Biden declares major disaster from West Tennessee storms

President Joe Biden has approved a federal disaster declaration to assist with recovery from severe storms in Fayette, Shelby, and Tipton counties in June.

Here’s the release from the White House:

WASHINGTON ­– FEMA announced that federal disaster assistance has been made available to the state of Tennessee to supplement recovery efforts in the areas affected by severe storms and straight-line winds June 25 – 26, 2023.

Public Assistance federal funding is available to the state and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities damaged by severe storms and straight-line winds in Fayette, Shelby and Tipton counties.

Federal funding is also available on a cost-sharing basis for hazard mitigation measures statewide.

Yolanda J. Jackson has been named as the Federal Coordinating Officer for federal recovery operations in the affected area. Additional designations may be made at a later date if requested by the state and warranted by the results of further assessments.

New TNJ edition alert: Kelsey sentencing recap, a 6th Circuit vacancy approaches

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

The latest print edition of The Tennessee Journal is out. Here is what’s in it:

— Final chapter in Kelsey chronicles?  Ex lawmaker gets 21 months in prison for fundraising scheme.

— From the campaign trail: Rolli parts ways with consultant, Humble told to make full disclosure.

— Courtside seat: An opening on the 6th Circuit, a likely delay in the Casada case.

Also: Longtime head of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation passes away, Dolores Gresham goes after recalcitrant school boards, and Andy Ogles tries to tell the media how to cover the news.

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

Or subscribe here.

California Gov. Newsom to address Tennessee Democrats’ annual fundraiser

California Gov. Gavin Newsom will be the keynote speaker at the Tennessee Democratic Party’s annual fundraiser, the Three Star Dinner. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was the headliner at the Republican Party’s annual Statesmen’s Dinner.

Here’s the release from the Tennessee Democrats:

We are excited to announce that California Governor, Gavin Newsom, will deliver the keynote speech at the Tennessee Democratic Party’s annual Three Star Dinner. The dinner is scheduled for 6:00pm on Saturday, August 26, 2023 at the Music City Center in Downtown Nashville.  

The theme of this year’s dinner is Lift Your Voice. We will recognize and honor the Tennessee Three, State Representatives Gloria Johnson, Justin J. Pearson, and Justin Jones. 

We will also hear from Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and Nashville Mayoral candidate Freddie O’Connell.

“This year’s dinner will be filled with excitement. Tennessee was thrust into the national spotlight this year and we are using this opportunity to continue building momentum ahead of the 2024 election cycle. Governor Newsom has been deliberate about what good governance should include, his presence will be a breath of fresh air for Democrats in our state.” Hendrell Remus, TNDP Chair

Tickets and sponsorships can be purchased at www.tndp.org/threestar.

Report: Nashville mayoral candidate fires consultant for ties to Proud Boys

Alice Rolli, who earlier this month won a place in the runoff in the Nashville mayor’s race, has fired her campaign consultant after finding out about his ties to the Proud Boys, Axios Nashville reports.

Rolli, a Republican operative who worked in Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, wrote the following email to supporters on Monday:

This morning I learned the consultant firm we hired had more than a strong connection to Proud Boys. Today I confirmed this alarming information and immediately severed ties with the firm. Hatred has no place in Nashville. It has no place on my campaign. After taking immediate steps to separate our campaign, I knew you needed to hear from me, directly.

The consultant was Woodrow Johnston, a vice president of the McShane consulting firm, which has done business with election deniers. According to the Washington Post, Johnston organized a protest of the outcome of the presidential election in Nevada in 2020, telling activists on Facebook that “we need to get the Proud Boys out.”

Rolli faces Nashville Council member Freddie O’Connell in the Sept. 14 election.

[This post has been updated to reflect the news was broken by Axios.]

Trump to hold fundraiser in Nashville on Thursday

Former President Donald Trump is scheduled to come to Nashville on Thursday to raise money for his latest White House bid. The invitation doesn’t say where the event will be held, but it’s expected to be hosted at new luxury hotel downtown. Republican U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood and Bill Hagerty of Nashville plan to be in attendance.

It will be Trump’s second Nashville visit since holding another fundraiser and locking up several endorsements from Tennessee’s congressional delegation when the Republican National Committee held a retreat in Music City in April.

Rival GOP candidates Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, and Tim Scott have also looked to Tennessee for campaign cash. Pence is holding an event in Nashville on Monday, Politico’s Natalie Allison reports.

Former Gov. Bill Haslam is hosting a luncheon fundraiser for Scott in Knoxville on Thursday. And DeSantis held a series of fundraisers in Franklin, Chattanooga, and Knoxville late last month.

