Monthly Archives: October 2021

Grand jury indicts Kelsey on federal campaign finance charges

Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), right, confers with then-Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) on the House floor in Nashville on April 30, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A grand jury has indicted state Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) on five counts of violating federal campaign finance laws related to his failed 2016 bid for Congress.

According to the indictment, Kelsey and Josh Smith, the owner of The Standard social club in Nashville, conspired with others to “secretly and unlawfully funnel ‘soft money'” between the senator’s state account and his federal campaign.

“Kelsey and others also caused a national political organization to make illegal, excessive contributions to Kelsey’s federal campaign committee by secretly coordinating with the organization on advertisements supporting Kelsey’s federal candidacy and to cause false reports of contributions and expenditures to be filed with the Federal Election Commission,” according to a Justice Department statement.

The conservative news site The Dispatch reported earlier this month that federal investigators were scrutinizing the dealings of Matt Schlapp and the American Conservative Union about what one person called their “knowledge of the events leading up to the endorsement of Brian Kelsey.”

Kelsey reissued his standard statement on the investigation to The Dispatch: “I welcome any investigation because all donations were made in compliance with the law and on the advice of counsel.”

Here’s the full release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Nashville:

NASHVILLE – A federal grand jury in Nashville Friday, returned a five-count indictment charging Tennessee State Senator Brian Kelsey, 43, of Germantown, Tennessee, and Nashville social club owner Joshua Smith, 44, with violating multiple campaign finance laws as part of a conspiracy to benefit Kelsey’s 2016 campaign for U.S. Congress.  

Acting U.S. Attorney Mary Jane Stewart for the Middle District of Tennessee, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Department of Justice Criminal Division, and Acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee Joseph C. Murphy, Jr. made the announcement.

According to the indictment, beginning in February 2016 and continuing through mid-October 2016, Kelsey and Smith conspired with others to violate federal campaign finance laws to secretly and unlawfully funnel “soft money” (funds not subject to the limitations, prohibitions, and reporting requirements of the Federal Election Campaign Act [FECA]) from Kelsey’s Tennessee State Senate campaign committee to his authorized federal campaign committee.  Kelsey and others also caused a national political organization to make illegal, excessive contributions to Kelsey’s federal campaign committee by secretly coordinating with the organization on advertisements supporting Kelsey’s federal candidacy and to cause false reports of contributions and expenditures to be filed with the Federal Election Commission. 

In 2016, the FECA limited campaign contributions to $2,700 from any one individual or organization to any one candidate in each election. 

The indictment alleges that Kelsey, Smith, and other unindicted coconspirators orchestrated the concealed movement of $91,000 to a national political organization for the purpose of funding advertisements that urged voters to support Kelsey in the August 2016 primary election, and that the conspirators caused the political organization to make $80,000 worth of contributions to Kelsey’s federal campaign committee in the form of coordinated expenditures.  The indictment alleges other meetings and communications between the conspirators, resulting in the illegal transfers, contributions, and expenditures associated with Kelsey’s federal campaign.

Kelsey and Smith are charged with conspiracy, illegally transferring “soft money” as a federal candidate and his agent, and illegally transferring “soft money” as a state officeholder and his agent. Kelsey is also charged with making excessive contributions to a federal campaign and accepting excessive contributions.  If convicted, they face up to 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.

A summons has been issued by the Court and Kelsey and Smith are directed to surrender to U.S. Marshals in the Middle District of Tennessee on or before November 5, 202, at 10 a.m. and both will make an initial appearance before a U.S. Magistrate Judge.

This case was investigated by the FBI.  Assistant U.S. Attorneys Amanda Klopf of the Middle District of Tennessee and David Pritchard of the Western District of Tennessee and Trial Attorney John Taddei of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section of the Department of Justice are prosecuting the case.

An indictment is merely an accusation.  The defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. 

What’s on tap for latest special session?

The state Capitol on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Lawmakers are back for yet another special session later this week, the third one this year. This time, Republicans are hoping to demonstrate to constituents they are doing something — anything — against what they see as federal overreach on COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates.

