campaign finance

Kelsey granted reprieve from prison while mounting appeal

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

U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw has granted former Sen. Brian Kelsey’s motion to stay out of prison while he mounts an appeal of his 21-month sentence for masterminding a scheme to funnel money raised for his state account to back his unsuccessful congressional bid in 2016.

Kelsey, who pleaded guilty to two felony counts, argued federal prosecutors had violated the agreement by advocating for a sentence enhancement because he tried to withdraw the deal. The government said it wasn’t arguing in favor of the enhancement, but only noting that the recommendation was valid because perjury is considered obstruction of justice.

Kelsey had been scheduled to report to prison next month. Now he will remain on bail until the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals determines whether prosecutors violated the plea deal. The government argues that even if Kelsey prevails, the case is likely to go to another federal judge for sentencing. The former lawmaker’s legal team says the result could be a cancellation of the entire plea agreement and the case going to trial.

Kelsey appealing 21-month sentence in campaign finance case

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

Former state Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) is appealing his 21-month prison sentence following his guilty plea to two felonies related to his 2016 bid for Congress.

Kelsey filed notice but didn’t elaborate on what basis he will bring his challenge to the 6th Circuit U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Kelsey’s latest set of attorneys had argued that the former lawmaker shouldn’t face any time behind bars.

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.

Feds recommend 3 1/2-year sentence for Kelsey

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

Federal prosecutors are urging U.S. District Judge Wavery Crenshaw to sentence former Sen. Brian Kelsey to nearly 3 1/2 years in prison following his conviction to two felonies related to his 2016 congressional campaign.

“A 41-month term of imprisonment would deliver a message to all who have the privilege of participating in campaigns for public office that no political victory is worth the risk of a lengthy term in federal prison,” prosecutors said in court filing Friday. “To anyone who believes that a campaign finance crime is unlikely to be detected or unlikely to lead to a meaningful criminal penalty, this sentence would show that violations of these laws carry a high cost.”

Kelsey’s attorneys said the government’s recommendation is too high and that maximum punishment should be 33 months behind bars.

Kelsey pleaded guilty (though he later tried to revoke the agreement) to masterminding a scheme to funnel money from his state account through two other political action committees to the American Conservative Union, which then bought $80,000 worth of radio and digital ads to back his bid.

The government’s filing recounted allegations not included in the indictment or guilty plea, including that Kelsey donated money to fellow Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly in return for contributions to his federal campaign. Another alleged scheme made public for the first time involved Kelsey telling donors who had already maxed out to his campaign to instead make contributions to the suspended presidential campaign of a U.S. senator who visited West Tennessee on his behalf. While the recipient of the money wasn’t identified in the filing, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania made appearance on behalf of Kelsey days before the election, calling him “someone who’s young, someone who’s principled, someone who’s courageous.”

Kelsey replacing legal team, mulling litigation against former lawyers

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

Former state Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) is replacing his legal team after a federal judge rejected his motion to vacate his decision to plead guilty to campaign finance crimes. He also wants to delay his July 27 sentencing date by at least a month.

In a court filing on Wednesday, Kelsey said he has hired J. Alex Little and Zachary Lawson of the Burr & Forman law firm as his new lawyers. They replace Paul Bruno, David Rivera, Jerry Martin, and David Warrington.

The move came amid what Kelsey’s new lawyers called “the deterioration of attorney-client
relationships, the potential for future litigation involving prior counsel, and the need to have counsel of choice representing him at sentencing.”

Little and Lawson asked District Judge Waverly Crenshaw for at least a 30 day delay so they can familiarize themselves with the sentencing materials and because of other state and federal court obligations on July 26 and July 30.

“There is one issue that might be raised as substantial mitigation in the sentencing memorandum, and this issue requires additional time to research and investigate,” Kelsey’s lawyers said. “But .. counsel believes that this can be accomplished within 30 days.”

Judge rejects Kelsey effort to withdraw guilty plea

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

U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw on Tuesday rejected former Sen. Brian Kelsey’s effort to withdraw his guilty plea on two felony counts related to funneling state funds through the American Conservative Union to support his unsuccessful congressional bid in 2016.

Kelsey argued he had been distracted by the terminal illness of his father and the birth of newborn twins when he pleaded guilty in November. Prosecutors argued the Germantown Republican was trying to make a tactical move to disadvantage the government by waiting more than 100 days before trying to nullify the deal.

Crenshaw scheduled a new sentencing date for late July.

Kelsey wants to take back guilty plea made with ‘unsure heart and confused mind’

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

When former state Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges in November, he signed a document stating: “I offer my plea of ‘GUILTY’ freely and voluntarily and of my own accord; also, my lawyers have explained to me, and I feel and believe I understand this petition.” Now, Kelsey wants out of the deal.

According to a motion filed Friday, Kelsey is seeking to withdraw his plea and wants the judge to dismiss the entire case against him for conspiring to funnel campaign money from his state account to support his failed congressional bid in 2016.

“The stress of simultaneously dealing with a terminally ill father, newborn twins, and a three-year-old daughter” caused Kelsey to have “an unsure heart and a confused mind” when he agreed to plead guilty, according to the filing.