Kelsey sentenced to nearly 2 years in prison

Brian Kelsey, center, awaits Gov. Bill Lee’s State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Former state Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) has been sentenced to 21 months in prison for his role in a campaign finance conspiracy related to his 2016 bid for Congress. Restaurateur Josh Smith, a codefendant whose guilty plea preceded Kelsey’s own agreement, received a $250,000 fine and 720 hours of community service.

“I am sorry that I made this mistake, and I will always regret it. I am sorry for letting down my constituents and the public,” Kelsey said in a statement after the hearing. “I deeply appreciate the love of my family and friends who are with me today. Their support means everything to me.”

Former Democratic state Rep. John Deberry of Memphis, now a senior adviser to Gov. Bill Lee, appeared as a character witness for Kelsey.

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

WASHINGTON – Former Tennessee State Senator and practicing attorney Brian Kelsey was sentenced today to one year and nine months in prison for violating campaign finance laws and conspiring to defraud the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as part of a scheme to benefit his 2016 campaign for U.S. Congress.

According to court documents, Kelsey, 45, of Alexandria, Virginia, secretly and unlawfully funneled money from multiple sources, including his own Tennessee State Senate campaign committee, to his federal campaign committee. To carry out the scheme, Kelsey conspired with others, including Joshua Smith, who owned a members-only social club in Nashville, of which Kelsey was a member, and controlled a Tennessee political action committee affiliated with the club. Kelsey, Smith, and others caused a national political organization to make illegal and excessive contributions to Kelsey’s federal campaign committee by secretly coordinating with the organization on advertisements supporting Kelsey’s federal candidacy, which caused false reports of contributions and expenditures to be filed with the FEC.

“The defendants attempted to hide from voters how Kelsey raised and spent campaign money,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicole M. Argentieri of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “The integrity of our elections is essential to democracy, and voters should know how candidates raise and spend campaign dollars. The Department will continue to work alongside our law enforcement partners to uncover and prosecute campaign finance schemes designed to evade disclosure, and to ensure that violations of these laws carry a high cost.”

“Brian Kelsey intentionally violated federal campaign finance laws and his oath as a state senator in order to deny Tennessee voters their right to make informed decisions about his candidacy for Congress,” said U.S. Attorney Henry C. Leventis for the Middle District of Tennessee. “The court’s sentence today reflects the seriousness of his crimes and is a strong reminder of our commitment to root out public corruption and ensure the integrity of federal elections.”

Kelsey and his co-conspirators orchestrated the concealed movement of $91,000 – $66,000 of which came from Kelsey’s State Senate campaign committee, and $25,000 of which came from a nonprofit corporation that publicly advocated on legal justice issues – to a national political organization for the purpose of funding advertisements that urged voters to support Kelsey in the August 2016 primary election. Kelsey and his co-conspirators also caused the political organization to make $80,000 worth of contributions to Kelsey’s federal campaign committee in the form of coordinated expenditures.

“The sentence handed down today makes it clear that no one is above the law,” said Assistant Director Luis Quesada of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. “The FBI diligently investigates campaign finance fraud to ensure that U.S. elections are free from unfair influence, and anyone caught attempting to scheme their way into office will be held accountable.”

Joshua Smith was also sentenced today to five years of probation for aiding and abetting the solicitation, receipt, direction, transfer, and spending of soft money in connection with a federal election.

The FBI Memphis Field Office investigated the case.

Trial Attorney John Taddei of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Klopf for the Middle District of Tennessee, and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Pritchard for the Western District of Tennessee prosecuted the case.

New TNJ edition alert: Response to Lee special session call ranges from hostility to lack of enthusiasm

Gov. Bill Lee speaks in the Old Supreme Court Chamber of the state Capitol in Nashville on March 22, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The latest print edition of The Tennessee Journal is out. Here is what’s in it:

— Few enthused as Lee finally issues call for latest special session.

— Republicans seek bylaws changes to clamp down on candidates’ primary eligibility.

— Party like it’s 1970? Rolli channels Dunn in seeking upset GOP victory.

Also: The government seeks to introduce evidence of prior bad acts by Glen Casada and Cade Cothren, Republican operatives launch PAC named after the state’s most famous Democratic lawmakers, and details emerge about the chain reaction in the Ron DeSantis motorcade wreck in Chattanooga.

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

Or subscribe here.

On eve of sentencing Kelsey points finger at Durham (again)

Then-Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), right, attends a Senate Education Committee meeting in Nashville on April 16, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Brian Kelsey and Jeremy Durham were once close friends. But the bond between the two former state lawmakers appears to have broken when federal agents began inquiring about alleged campaign finance improprieties surrounding Kelsey’s bid for Congress in 2016.