Andy Sher of the Chattanooga Times Press has taken a deep dive into the legislative proposals that could be taken up. They include:

— Banning private companies from requiring employees or customers to be vaccinated.

— Ending the right of minors to decide whether to get vaccinated without the parents’ consent.

— Curbing the authority of the state’s six independent county health boards.

— Making workers who suffer side effects from required vaccinations eligible to sue their employers or file for workers’ compensation benefits.

— Writing into law Gov. Bill Lee’s executive orders allowing parent to opt their children out of school mask mandates.

— Converting school board elections into partisan contests.

“The call is broad enough where we can discuss what all the states have done and figure out if there’s a direction we want to go,” House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) told reporters last week. “We’ll see what direction that we want to come out on to protect individuals from who want to have their personal decision in what’s happening to them.

The petition to return into special session also includes an item that appears to have little to do with the pandemic. It would allow lawmakers to “address a district attorney general peremptorily refusing to prosecute all instances of a criminal offense without regard to facts or circumstances.”

The language appears to be in response to Nashville prosecutor Glenn Funk’s announcements that he won’t pursue criminal charges for the possession of small amounts of marijuana or those who violate a new state law requiring businesses to post warnings about policies allowing transgender people to use bathrooms of their own choosing.

New TNJ edition alert: Lee lands megasite funding

The state Senate holds a redistricting hearing on Oct. 18, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

This week’s print edition of The Tennessee Journal is out in the world. Here are the highlights:

— Lee secures $884M incentive package for Ford’s megasite project.

— Like it or not (and business groups don’t), another special session approaches.

— From the campaign trail: Congressional fundraising, Democrat drops gubernatorial bid, Robinson gets an opponent, and Weston Wamp jumps into the Hamilton County mayor’s race.

— Slatery to lawmakers: I’m not political, you’re political.

Also: Kiffin take the high road, Japan-America Society criticized for honoring Hagerty, and Vaughan likens deficiencies in megasite deal to eating carrot cake without pecans in the icing.

As always, access your copy of the TNJ here or subscribe here.

Tennessee Chamber weighs in on special session

The Tennessee Senate meets on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce is weighing in on next week’s special session called in response to federal mandates on COVID-19 vaccinations and masks.

Several GOP lawmakers are interested in enacting laws banning companies from requiring customers or employees to be vaccinated, a potential move raising flags with the Chamber.

“We do not believe government, at any level,  should unnecessarily interfere with health, safety and operational decisions of private businesses,” the Chamber said in a statement.

Here’s the full release:

As the Tennessee General Assembly returns for a special session to address COVID-19 related policies, the Tennessee Chamber looks forward to working with the Tennessee General Assembly. We hope to collaborate and work through their concerns to ensure legislation considered during the special session does not negatively impact our business climate or employers in our great state. We are thankful to our government leaders who have worked to set our state on a trend that has made Tennessee the best state in the nation for both economic growth and business regulations, especially during the recent pandemic. This has been achieved through a strong tradition of balancing and limiting government intervention into the operations of businesses. Tennessee businesses need the discretion, with limited government interference, to operate their business in a way they believe is most appropriate for their individual operations. 

Regarding federal vaccine mandates, in September, the Tennessee Chamber voiced concerns regarding announced OSHA emergency standards from the Biden administration which requires all employers of 100 or more to mandate and enforce employee COVID-19 vaccination and testing protocols. Our position has and will remain consistent at all levels of government. We do not believe government, at any level,  should unnecessarily interfere with health, safety and operational decisions of private businesses. We look forward to discussing this with our elected leaders in the Tennessee General Assembly who have expressed their commitment to ensuring that Tennessee remains one of the best states in the country to do business.

UPDATE: Ford incentive deal, megasite panel approved by General Assembly

The Memphis Regional Megasite.

The nearly $900 million incentive package for Ford to build Blue Oval City on the Memphis Regional Megasite has passed both chambers of the General Assembly.

