Judge says former Sen. Brian Kelsey can’t take back guilty plea

By: - May 16, 2023 5:08 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)

Former state Sen. Brian Kelsey won’t be allowed to change his guilty plea on charges that he illegally funneled money to his failed 2016 Congressional campaign.

The ruling — by a federal judge Tuesday — sets up a July sentencing hearing for the former Germantown Republican.

Kelsey pleaded guilty in November to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States and another for aiding and abetting the acceptance of funds in excess of federal limitations of $25,000.

But by March, Kelsey wanted to withdraw his guilty pleas because he claimed to enter them “with an unsure heart and confused” after his twin sons were born and his father was on his “death bed.”

His lawyers contended that the court should allow Kelsey to withdraw his pleas because he lacked experience with the criminal justice system. This was despite Kelsey being a former attorney and serving as chair of the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee.

Kelsey illegally moved $90,000 from his state campaign account to a federal account to bolster his failed bid in 2016 for the Congressional seat currently held by U.S. Rep. David Kustoff, R-Memphis, according to prosecutors. It is illegal to direct state campaign funds to a federal campaign.

Kelsey’s gave $106,000 to his co-defendant Josh Smith, owner of The Standard Club, a downtown Nashville restaurant frequented by state Republicans, 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 and digital advertising backing Kelsey in the last weeks of his campaign.

Kelsey’s wife worked at the American Conservative Union at the time of the advertising buys.

The former senator was initially scheduled to go to trial in January of this year, but Smith made a deal with prosecutors late last year.

The guilty pleas could come with up to 10 years in prison, six years of probation, and a $500,000 fine.

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Adam Friedman
Adam Friedman

Adam Friedman is a reporter with the Tennessee Lookout. He has a particular love for data and using numbers to explain all kinds of topics. If you have a story idea, he'd love to hear it. Email him at [email protected] or call him at 615-249-8509.