Durham, who was ousted from the state House in September 2016 over allegations of serial sexual misconduct, has avoided charges in the case by cooperating with federal investigators. Kelsey, who faces a Friday sentencing hearing after pleading guilty to two felony counts, wants to avoid any time behind bars. In support of his effort to persuade U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw to limit his punishment to probation, Kelsey’s legal team has been unpacking on Durham.

Kelsey’s latest filing argues he was far from the mastermind the government describes him as in the plot to shift money from his state account through three other Tennessee-based PACs to the American Conservative Union, which then spent $80,000 on radio and digital ads on his campaign’s behalf. (Kelsey made similar claims in a filing last week.)

Kelsey cut a $106,000 check to restaurateur Josh Smith’s The Standard Club PAC at a dinner in July 2016 in which Durham was also in attendance. On advice of counsel, Kelsey said, he stressed to Smith there were “no strings” attached to the donation and to “spend it however you want.” Smith, who was a codefendant before pleading guilty in the case, Durham, and Durham’s wife corroborated the statement to federal investigators.

But with such lack of direction from Kelsey, Durham (who testified to the grand jury Kelsey at one point told him “not to contact him”) said the ensuing transactions became “disorganized,” a “cluster,” and “mayhem.” Durham and fellow unindicted co-conspirator Andy Miller allegedly decided to go “rogue” by using some of the money originally donated to Smith to pay for attack ads.

“Initially, I did not tell Kelsey about my alternative plan to use the money for the attack ads,” the filing quoted Durham as telling the grand jury. Kelsey was “not happy” when he found about it, Durham said, and instructed him to “scrap the ads and send the money to the ACU.”

The filing notes that three days after the dinner at the Standard Club, the state attorney general released a report detailing allegations of sexual misconduct by Durham with 22 at the Capitol. Durham abruptly suspended his re-election campaign, which only got him more deeply involved in the Kelsey campaign, according to the motion.

All of a sudden, he had time on his hands, and he began calling Mr. Kelsey more frequently. He often sought Mr. Kelsey’s advice on his own dire situation: ‘Kelsey acted as a sounding board for Durham during Durham’s public relations crisis, and would offer Durham advice on how to proceed through the public relations issues.” With time on his hands, Durham also began to assert himself more aggressively into Smith’s funds in the Standard Club PAC.

Durham was not pleased when he found out how much money Kelsey had given Smith.

“I told Brian he was a fucking idiot for placing that much trust in Smith,” Durham recounted to grand jury, leading him to take a more direct hand in matters.

As for the independent expenditures themselves, Kelsey said his campaign team felt radio spots were an “antiquated” method for reaching voters “and internally mocked ACU’s poor choice of medium.” (Kelsey later married the former political director of the ACU.)

Durham never told the grand jury he had directed ad ACU’s campaign, but that “Kelsey allowed it to happen,” according to Kelsey’s filing.

Kelsey concluded that the government wants to make him out to be “some sort of con man.”

“This case is not about corruption,” Kelsey’s motion concludes. “Mr. Kelsey was not bribed, he did not recruit straw donors, and he didn’t swindle anyone.

Federal prosecutors want the judge to sentence Kelsey to 3 1/2 years in prison.

Federal lawsuit challenges ‘racial gerrymandering’ in congressional, state Senate redistricting

A new lawsuit challenges new congressional and state Senate maps drawn as part of last year’s redistricting process. The plaintiffs include the League of Women voters, the state chapter of NAACP, and the African American Clergy Collective of Tennessee. The lawsuit alleges districts amount to “unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.”

Here’s the release:

Nashville, TN  — The League of Women Voters of Tennessee, Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP, the African American Clergy Collective of Tennessee, the Equity Alliance, the Memphis A. Philip Randolph Institute, and several individual Tennessee voters filed a federal lawsuit challenging portions of Tennessee’s congressional and state senate redistricting plans that went into effect in early 2022 as intentionally discriminatory against Black voters and other voters of color. The plaintiffs are represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, pro bono counsel Winston & Strawn, and local counsel Sperling & Slater. 

The complaint alleges the plans amount to unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, violating the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit argues the legislature intentionally diluted the votes of Black voters and other voters of color by breaking up Nashville/Davidson County into three congressional districts, while also disempowering the growing community of Black and brown voters in and around the Memphis area by splitting state senate district 31.

The lawsuit also details a lack of transparency and diversity of thought in Tennessee’s redistricting process, which ultimately led to the passage of discriminatory voting maps that dilute the political power of the state’s Black communities and other communities of color. If the 2021 maps are allowed to remain in place, plaintiffs argue, Black voters and other voters of color will not be able to elect their candidates of choice, as their votes will continue to be diluted due to selective redistricting.