The Senate voted 27-3 on both the funding measure and a bill creating a new megasite authority. The opponents were Sens. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), Mark Pody (R-Lebanon), and Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield).

The House later voted 90-3 to approve the bill fudning the megasite. Opponents were Reps. Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka), Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster), and Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro).

The bills are expected to be signed into law quickly by Gov. Bill Lee so work on the megasite can get underway.

Lawmakers call selves back into session to fight COVID-19 mandates

A very special place.

Tennessee lawmakers have called themselves into special session for just the third time in state history. They will return next week after concluding the current special session called by Gov. Bill Lee to approve the Blue Oval City joint venture between Ford Motor Co. and SK Innovation.

Here’s the release from Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville):

NASHVILLE — Lt. Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) today formally issued a call for the third extraordinary session of the 112th General Assembly. As outlined in Article 2, Section 8 of the Tennessee Constitution, this call was at the request of both chambers of the General Assembly. The session will cover a number of issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including overreaching health care mandates.

“The members of the Senate and their constituents have been clear about the need for this session,” said Lt. Governor McNally. “The Covid-19 crisis — and how various institutions have adapted and reacted to it — has created new and unique legislative challenges. This is an opportunity to make the General Assembly’s voice heard on issues regarding masks, vaccines, executive power, and federal mandates.”

“For several weeks, we have heard from Tennesseans that have significant concerns over the unconstitutional and burdensome mandates being imposed upon them,” said Speaker Sexton. “As an elected body, it is our responsibility to let the distinctive voices of our communities be heard on these issues. I look forward to working together with Lt. Gov. McNally, the House, and Senate to create solutions that preserve the individual choices, freedoms, and liberties of all Tennesseans.”  

Signed by over two-thirds of the members of both chambers, the call will bring both the House and the Senate back into session on October 27, 2021, at 4:00 p.m. The call would allow legislation related to vaccines, masks, and other restrictions relative to COVID-19. Legislation to address the various unconstitutional federal mandates issued by the Biden administration would also meet the call guidelines. Additionally, legislation regarding the independent health departments and restrictions on monoclonal antibodies would also be appropriate under the call.

House anti-vax bill dead on arrival

House members attend a floor session in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The House appears to be amusing itself with a bill seeking to stop businesses from imposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates. But what they won’t say is that the bill is already dead. At least for this special session.

Sponsored by Rep. Rusty Grills, HB8003 is going through the motions in a special House committee with a self-congratulatory amendment by Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville). But no companion bill has been filed in the Senate. Bills need to be read on three separate legislative days to become law, and the special session is supposed to end as soon as Wednesday. And even if a bill had been filed in time in the upper chamber, it wouldn’t be deemed to meet Gov. Bill Lee’s call.

“Lt. Governor McNally believes the call for the current special session clearly limits the session to issues surrounding the Megasite. No companion bill to HB8003 – or any other bill outside the call – has been filed in the Senate during this session,” said McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider.

Similar measures could and probably will be introduced in a subsequent special session if both chambers gather enough signatures. But until such time, there’s no reason to pay the House moves much heed.

Here are the House committees for the special session

Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) speaks to colleagues on the House floor in Nashville on Oct. 19, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Senate is keeping its regular committees in place for the special session, but House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) is appointing special panels to hear the Ford incentive bills and other legislation.

Here are the special House committees:


  • Chair: Vaughan
  • Vice Chair: Todd
  • Bricken
  • Chism
  • Freeman
  • Gillespie
  • Griffey
  • Halford
  • Harris
  • Hurt
  • Leatherwood
  • Miller
  • Moody
  • Parkinson
  • Powers
  • Ramsey
  • Travis
  • Vital
  • White

Health and Safety

  • Chair: Terry
  • Vice Chair: Grills
  • Calfee
  • Campbell
  • Carringer
  • Cepicky
  • Cooper
  • Doggett
  • Hakeem
  • Hardaway
  • Howell
  • Johnson of Knox
  • Lafferty
  • Ogles
  • Ragan
  • Rudder
  • Smith
  • Thompson

