Stockard on the Stump: Kelsey prepares to sue own attorneys in federal fraud case

July 14, 2023 6:02 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)

Citing worsening relations with his attorneys, former state Sen. Brian Kelsey is hiring new lawyers to represent him at sentencing on a federal campaign finance conviction, possibly setting the stage for more legal intrigue, or at least a little more time before he goes to prison.

Kelsey, who previously tried to renege on a guilty plea in the case, requested permission this week to hire Alex Little and Zachary Lawson of Burr & Forman LLC as his sole counsel, giving the ax to Paul Bruno, David Rivera, Jerry Martin and David Warrington, who did not oppose his move. U.S. Attorney Amanda Knopf didn’t oppose the change either.

“Defendant seeks this relief from the Court due to the deterioration of attorney-client relationships, the potential for future litigation involving prior counsel, and the need to have counsel of choice representing him at sentencing,” the filing states.

It appears Kelsey is getting ready to sue his former attorneys so he can postpone his sentencing again.

Little also filed a separate request to postpone the July 27 sentencing date for 30 days, writing that the attorney substitution is necessary because of the poor relationship between Kelsey and his attorneys and “the potential of future litigation involving prior counsel.”

Bruno, who is considered one of the top criminal defense attorneys in the area, and Rivera and Martin, both former U.S. attorneys, represented Kelsey at his guilty plea. Kelsey sidelined them and brought in Warrington to help him try to take back his guilty plea, saying crying babies (twin sons) and the death of his father left him unable to make good decisions. He also claimed he didn’t understand the criminal legal process even though he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

The judge said no take-backs.

It’s little wonder the relationship between Kelsey and his attorneys soured. He didn’t get what he wanted so he benched them.

Kelsey pleaded guilty to illegally filtering $106,000 through co-defendant Josh Smith, owner of The Standard Club, a downtown Nashville restaurant frequented by Republicans, and two political action committees to the American Conservative Union, which bought radio and digital advertising supporting him in his failed 2016 congressional campaign. Kelsey’s wife, Amanda Bunning, worked at the American Conservative Union at the time of the buys and was an unnamed individual in the indictment.

Former state Sen. Brian Kelsey has fired his current legal team, citing “deterioration of attorney-client relationships” and “the potential for future litigation involving prior counsel,” in a potential attempt to postpone his sentencing in a federal campaign finance case.ds

Smith pleaded guilty last fall, shortly before they were to go to trial, and Kelsey followed with his own guilty plea before changing his mind and deciding he didn’t do what he said he did. It’s illegal to use “soft money” not governed by federal laws for a federal campaign.

Kelsey pleaded guilty to two counts, one for conspiracy to defraud the United States and another for aiding and abetting the acceptance of funds exceeding federal limits. Each plea could net him five years in prison, three years of probation and a $250,000 fine, in addition to the penalties for being a convicted felon. He can’t carry a gun, vote or practice law, though some question whether he ever did the latter.

We’re on the (rail)road to nowhere

Lawmakers are urging Gov. Bill Lee to get on board with a plan to add Amtrak passenger train routes in Tennessee, expanding from the famed City of New Orleans that stops only in Newbern and Memphis in West Tennessee.

Democrats ran into trouble with legislation last session to expedite Amtrak lines. But some Republican leaders could be growing more vocal.

Republican Sen. Jon Lundberg of Bristol believes the state should plow ahead and take advantage of some $66 billion in federal funds to hook up with Amtrak when it comes to his city bisected by two states, as well as the rest of Tennessee.

“Bristol’s put on a major push because Virginia’s really accelerating their rail program and wants to move it from Blacksburg to Bristol. But it doesn’t make sense to stop at the Tennessee state line,” Lundberg says.

Lee is said to have talked to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin about Amtrak expansion and could be edging that way, though he hasn’t shown it publicly. 

Sen. John Lundberg, R-Bristol, chair of the Senate Education Committee, supports the current law to hold back 3rd graders who don't meet state reading standards. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. John Lundberg, R-Bristol, says it’s time to get passenger rail. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Even if every entity involved were on board, it would take decades to launch more Amtrak routes across Tennessee, because of the expense of putting in infrastructure, etc., Lundberg notes. But he also points out the federal funding makes it enticing.

A new report (heavily reported already) by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (the mere mention of which usually puts people to sleep) recommends the state create a rail and public transportation unit to work on rail and inter-city bus service, meshing with the governor’s transportation plan and toll lanes, in addition to kick-starting the rail travel process. 

One wonders, however, whether the governor wanted to push his $3.3 billion roads project through the Legislature before the TACIR report could be finished this summer to make sure it didn’t rain on his parade.

Lines from Nashville to Chattanooga and then to Atlanta rank highest in the report, followed by Nashville to Memphis and Chattanooga to Knoxville to Bristol. A Nashville-Louisville line and Memphis to Chicago through Carbondale, Illinois rank in there too.

Asked where the governor stands on the Amtrak report, the governor’s office responded this week with a December 2022 letter from Transportation Commissioner Butch Eley to the Federal Railroad Administration saying the state wasn’t ready to make a “specific corridor” request but that Tennessee has “great interest” in passenger rail.

TDOT spokeswoman Beth Emmons points out the state must “study cost and feasibility” and adds that the state will have to work with Amtrak, the feds, neighboring states and CSX. The company owns the railroads and, based on mass transit discussions, doesn’t want anyone hijacking its lines. 

“We have done everything we are supposed to up to this point including sending a letter of support for continued interest as part of FRA’s (Federal Railroad Administration) Corridor ID Program Notice of Funding Opportunity,” Emmons says.

The program’s name is a microcosm for the reasons it can’t move quickly. The state, nevertheless, missed a March deadline to apply for the funds, a step Nashville and Chattanooga didn’t let pass with the aid of legislative delegations. 