Click here to view the full complaint.

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Read the special session call on public safety

Our friends at the Tennessee Lookout have gotten their hands on what appears to be a draft of Gov. Bill Lee’s special session call. UPDATE: It’s now official.

Lee’s office said it will propose bills on the following topics (lawmakers may introduce others):

1. Codification of [Executive Order 100] and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) Report Implementation: Requires reporting of accurate, complete and timely records from court clerks to the TBI within 72-hours and requires electronic submissions of dispositions and expungements to the TBI.

2. TennCare Mental Health Coverage Waiver: Directs TennCare to seek a waiver from the federal government to allow federal matching funds for Medicaid to cover services for mental illness and substance use disorders at institutions of mental diseases.

3. Addressing Mental Health Workforce Challenges: Budget initiatives that prioritize opportunities to grow and retain mental health professionals in the state.

4. Reforms for Mental Health: Expands access to mental health treatment by eliminating certain collaborative practice requirements for Advanced Registered Practice Nurses with psychiatric training.

5. Strengthening the Identification of Individuals Arrested for Felonies: Provides for the collection of DNA at the time of an arrest for all felonies.

6. Human Trafficking Report: Resolution directing TBI to report on the state of human trafficking in Tennessee.

7. Promoting Safe Storage: Eliminates taxes on firearm safes and safety devices, provides free gun locks, expands safe storage training in state-approved safety courses, and creates a public service announcement to promote safe storage.

Here’s the call:

WHEREAS, public safety is of prime importance to Tennesseans, and enhancing public safety requires a multi-faceted approach that likewise protects Constitutional rights; and

WHEREAS, Tennessee and our nation continue to experience acts of mass violence; and

WHEREAS, Tennesseans are experiencing mental health issues to an unprecedented degree, and this crisis affects not only those suffering from mental health issues, but also society at large; and

WHEREAS, in response to Executive Order 100, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation identified barriers to timely and accurate information sharing throughout the criminal Justice system, particularly regarding information that should be entered in state and national crime databases; and

WHEREAS, it is in the best interest of Tennessee that the General Assembly convene to expeditiously address these concerns.

NOW THEREFORE, I, Bill Lee, Governor of the State of Tennessee, by virtue of the power and authority vested in me by Article III, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution, do hereby call the One Hundred Thirteenth General Assembly of the State of Tennessee to meet and convene in extraordinary session at the Capitol in Nashville on August 21, 2023, at 4:00 p.m., Central Time, to consider and act upon legislation regarding:

(1) Mental health resources, providers, commitments, or services;

(2) School safety plans or policies;

(3) Health care providers’ duty to warn about potential violent offenses;

(4) Offenses of committing acts of mass violence or threatening to commit acts of mass violence;

(5) Reports from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation regarding human trafficking;

(6) Identification of individuals arrested for felonies;

(7) Law enforcement’s access to criminal and juvenile records;

(8) Law enforcement’s access to information about individuals who are subject to mental health commitment;

(9) Information about victims of violent offenses;

(10) Stalking offenses;

(11) Measures encouraging the safe storage of firearms, which do not include the creation
of penalties for failing to safely store firearms;

(12) Temporary mental health orders of protection, which must be initiated by law enforcement, must require a due process hearing, must require the respondent to undergo an assessment for suicidal or homicidal ideation, must require law enforcement to prove its case by clear and convincing evidence, must require that an order of protection be reevaluated at least every one-hundred eighty (180) days, and must not permit ex parte orders;

(13) The transfer of juvenile defendants aged sixteen (16) and older to courts with criminal jurisdiction, which must include appeal rights for the juveniles and the prosecuting authorities;

(14) Limiting the circumstances in which juvenile records may be expunged;

(15) Blended sentencing for juveniles;

(16) Offenses related to inducing or coercing a minor to commit an offense;

(17) The structure or operations of state or local courts· and

(18) Making appropriations sufficient to provide funding for any legislation that receives final passage during the extraordinary session; making appropriations sufficient to pay the expenses of the extraordinary session, including the expenses of carrying out any actions taken pursuant to this proclamation; making appropriations sufficient to support mental health initiatives; making appropriations for school safety grants, as described on page B-90 of the 2023-2024 Budget Document and in Section 54, Item 1-41, Section 60, Item 25, and Section 60, Item 26 of Chapter 418, Public Acts of 2023; and making appropriations to support school safety at institutions of higher education.

IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Great Seal of the State of Tennessee to be affixed at Nashville on this 8th day of August, 2023.


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