Finance, Ways & Means

  • Chair: Hazlewood
  • Vice Chair: Hicks of Hawkins
  • Baum
  • Boyd
  • Camper
  • Carr
  • Faison
  • Farmer
  • Gant
  • Garrett
  • Haston
  • Hawk
  • Helton
  • Hodges
  • Lamar
  • Lamberth
  • Littleton
  • Lynn
  • Shaw
  • Whitson
  • Williams
  • Windle

Calendar & Rules

  • Chair: Zachary
  • Vice Chair: Russell
  • Beck
  • Camper
  • Curcio
  • Darby
  • Faison
  • Halford
  • Hazlewood
  • Howell
  • Jernigan
  • Keisling
  • Kumar
  • McKenzie
  • Mitchell
  • Lamberth
  • Marsh
  • Reedy
  • Terry
  • Warner
  • Weaver

Robinson attends special session despite federal fraud conviction

Sen. Katrina Robinson (D-Memphis), center in yellow, hears from Sen. Sara Kyle (D-Memphis), right, on the Senate floor in Nashville on Oct. 19, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Sen. Katrina Robinson (D-Memphis) surprised observers by attending the first day of a special legislative session despite her recent conviction on federal wire fraud charges.

Robinson’s attorneys have asked the judge to throw out the verdict or order a new trial, but no decision has yet been made on that front. Republican leaders had hoped Robinson would sit out the special session on Ford incentives and the one expected to follow on COVID-19 mandates. The question will be whether the GOP now decides to being ouster procedures.

Robinson isn’t scheduled to be sentenced until just before the regular session begins in January.

Sen. Katrina Robinson (D-Memphis) attends a special session Nashville on Oct. 18, 2021, despite her recent conviction on federal fraud charges. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here is the petition for the special session on COVID-19 mandates

The House meets at the state Capitol in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here is the petition lawmakers are circulating to hold a special session on efforts to dial back COVID-19 mandates. It will take 66 signatures in the House and 22 in the Senate to take effect:

PETITION: Requesting the Speaker of the House of Representatives to call the House into session pursuant to Article II, Section 8 of the Constitution of Tennessee.

We, the undersigned members of the 112th General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, and members of the House of Representatives of such body, petition the above presiding officer to call this body back into session in Nashville upon similar action taken by the Senate, on October 27, 2021, at 4:00 p.m. (CDT) for the limited purposes of:

(1) Considering and acting upon legislation to establish uniform standards regarding facial coverings, vaccinations, and other restrictions relative to COVID-19; to address the enforcement and use of state funds by public and private entities for restrictions relative to COVID-19; to address adverse actions against an employee based on an employee’s vaccination status; to address the federal government’s commandeering of public and private resources relative to COVID-19; and to address the federal government’s penalizing, or taxation of, citizens of this state through enforcement of restrictions relative to COVID-19;

(2) Considering and acting upon legislation to address the creation, organization, and authority of local entities and officers charged with the promotion, protection, and maintenance, through local health services or directives, of the health of citizens of this state; to address the provision of monoclonal antibody treatment; and to address authorization to administer a COVID-19 vaccine to a minor without parental consent;

(3) Considering and acting upon legislation addressing liability of an employer, and compensation of an employee, for harm or injury suffered by an employee as the result of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine that was required or incentivized through the employee’s employment; and to address an employee’s receipt of unemployment benefits relative to COVID-19;

(4) Considering and acting upon legislation to address the length of time and enforcement of an executive order or proclamation issued by the governor under the governor’s emergency management powers; to address a district attorney general peremptorily refusing to prosecute all instances of a criminal offense without regard to facts or circumstances; to include cash as eligible collateral and adjust the amount of eligible collateral pledged for the deposit of public funds; and to address partisan elections of school board members; and

(5) Considering and acting upon legislation to make appropriations sufficient to provide the first year’s funding for any act which receives final passage during the extraordinary session; and to pay the expenses of the extraordinary session of the General Assembly, including the expenses of carrying out any actions taken pursuant to this call.