If you look at the map of where Amtrak runs across the United States, it’s just clear as day that Tennessee is the biggest missing component, and it really makes a lot of sense to connect us to the rest of the nation.

– Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville

But while Lee has said he wakes up every morning thinking about how to bolster tourism in Tennessee, Amtrak lines don’t seem to be the star of his dreams.

Democrats, predictably, are pushing the governor to move on Amtrak while most Republicans are mum.

Rep. Jason Powell, a Nashville Democrat, spoke with the governor Thursday when lawmakers visited the governor at his home to discuss the looming Aug. 21 special session. 

After giving the governor his pitch, Powell told the Lookout that Lee says he wants to “dig in” to Amtrak and confirmed he spoke with Gov. Youngkin about extending the Bristol line into Tennessee.

The fear among Amtrak proponents is that opponents will use the cost, which hasn’t been calculated but is expected to be in the several billions, as an excuse to kill it.

But when TACIR is pointing toward massive economic and tourism benefits, about $18.2 billion, and Tennessee’s major cities are reaching the point of no return, can the state afford to wait any longer?

Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville, spoke to Gov. Bill Lee recently and told the Lookout that Lee says he wants to “dig in” to passenger rail with Amtrak and has talked with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin about extending a Tennessee line into Virginia.

“I think there is an appetite for expanding passenger rail in Tennessee,” says Powell, who sponsored the request for the TACIR study and set up a bipartisan rail travel caucus. He calls the TACIR report a “great first look” and points out the next step to tap into billions in federal funds to study lines and come up with construction costs is critical.

Powell says Tennessee taxpayers are paying for Amtrak lines already, most of which run through other states, leaving a “gaping” hole here.

“If you look at the map of where Amtrak runs across the United States, it’s just clear as day that Tennessee is the biggest missing component, and it really makes a lot of sense to connect us to the rest of the nation,” Powell says.

The ultimate question is whether the entire Legislature can read maps or whether they need to go back to third grade for summer study and tutoring.

The bigger philosophical question, though, is this: Why does Tennessee spend so much time trying to catch up with the rest of the country on the simplest things? 

Lundberg supports a rail office within TDOT and points out light rail is being considered between Memphis and BlueOval City, site of Ford Motor’s electric truck plant, as well as other lines.

As for the high cost of paying for Amtrak, Lundberg says, “The caveat to that is the federal funds that are available.”

The long-term question becomes how much the state will have to subsidize and whether lawmakers can swallow their pride.

Gov appoints nuclear policy panel

Lee made appointments Thursday to the Tennessee Nuclear Energy Advisory Council, including former deputy Lang Wiseman and former chief of staff Blake Harris.

Members will include:

  • Commissioner David Salyers – Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation
  • Braden Stover – Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development
  • Director Patrick Sheehan – Tennessee Emergency Management Agency
  • Dr. Loong Yong, Ph.D., Spectra Tech – Congressional Delegation Designee
  • Adam DeMella, ADG Strategies – Congressional Delegation Designee
  • Don Moul – Tennessee Valley Authority Representative
  • Jeff Smith – Oak Ridge National Laboratory Representative
  • Dr. Wes Hines, Ph.D., University of Tennessee – Higher Education Representative
  • Tracy Boatner, East Tennessee Economic Council – Workforce Development Representative
  • Mayor Terry Frank, Anderson County – Local Government Representative
  • Chris Jones, Middle Tennessee Electric – Utilities Representative
  • Jennifer Stone, Thompson Engineering, Inc. – Energy Production Representative
  • Dr. Hash Hashemian, Ph.D., Analysis and Measurement Services – Nuclear Industry Representative
  • Michelle Amante-Harstine – Member At-Large
  • Blake Harris – Member At-Large
  • Steve Jones – Member At-Large
  • Maria Korsnick – Member At-Large
  • Dr. Padma Raghavan, Ph.D. – Member At-Large
  • Ken Rueter – Member At-Large
  • Lang Wiseman – Member At-Large

A whole lot of spending money

Tennessee returned $71.7 million to the federal government in rent relief money in 2022 after landing nearly $300 million through the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan but falling short of spending it all.

The Tennessee Housing Development Agency provided the information after about a month of questions, which went partially answered, and a public records request that required filling out the official paperwork and submitting identification.

Maybe they were worried the information would fall into the hands of foreign agents or be given to former President Donald Trump to be kept with his classified information.

Or maybe this is part of the paranoia sweeping some state agencies and departments. Or, maybe they just didn’t realize I’m a fun-loving guy trying to figure out how the state is spending money.

The Tennessee Housing Development Agency returned $71.7 million to the federal government in rent relief money, claiming it marketed the program in a public relations blitz.

Anyway, THDA claims it went on a full-scale public relations campaign to let people know they could receive federal funds to pay their rent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Possibly, just possibly, the word didn’t reach everyone, and the state had to return $71.7 million.

It’s sort of like the hundreds of millions Tennessee is holding in its welfare program instead of sending it out to poor people. 

This wasn’t the first time a state agency asked me to show them a photo ID for a public records request. But it still made me feel a little like Stephen Elliott, interim editor of the Nashville Scene, when the state’s attorney said he didn’t have standing to file a lawsuit against Tennessee because he wasn’t a resident. (Clearly, they knew he was an Alabama fan, which is a serious strike.)

Since taking on this bigger responsibility at the Scene, Elliott still shows up for big stuff, such as the first day of legislative sessions and, of course, Capitol Hill press corps parties. He’s got his priorities straight.

I guess we’ll have to invite THDA to the next Christmas gathering.

“Father Christmas, give us some money / Don’t mess around with those silly toys. We’ll beat you up if you don’t have it over.”


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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 and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.