education committee

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.

What does Kelsey indictment mean for Education chairmanship, leading role in Lee’s funding review?

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

The indictment of Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) on federal campaign finance charges starts the clock on whether he will try to cling on to his chairmanship of the Education Committee.

According to the Senate’s code of ethics, members have 10 days from the indictment to ask for a hearing to challenge a suspension from a committee leadership position. If no such request is lodged, the suspension takes effect “as long as the indictment is being actively pursued.”

Vice Chair Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) would presumably take over if Kelsey is suspended.

Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Germantown) issued the following statement:

I am obviously saddened by this news. It is important to remember that under our laws, Senator Kelsey is innocent until proven guilty. He will have the opportunity to answer this indictment in the coming days. I have confidence in our judicial system and will reserve judgment and comment at this point in order to allow the process to unfold.”

Gov. Bill Lee last week named Kelsey to his 12-member steering committee on overhauling the Basic Education Program school funding formula.

Lee spokeswoman Laine Arnold said Kelsey serves on the panel by virtue of his chairmanship, so there are “no changes now but we are monitoring the situation.”

Gresham announces she won’t run for re-election to state Senate

State Sen. Dolores Gresham has announced she won’t seek another term in the Tennessee Senate this year. The Somerville Republican is the chair of the Senate Education Committee and a longtime champion of school vouchers.

Here’s the full release from Gresham:

NASHVILLE – Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) announced today that she will not be a candidate for re-election in 2020.  Gresham made the announcement in an email to constituents in Chester, Decatur, Fayette, Hardeman, Hardin, Haywood, McNairy and Henderson Counties in the 26th senatorial district.

“It has been the honor of my life, surpassed only by my service in the U.S. Marine Corps, to serve the people of Tennessee, especially children,” said Sen. Gresham. “I am very thankful for the support, friendship, and kindness of my constituents who have entrusted me to represent them for the past 18 years.”

Gresham served six years in the House of Representatives before being elected in 2008 to three consecutive terms in the Tennessee Senate.  She was appointed chairman of the Senate Education Committee as a freshman senator, presiding over the committee during a time of tremendous student progress at the K-12 level.  Her tenure as chairman also saw unprecedented growth in access to post-secondary education at Tennessee’s colleges and universities.

“There will be no weaning process,” Gresham said after announcing her retirement.  “I will continue to fulfill my promise to constituents to serve them to the fullest as their senator until my successor is elected in November.” 

Gresham is carrying several key bills this year.  This includes legislation proposed by Governor Bill Lee to ban abortions after a heartbeat is detected and a comprehensive bill to increase literacy in the early grades.  During her tenure, Gresham sponsored major school choice legislation establishing Individual Education Accounts (IEA) to provide pathways to customized education for students with special needs, and Education Savings Accounts (ESA) to give low-income children an opportunity to receive a quality education.  She also initiated a series of bills in 2018 to address sexual misconduct by teachers to ensure children are safe in the classroom.

“This is not a retreat,” the former Lt. Colonel said as she pledged to continue to work to improve education in Tennessee.  “In the words of General Chesty Puller, “I’m attacking in a different direction.”   Puller, who was a distinguished U.S. Marine Corps officer, was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history.

Gresham has served as Chairman of the Education Committee for the State Council of State Government’s Southern Legislative Conference.  She also served as Vice Chairman of the Education Commission of the States.  

In other leadership roles, Gresham has been a champion of Tennessee farmers and advancing agriculture in Tennessee. She and her husband, Will, live on their cattle farm in Fayette County.

Lt. Governor Randy McNally said, “Dolores Gresham has devoted her life to serving others. She served all Americans with great distinction in the United States Marine Corps and every Tennessee citizen as a member of the Tennessee House and Senate. Her determined passion for education led her to oversee one of the most improved periods in education in Tennessee history as chairman. She has been a strong conservative voice and a fierce advocate for her constituents. Her departure will certainly leave a void. I am grateful for her friendship and plan to continue soliciting her wise counsel. She will be greatly missed as a member of the Senate.”

Senate Republican Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) said, “Both in service to our county and our state, Senator Gresham exemplifies the Semper Fi motto of the U.S. Marines as ‘always faithful.’   She has been a tremendous advocate for students and her contributions to excellence in education will be felt for many years to come.    We will miss her terribly, but wish her well as she starts this next chapter.”

Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston) said, “Sen. Gresham and I were elected to the Senate at the same time and I am very grateful for her sterling service in the legislature, especially as Chairman of the Education Committee.  Few people have positively influenced education more than Chairman Gresham, always putting students first.  I wish her and Will the best life has to offer.”