Kelsey in a sworn declaration said he had lost his license to practice law, access to banking system, and his job. According to Kelsey, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee:

Other than speeding tickets, I have had no experience with the criminal justice system as a defendant. As an attorney, I exclusively practiced civil law. Prior to the days leading up to the plea agreement in this case, I was unfamiliar with the federal criminal sentencing guidelines and the process of entering a plea agreement with no agreement as to what the sentence would be and without which the government would claim to seek a vastly enhanced ‘trial penalty’ for a defendant wishing to exercise his constitutional rights.

GOP executive committee member tells judge Kelsey has ‘suffered enough already’

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

State Republican Party executive committee member Peggy Larkin is urging U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw not to sentence former Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) to any time behind bars following his guilty plea to federal campaign finance crimes.

“I believe that Brian and his family have suffered enough already and [he] will be a greater benefit to society serving outside of prison,” Larkin writes.

Kelsey is scheduled to be sentenced on March 28.

Read the full letter dated Jan. 21 here:

Dear Chief Judge Crenshaw:

I am privileged to write this letter in support of Brian Kelsey. I have known Brian as a good friend for 25 years and during that time have observed him as an outstanding young attorney. I have worked with
Brian in the political arena and find him to be a model citizen of his community.

Brian shows extreme professionalism in his work as well as those he serves. He is always courteous, and exceedingly kind to his fellow man. He is industrious, energetic, loyal, and generous.

At Georgetown he was the President of the Christian Legal Society. He served in the office of Counsel to the President of the United States; in the office of U.S. Senator Bill Frist, and served in the office of U.S. Representative Ed Bryant.

At UNC, he was the leader of the Greek Life Bible Study and AGO TV Volunteer. At the University of Memphis Law School, he was an Adjunct Professor of Government Relations in 2017. In the fall of 2010 and 2011 he served as an Undergraduate Adjunct Professor of Constitutional Law.

Brian was the only senator in Tennessee history to successfully pass more than one constitutional amendment. He passed three. He served as the Judiciary Committee Chairman in 2009-2018 Senate. He also served as chairman of the Education Committee Chairman during this time.

He was the Student Chapter President at the Georgetown University Law Center, and a member of The Federalist Society. He served on the American Legislative Exchange Council, and was Chairman of the Civil Justice Task Force Council of State Governments; American Federation for Children; Tennessee Holocaust Commission, and a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association. In addition he was voted the Legislator of the Year 2018 and 2011. He received the Conservative Excellent Award in 2017 and 2015 from the American Conservative Union. In 2008 he won the Pro Bono Award. The list does not end here.

Brian has a heart for public service and has worked diligently for the past 18 years preserving our conservative values, providing jobs for Tennesseans, improving our children’s education, and keeping us safe in Tennessee. He either sponsored or worked on committees that put the Right to Work in our state constitution, allowing students to return to in-person learning, helped in recruiting Ford Motor Company jobs to West Tennessee, banned critical Race Theory from our schools, let first responders live where they want, and protected constitutional rights during the pandemic.

Brian and his wife, Amanda, have three children. One daughter, and twin boys. Bryan’s character is beyond impeccable. He is a Christian and practices his faith daily. He is from a well-known, and well-respected family in Memphis. His mother is an educator. His brother is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. His dad is a successful businessperson, and sadly, currently undergoing cancer treatment [Robert Kelsey died on Feb. 2].

I believe that Brian and his family have suffered enough already and will be a greater benefit to society serving outside of prison.


Peggy C. Larkin

State Executive Committee Woman

District thirty-one

New TNJ alert: Farewell to the Goose, campaign finance roundup, Nashville upheaval

House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), left, and Rep. Pat Marsh (R-Shelbyville) await the begin of the State of the State address on Jan 31, 2022. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

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

— Farewell to Golden Goose: Lobbying legend Hensley dies at 80.

— Money matters: A look at the last campaign cycle’s biggest donors, recipients, vendors.

— Nashville mayor begs off bid for second term as GOP lawmakers target capital city’s autonomy.

Also: Former gubernatorial legal counsel Dwight Tarwater chosen for Supreme Court opening, John Cooper wont’ seek another term as Nashville mayor, Paul Sherrell looks in the mirror, and Cameron Sexton channels Travis Bickle over the state of Lower Broadway.

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

Or subscribe here.

New TNJ edition alert: Ready or not, here comes the fight over premixed cockails

Hard seltzers for sale in a Nashville grocery store on Jan. 24, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

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

— Could ready-to-drink cocktails be headed to state grocery stores?

— House speaker says Nashville business community behind effort to slash Metro Council, new bill would repeal special tourism taxes in the city.

— New health commissioner not taking questions on rejection of federal HIV funds, freshman lawmaker withdraws bill to give governors two more terms, and unifying legalized gambling.

— Money matters: The big donors and recipients of campaign funds since the November election.

Also: Memphis girds for release of video of fatal police beating, Glenn Funk recuses himself from Jeremy Durham case, Joe Towns catches a break from the Registry, and Cameron Sexton lists the Nashville representatives he likes.

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

Or subscribe here.


Posts and Opinions about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.