Former Memphis Sen. Brian Kelsey wants to withdraw guilty plea in campaign finance conviction

By: - March 17, 2023 5:01 pm
Sen. Brian Kelsey. R-Germantown (Photo: John Partipilo)

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

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated.

Less than two weeks before a sentencing hearing, former state Sen. Brian Kelsey is attempt to withdraw his guilty plea and asking the court to dismiss five counts of a federal conviction on violating campaign finance laws.

In a motion filed Friday in U.S. District Court, Kelsey requested that Judge Waverly Crenshaw reconsider his November plea, claiming it would be “unfair and unjust to allow” him to be sentenced for a crime “legally impossible” for him to commit.

The former Germantown Republican’s filing appears to claim the indictment was politically motivated and says he entered his guilty plea “with an unsure heart and confused mind” after his twin sons were born and while his father was on his “death bed.”

Kelsey’s filing to change his guilty plea contends the court should grant his motion to withdraw the plea because he pleaded guilty to a set of facts that don’t “actually constitute a crime and entered his plea agreement with unsure heart and confused mind.” 

“During this incredibly stressful and confusing time, Kelsey was given a mere 48 hours to make a life altering decision – a decision made without fully understanding consequences that have come to light only after he entered his plea,” the filing says.

Kelsey’s guilty pleas each could net him five years in prison, three years of probation and a $250,000 fine.

His new filing maintains his innocence to an indictment and conviction for directing a scheme to send more than $90,000 from his state campaign finance account through two political action committees to the American Conservative Union, which bought radio/digital ads for his failed congressional campaign.

The former state senator was set to be sentenced March 28, and his hearing was moved in front of co-conspirator Joshua Smith’s hearing because federal prosecutors wanted Smith to be available for testimony in case something went awry with Kelsey’s sentencing. At least three people, including state Sen. Paul Rose, R-Covington, sent letters asking the judge to give Kelsey a light sentence.

Kelsey’s filing contends the court should grant his motion to withdraw the plea because he pleaded guilty to a set of facts that don’t “actually constitute a crime and entered his plea agreement with unsure heart and confused mind.” 

As part of the argument, his attorney says the court should consider Kelsey’s lack of experience with the criminal justice system even though he is a former attorney. Kelsey’s law license was suspended after he pleaded guilty.

“Not only did he not practice criminal law, but he lived a life with an unblemished criminal record … and he maintained among his colleagues a reputation for the highest ethical character,” the filing states.

It contends the concepts of a plea bargain, sentencing guidelines and point system that uses a “trial penalty” are new to him.

“As a former attorney, the possibility of agreeing to facts which cannot, as a matter of law, constitute a criminal offense causes even more unease than it would for a non-lawyer,” the filing claims.

Kelsey is represented by David Warrington and Michael Columbo of the Dhillon Law Group, which reportedly took the case of Robbie Starbuck in his efforts to remain on the ballot for the 5th Congressional District race last year.

Attorneys Paul Bruno, Jerry Martin and David Rivera – the latter two both former U.S. attorneys – represented Kelsey when he pleaded guilty.

Kelsey was set to go to trial in January until Smith entered his guilty plea in November. The former senator then pleaded guilty in late November, less than a year after he took to the Senate chamber floor to claim his indictment was a politically motivated “witch hunt.”

Kelsey’s wife, a former American Conservative Union employee, received emails detailing his conservative credentials and passed them on to ACU officials, who then endorsed the expenditures backing his campaign, according to court filings.

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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.