Former Tennessee state senator gets 21-month prison sentence for campaign finance cash scheme
Aug 11, 2023, 1:58 PM
(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A former Tennessee state senator on Friday was sentenced to 21 months in prison after he unsuccessfully tried to take back his guilty plea on federal campaign finance charges.
Former Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey received his sentence in U.S. District Court in Nashville in the case centering on his attempts to funnel campaign money from his legislative seat toward supporting his failed 2016 congressional bid. He won’t have to begin his prison time until October.
“I do think there’s a need to sentence you that sends a message,” U.S. Judge Waverly Crenshaw said Friday.
Crenshaw handed down the punishment after the former Germantown lawmaker argued in March that he should be allowed to go back on his November 2022 guilty plea because he entered it with an “unsure heart and a confused mind” due to events in his personal life — his father had terminal pancreatic cancer, then died in February, and he and his wife were caring for their twin sons born in September. Crenshaw denied the change of plea in May.
Before that, Kelsey had pleaded not guilty — often describing his case as a “political witch hunt.” But he changed his mind shortly after his co-defendant, Nashville social club owner Joshua Smith, pleaded guilty to one count under a deal that required him to “cooperate fully and truthfully” with federal authorities.
Late last month, federal prosecutors accused Kelsey of intentionally delaying his sentencing after he switched up his legal defense team.
Dozens of Kelsey’s friends and family packed the Nashville courtroom, where many silently cried and comforted each other as Crenshaw explained why he was sentencing Kelsey to 21 months in prison.
Prosecutors had initially requested 41 months of prison time and spent the majority of their argument depicting Kelsey as a “sophisticated mastermind” behind a complicated campaign scheme designed to flout federal finance regulations.
“I’m truly sorry for the actions that led me here today,” Kelsey told the court. “I knew I was taking a risk and yet I did it anyway and in doing so, I broke the law.”
In October 2021, a federal grand jury indicted Kelsey and Smith, who owns the The Standard club in Nashville, on several counts each. The indictment alleged that Kelsey, Smith and others violated campaign finance laws by illegally concealing the transfer of $91,000 from Kelsey’s state Senate campaign committee and $25,000 from a nonprofit that advocated legal justice issues — to a national political organization to fund advertisements urging support of Kelsey’s congressional campaign.
Prosecutors allege that Kelsey and others caused the national political organization to make illegal and excessive campaign contributions to Kelsey by coordinating with the nonprofit on advertisements, and that they caused the organization to file false reports to the Federal Election Commission.
Kelsey, a 45-year-old attorney from Germantown, was first elected to the General Assembly in 2004 as a state representative. He was later elected to the state Senate in 2009.
Associated Press writer Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report from Nashville, Tenn.