federal charges

Putnam County commissioner arrested on child porn charges

Federal prosecutors have charged Putnam County Commissioner Jimmy Ray Neal of Baxter with possession and distribution of child pornography. Neal, who won the Republican nomination for another term earlier this month, allegedly went by the handle “Tennesseemaster” on an app used to share pictures of pre-pubescent children.

According to his Facebook page, Neal is a former Tennessee Highway Patrol lieutenant and deputy in the Putnam County Sherriff’s Department.

“My entire adult life has been in service to my Country and my State and my Community. God, Country and Family are my priorities,” Neal said in the post. “I humbly ask for your support to serve as a new and fresh approach to our complex issues involving our school age children.”

An initial court hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

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

NASHVILLE A Putnam County Commissioner was charged yesterday with possession, receipt, and distribution of child pornography, announced U.S. Attorney Mark H. Wildasin for the Middle District of Tennessee.

Jimmy Ray Neal, 57, of Baxter, Tennessee, was arrested at his home, after FBI and Homeland Security Investigations agents executed a search warrant.  Neal was transported to Nashville and appeared before a U.S. Magistrate Judge late yesterday. 

A criminal complaint obtained yesterday alleges that Neal was identified as an administrator of a group in the Kik app in which images of child pornography were viewed and shared with other users.  Specifically, the images depicted naked pre-pubescent females with the focus on the genital area.

This long-running investigation by the FBI began in July 2021, and after the arrest of an Oklahoma man on child pornography charges, other users in the Kik app group were identified, including “tennesseemaster,” later identified as Jimmy Ray Neal. 

A preliminary and detention hearing is set for Tuesday, May 31, 2022, at 2 p.m.

If convicted, Neal faces a mandatory minimum of five years, and up to 20 years in prison. 

This case is being investigated by the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations.  Assistant U.S. Attorney Monica Morrison is prosecuting the case.

The charges are merely accusations.  The defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

Tenn. lawmaker indicted on federal campaign finance charges is asking for donations

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

State Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) recently got his federal trial on campaign finance charges moved until January 2023. Then he started going about the business of raising money for his re-election bid next year.

“The Liberals have found an opponent to run against me!” Kelsey says in the fundraising appeal. “This race is the number one target for Democrats in the state of Tennessee and last election we won by only 51-49%!”

Kelsey makes no mention of his legal issues in the fundraising email.

Prosecutors allege Kelsey funneled money from his state account through other political action committees to a national conservative group to spend on radio ads in support of his ill-fated 2016 congressional bid. Kelsey has denied the charges and denounced the case as a political witch hunt.

It remains to be seen how enthusiastic potential donors will be about giving money to the indicted senator, especially when campaign finance disclosures due at the end of next month will reveal who has contributed to the embattled lawmaker.

Here’s the invite to Jan. 4 the fundraiser:

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.