How an affair with her bodyguard brought down Nashville’s mayor
A onetime symbol of integrity, Megan Barry made history as the Music City’s first female mayor in 2015. Barry sought to tackle the scarcity of public transportation options and affordable housing, and helped score a professional soccer franchise.
She was popular and energetic, a regular presence at music venues and Nashville Predators hockey games.
The mayor’s willingness to talk about her only son’s fatal drug overdose last summer engendered sympathy from residents. Those warm feelings largely continued even after the mayor, 54, publicly apologized for having an affair with her bodyguard.
It all ended Tuesday with Barry stepping down after admitting to a felony theft charge related to the affair.
“While my time today as your mayor concludes, my unwavering love and sincere affection for this wonderful city and its great people will never come to an end,” Barry told reporters in a three-minute appearance.
The guilty plea to felony theft of property over $10,000 represented a remarkable fall for the politician: Barry once enjoyed approval ratings of more than 70%.
The political honeymoon
Barry moved to Nashville in 1991 to attend graduate school at Vanderbilt University, where she earned an MBA in 1993. She worked as an ethics and compliance officer in private business.
Barry, a Democrat and two-term Metro Council member, was elected mayor in September 2015 in a runoff.
“Tonight, we start a new chapter in Nashville of the Nashville story,” she said on election night, CNN affiliate WKRN reported. “And that story is the saga that is written every day by the people in this room and those of you who are watching at home.”
Barry distinguished herself as a pro-business, socially progressive politician, Joey Garrison, a metro politics reporter for The Tennessean, told CNN.
Barry was “one of the highest-profile Democrats in Tennessee. She’s known for her accessibility and remarkable visibility,” Garrison said last month.
Cranes are plentiful around the city where new homes are springing up. Barry’s agenda included an ambitious $5.2 billion mass transit proposal for 26 miles of light rail, bus routes and an underground tunnel through downtown Nashville, CNN affiliate WKRN reported.
The plan will go before voters in May.
In December, the city was awarded a Major League Soccer expansion franchise.
The loss of her son
Last July, Barry lost her son to an accidental drug overdose in a Colorado suburb. Max Barry’s death was complicated in part by morbid obesity, according to an autopsy.
The opioid crisis came to Barry’s doorstep, and the public way in which she coped with the tragedy moved many residents.
“She’s a Nashvillian. She feels that when she hurts, we hurt … we’re a family,” resident Wesley Martin said.
Barry spoke openly about her son’s struggles with drugs, hoping her own experience and transparency could help others confront similar problems.
“I cannot tell you how many people have come to me and shared their own grief stories about a loved one who died where they never talked about it before,” Barry told CNN’s Jake Tapper in an interview in August.
On her first day back to work after the death of her son, Barry took time to greet children commencing the school year, according to CNN affiliate WKRN. She handed out supplies and backpacks.
“The first day of school in our household was always a joyous occasion. Max loved school and our ritual was that we would always take a picture every day of the first day of school,” she said.
Barry grew emotional, her eyes misting with tears. She talked about a “new normal” of never talking to her son again.
“The normal is Max is not going to text me back. The work of our city goes on. Every day, I’ll get up and do what needs to be done,” she said.
Barry’s resignation came after months of intense local news coverage about her relationship with the former head of her security detail, Sgt. Robert Forrest Jr.
In January, Barry publicly apologized for the nearly two-year affair with the married bodyguard.
“I accept full responsibility for the pain I have caused my family and his. I am so sorry to my husband, Bruce, who has stood by me in my darkest moments and remains committed to our marriage, just as I am committed to repairing the damage I have done,” she said then.
But she insisted to The Tennessean that she would not step down.
“I also must apologize to the people of Nashville who elected me to serve as your mayor,” she said in her statement at the time. “I knew my actions could cause damage to my office and the ones I loved, but I did it anyway. I must hold myself to the highest standard of which the voters deserve to expect. Please know that I’m disappointed in myself but also understand that I’m a human and that I made a mistake.”
To many supporters, the so-called mistake made her appear more human. After all, infidelity in politics is hardly a new story.
“Politicians locally and nationally have set the bar pretty low,” Nashville resident Jonathan Blake, 41, said last month. “It’s hard to have any kind of concern about extramarital affairs in public office. We don’t tend to look to our public officials for moral leadership anymore.”
Barry remained immensely popular even after the admission. A number of residents say they were disappointed by the scandal but not outraged. They viewed the affair as a personal issue between a husband and wife still grieving the death of their son. A number of residents saw the alleged misuse of public funds as a separate issue.
“We are not looking for a perfect human being as a mayor. We’re looking for somebody who knows how to do the job, and who will be faithful and honest to the mission of Nashville and carry us forward,” Fiona Prine, whose son was close with Barry’s son, said last month. “We need a steward … and she is a steward.”
Under her guilty plea, Barry agreed to reimburse the city of Nashville $11,000 and serve three years of probation, according to court documents obtained by CNN.
The resignation and plea came after days of negotiations between the mayor’s legal team and District Attorney Glenn Funk, CNN affiliate WTVF reported. Those negotiations had apparently centered on whether Funk would agree not to prosecute the mayor in exchange for her resignation, the station reported.
Forrest also pleaded guilty to theft of property over $10,000. He agreed to serve three years of supervised probation and repay the city $45,000, court documents show.
According to The Tennessean, the two were often partaking in domestic and international travel for work, which led Forrest to rack up $33,000 in expenses and $50,000 plus in overtime in 2017 on top of his $84,500 salary. Nine of the trips were attended only by Barry and Forrest.
In court, Funk said that between March 2016 and January 2018 Barry caused more than $10,000 and less than $60,000 of Metro Nashville city funds to be “expended unlawfully” on Forrest, affiliate WKRN reported.
Last month, authorities charged in court documents that newly discovered nude cell phone photos may be evidence that Barry and Forrest were having an affair while he was being paid to be her bodyguard.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said Forrest used a work phone to take two photos while on duty. Investigators said evidence pointed to the possibility that crimes — official misconduct and theft of property — occurred.
TBI investigators say they looked at Forrest’s phone and his emails after Barry admitted publicly to the affair. Two of his emails each contained one photo that showed a partially nude or fully naked woman, court documents say. The documents do not say the woman is Barry.
A question of judgment
Chris Cummings, who voted for Barry, said last month: “I think a lot of us maybe elevated her to a status that maybe isn’t fair, but she was kind of that symbol of integrity, honesty.”
Resident Barbara Sharer was one of the residents who wrote to The Tennessean urging the mayor to resign.
“She had disgraced the Office of Mayor,” the 71-year-old Sharer wrote.
In an interview last month, Sharer said: “I don’t trust her and I don’t think she is capable of being mayor. She uses bad judgment.”
“For being a first woman mayor, as a woman that’s despicable to me that she has carried on this affair for two years,” Sharer said.
In her farewell message, Barry said: “I sincerely hope and believe that my own actions will not tarnish or otherwise detract from all of the great work they do,” she said, referring to members of her staff.
Vice Mayor David Briley was sworn in hours later on Tuesday as Nashville’s new leader. He will serve in that role until an August 2 election.
After she resigned, Barry tweeted: “It has been the honor and it has been the privilege of my entire professional life to have had the blessing of this opportunity to be your mayor. I love you, Nashville.”