Supreme Court suspends Kelsey’s law license after conviction

Board of Professional Responsibility to determine final discipline

By: - January 19, 2023 11:17 am
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)

Barely two weeks after former state Sen. Brian Kelsey pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign finance law, the Tennessee Supreme Court suspended his law license.

The court took action Dec. 8, 2022 after receiving a notice from the Board of Professional Responsibility about Kelsey’s Nov. 22 plea in U.S. District Court to two of five charges stemming from his failed 2006 congressional campaign. The Tennessee Journal initially reported the decision.

Kelsey had been working as a senior counsel for Liberty Justice Center, a national law firm that litigates constitutional questions, often taking on union issues. He also represented clients who favored private school vouchers after he sponsored education savings account legislation for Gov. Bill Lee four years ago. 

Kelsey pleaded guilty in October to two “serious crimes,” conspiracy to defraud the United States and aiding and abetting the acceptance of excessive contributions, according to the order of enforcement.

Former Sen. Brian Kelsey, photographed in the Tennessee Capitol in 2022. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Former Sen. Brian Kelsey, photographed in the Tennessee Capitol in 2022. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Supreme Court suspended Kelsey from practicing law and referred the matter back to the Board of Professional Responsibility for a formal proceeding to determine the extent of final disciplinary action. 

Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who served terms in the state House and Senate, “shall fully comply with the provisions” of state law “concerning disbarred and suspended attorneys,” the order says. The Board of Professional Responsibility is to publish notice of the suspension, as well, according to the order.

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

Accompanied by attorneys Paul Bruno, Jerry Martin and David Rivera, Kelsey admitted in November that he funneled more than $90,000 from his state campaign 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 more than six years ago, Kelsey, who declined to run for re-election in 2022, gave a $106,000 check to co-defendant Josh Smith, proprietor of The Standard Club, a downtown Nashville restaurant that catered to Republican lawmakers. 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 congressional race, according to federal documents.

Smith made a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in October 2022 and was ready to cooperate in their investigation as Kelsey faced trial this January. 

During a Senate floor speech early last year after being indicted, Kelsey claimed he was a victim of a “witch hunt” by the Biden Administration, even though the investigation started under the Trump Administration. He also pinpointed former friend, ex-state Rep. Jeremy Durham, for talking to the feds in exchange for immunity in the case. An unindicted co-conspirator, Durham was at the dinner meeting when Kelsey gave the check to Smith and initiated the transfer of funds, according to documents.

Kelsey 3299 SC Order

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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.