Oct 26, 2021 - Politics

Tennessee state senator indicted on campaign finance violations

Tennessee state Sen. Brian Kelsey

Tennessee state Sen. Brian Kelsey. Photo: courtesy of the Tennessee General Assembly

State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, was indicted and charged with violating federal campaign finance laws in an effort to support his unsuccessful 2016 bid for Congress.

  • Federal prosecutors announced the indictment Monday. Kelsey maintained his innocence, saying he is the victim of "a political witch hunt."
  • The indictment also charged Joshua Smith, the owner of The Standard social club, with participating in the alleged scheme.

Why it matters: The indictment follows a years-long investigation. The Tennessean first reported on Kelsey's campaign finance transactions in 2017.

  • Kelsey, 43, chairs the Senate Education Committee, a particularly powerful position as Gov. Bill Lee pursues an extensive reevaluation of the state's formula for funding schools.

The details: The indictment alleges Kelsey and Smith worked with unindicted co-conspirators, political groups and others to illegally funnel more than $106,000 from Kelsey's state campaign coffers to support his federal race in 2016.

  • One of the unindicted co-conspirators was described as a lawmaker expelled from the General Assembly in 2016. Jeremy Durham, the only lawmaker expelled during that timeframe, was ousted following sexual misconduct allegations.

What they're saying: Kelsey derided the charges during an online news conference Monday, saying it was an attempt by the Biden administration to boot him and clear the way for a Democratic replacement.

  • "These five-year-old, unfounded allegations have been reviewed and re-reviewed, and I look forward to being cleared at trial," Kelsey said.
  • The Tennessean reported that Smith sent an email to members of The Standard on Monday saying he was cooperating with the investigation. Smith's attorney Hal Hardin told the Associated Press they "look forward to presenting our proof to an impartial jury and judge."

The bottom line: Kelsey and Smith face charges of conspiracy, illegally transferring "soft money" as a federal candidate and his agent and illegally transferring “soft money” as a state officeholder and his agent.

  • Kelsey is also charged with making and accepting excessive contributions.
  • If convicted, the men face up to 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.

Between the lines: Kelsey is one of several state lawmakers to face the scrutiny of recent federal investigations.

  • State Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis, was convicted last month on four counts of wire fraud.
  • FBI agents raided the homes and offices of several state lawmakers in January.

What's next: Kelsey must request an ethics review to determine if he can hold his leadership role in the education committee while the indictment is pending.

  • If he fails to request a review from the Senate Ethics Committee in 10 days, he will be suspended as chair.
  • Kelsey and Smith were asked to surrender to U.S. Marshals by 10am on Nov. 5. They will appear before a magistrate judge.

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