Kelsey steps down as chair of Education Committee following federal charges

Sen. Brian Kelsey walks in the state Capitol in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) has announced he will stop down as chair of the Education Committee while fighting federal conspiracy and campaign finance charges.

Kelsey in his floor comments erroneously cited The Tennessee Journal as reporting the chief witness in the case had been granted immunity from federal charges. We have previously reported that the attorney for former Rep. Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin), who is included in the complaint as an unindicted coconspirator, said in an unrelated court appearance that federal prosecutors told him his client wasn’t going to face criminal charges. But Durham’s attorney, Peter Strianse, said nothing about immunity or any connections to the Kelsey matter.

It’s possible Kelsey was referring to someone other than Durham, but the Journal hasn’t reported about immunity for anyone else in the case.

Here are Kelsey’s full comments on the Senate floor, along with responses from two colleagues.

KELSEY:

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Per Senate rules, I’m requesting a temporary suspension from chairing the Education Committee based on allegations of intent to violate campaign finance laws. Colleagues, let me be clear: I’m totally innocent. And I look forward to clearing my name through the judicial process.

If you will indulge me for a brief moment, there are three points about the government’s investigation I did want to emphasize.

No 1., and most important, I understood I was operating within campaign finance rules, and I believe the donation at issue was legal. It was made on the advice of counsel. No. 2, ad I’m sure you saw in The Tennessee Journal, according to his lawyer, the government’s lead witness was given immunity from federal charges. And No. 3, the timing of the government’s investigation is questionable because they waited five years and a change of administration to pursue it.

And there are several other issues that I will not mention here because my lawyers won’t let me.

But I’m confident that these will become apparent during the course of the legal proceedings. And like many of you, I entered public service as a calling. While regretfully partisan politics these days often comes into play, and we may not agree on every issue, I hope that you will agree that for 17 years – 17 years – I, like you, have always voted for what I thought was best for Tennesseans.  And we must find a way in state governmetn and our nation to heal these divisions, to work together on behalf of the people, to move past this extremely divisive time, and to not use political attacks on one another to discourage good people from running for office and participating in our vital government processes.

I hope and pray that we can all truly come together again in the peace, strength, and unity that defines our great state of Tenenssee and our nation. You know, my faith in the lord, it will get me through this challenge. And I am extremely blessed with the strongest and most supportive wife that I can ever imagine and a joyous 2-year-old daughter, too. I have the tremendous honor to represent the people of my county and my state.

And I cannot close without expressing my sincere appreciation for the encouragement that many of you have recently offered. I trust in time the truth will prevail and I will resume my leadership role o the Education Committee. Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your time and support.

SENATE SPEAKER RANDY MCALLY (R-Oak Ridge:

Thank you, Sen. Kelsey. I know it’s a very difficult time for you and your wife and daughter. And I want you to know that my prayers are with you and your family, and I appreciate the action that you have taken today. I think this will allow you to concentrate fully on your case and not be burdened with the issues of chairmanship. And I appreciate you as a senator and as a person. Thank you.

SEN. FRANK NICELEY (R-Strawberry Plains):

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. This would be a perfect time for me to not say anything. But I want to just give you something to think about. These campaign contributions are private dollars. They’re not tax dollars. And when the federal government, the U.S congressmen and U.S. senators, passed a law that we couldn’t use our money that we raised here in the state of Tenenssee to run for federal office, that was pure self-service. That was an incumbent protection act. They didn’t want us to use our money to run against them. I think the whole law is bad.

I don’t think I have a single contributor who would mind, if I was 20 years younger, me running for Congress and using that money. So I know they’ll never change it because they don’t want someone with three or four hundred thousand dollars in their Senate account running for Congress. And that’s exactly the reason that law was passed in the first place, keeping somebody like Jack Johnson using his state money to run for a federal seat. It’s self-serving and it’s not right.