Ex-Sen. Brian Kelsey pleads guilty to two counts of federal campaign finance violations

Kelsey faces a maximum of 5 years in prison and $250,000 in fines on each count

By: - November 22, 2022 4:58 pm
Former Tennessee state Sen. Brian Kelsey exits the federal courthouse in Nashville after pleading guilty on two federal counts on Nov. 22. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Former Tennessee state Sen. Brian Kelsey exits the federal courthouse in Nashville after pleading guilty on two federal counts on Nov. 22, 2022. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Nearly a year after proclaiming he was a victim of a political “witch hunt,” former Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey pleaded guilty Tuesday to violating federal campaign finance laws in a scheme to bolster his failed 2016 congressional campaign.

Kelsey, 44, entered guilty pleas to two counts of a five-count federal indictment, one for conspiracy to defraud the United States and another for aiding and abetting the acceptance of funds in excess of federal limitations of $25,000.

The guilty pleas each could net him five years in prison, three years of probation and a $250,000 fine. U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw accepted the pleas and set sentencing for June 9, though that date is expected to be moved up.

Kelsey declined to comment to reporters before and after Tuesday’s hearing.

Accompanied by attorneys Paul Bruno, Jerry Martin and David Rivera, the Germantown Republican admitted to federal prosecutors’ charges that he funneled more than $90,000 from his state account to his congressional campaign, illicitly using “soft money” not governed by federal laws. It is illegal to direct state campaign funds to a federal campaign.

During a dinner gathering six years ago, Kelsey, who declined to run for re-election this year, gave a $106,000 check to co-defendant Josh Smith, proprietor of The Standard Club, a downtown restaurant that catered to Republican lawmakers, according to the indictment. The money was filtered through The Standard Club PAC and Citizens 4 Ethics in Government PAC to the American Conservative Union, which bought radio/digital advertising backing Kelsey’s campaign shortly before he finished fourth in the race, federal documents say.

Kelsey, a conservative Republican who sponsored the governor’s private school voucher legislation and worked against Medicaid expansion, made a statement on the Senate floor in January blaming his indictment on political divisiveness and the Biden Administration, even though the investigation started during the Donald Trump presidency.

Kelsey was a conservative activist during his 18 years in the Legislature, sponsoring constitutional amendments that abolished a state income tax, changed the selection of state appellate judges from a popular vote to gubernatorial appointment and embedded the state’s “Right to Work” law in the Constitution. Kelsey works for the Liberty Justice Center, a national law firm whose legal efforts are focused on undermining unions.

Smith, who made a plea agreement with the feds in October, was ready to cooperate in their investigation as Kelsey faced a January trial. Kelsey’s attorney said Smith wanted to move up his June 9 sentencing hearing since no trial will be held, and a date is to be worked out.

As part of his plea agreement, Kelsey waived his right to a trial and any opportunity to file appeals, including a chance to challenge the sentence when it is meted out.

During his Senate floor speech early this year, Kelsey pinpointed former friend, ex-state Rep. Jeremy Durham, for talking to federal prosecutors in exchange for immunity in the case. Durham, who was an unindicted co-conspirator, was at the dinner meeting when Kelsey gave the check to Smith and initiated the transfer of funds, according to documents.

The Tennessee Lookout obtained a copy of Durham’s subpoena, which required him to provide copies of all documents documents and records related to Kelsey, Kelsey’s wife, Amanda Bunning, who worked for the American Conservative Union at the time, Jessica Durham, Josh Smith, Andrew “Andy” Miller, who ran Citizens 4 Ethics in Government, Zach Crandell, Matt Schlapp of the American Conservative Union and several other people and organizations believed to be connected to the scheme.

Amanda Bunning, who later married Kelsey, was listed in the indictment as an individual who received information from the senator and passed it on to the others who handled the ACU’s advertising.

Kelsey decided not to run for another Senate term this year after narrowly defeating Democrat Gabby Salinas four years ago. He entered the Legislature in 2004 after winning a House seat, then ran for the District 31 Senate seat when former Sen. Paul Stanley resigned amid controversy.

Kelsey previously chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee but was removed as the potential for an indictment loomed.

He earned the moniker “Stunt-Baby of Germantown” while in the House, where in 2007 he filled an envelope with bacon and handed it to former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh to demonstrate how lawmakers were using state money for pet projects in their districts.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.