josh smith

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.

Kelsey, who angrily denied charges, to change plea in federal case

State Sen. Brian Kelsey denies wrongdoing in a video conference call following his indictment on Oct. 25, 2021. (Image: screengrab from call)

State Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who blamed a political witch hunt for a federal indictment on campaign finance charges, now plans to change his not-guilty plea in the case.

Kelsey’s attorneys made the motion for a hearing on the matter on Thursday. The lawmaker’s codefendant, Nashville club owner Josh Smith, pleaded guilty last week.

Kelsey is accused of illegally transferring money from his state campaign account to Smith’s PAC and then directing the money to be redirected to a national group to spend on his 2016 congressional bid. Kelsey finished fourth in that contest.

U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw has yet to schedule Kelsey’s change-of-plea hearing.

Kelsey codefendant Smith to plead guilty

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

Josh Smith, the proprietor of The Standard social club in Nashville, has struck an agreement with federal prosecutors to plead guilty to one charge of funneling soft money to state Sen. Brian Kelsey’s unsuccessful congressional bid in 2016. Kelsey, a Germantown Republican, remains a defendant on all five counts.

Smith’s attorneys say he plans to plead guilty to Count Two of the indictment, which alleges Smith had “solicited, received, directed, transferred, and spent” more than $25,000 while acting as an agent for Kelsey’s campaign for the GOP nomination in the 8th District in 2016.

According to the indictment, Kelsey funneled money from his state campaign account through political action committees controlled by Smith and Andy Miller Jr. to the American Conservative Union (ACU), which then spent $80,000 on radio ads supporting his bid for federal office. It was all for naught, as Kelsey finished a distant fourth in the Republican primary.

Kelsey has pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing. He isn’t seeking re-election this year.

The trial is scheduled for January.


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