, declined to comment when asked about the revelation of Watson's past on Tuesday.
Reached by telephone Tuesday afternoon, Watson contended his background "has nothing to do with the politics" of the fairgrounds debate.
"Yes, I made a mistake 15 years ago," Watson said. "The idea is that you're supposed to pay your penalty and go and sin no more. You know, try to get back involved with community and citizenship again. Well, that's what I've been doing."