Stockard on the Stump: Annoyed judge grants Kelsey one more delay

Plus: Mumpower versus TSU, Glen Casada and Cade Cothren try some legal maneuvering

July 28, 2023 6:01 am
Former state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, walks with his new attorneys after a July 2023 hearing. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Former state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, walks with his new attorneys after a July 2023 hearing. (Photo: John Partipilo)

An increasingly impatient federal judge reset sentencing Thursday for former state Sen. Brian Kelsey amid the prosecution’s complaint about “delay tactics” in the federal campaign finance case.

U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw scheduled the new sentencing date for Aug. 11 and granted Kelsey’s request for new attorneys, Alex Little and Zachary Lawson, to take over his case, marking a third set of counsel and yet another postponement. Sentencing originally was set for June but was expected to be done even sooner until Kelsey balked.

Displaying a shortening fuse, Crenshaw and Little repeatedly interrupted each other in the Thursday hearing as Little sought more time to get a grip on the case and Crenshaw pointed out it’s been nearly a year since Kelsey pleaded guilty (nine months to be exact).

“We need to go to sentencing,” the judge said, noting it’s a 2021 case with a guilty plea yet still no sentence.

Little, who initially sought a 30-day delay after he was hired a week ago, finally said he could prepare for sentencing in two weeks, which includes bringing in yet another attorney from Arizona, Kory Langhofer, to testify in an effort to lessen Kelsey’s sentence. He was counsel for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign as well as litigation counsel for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential run, according to his bio.

Kelsey needs all the “mitigation” he can get as he faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and $250,000 fines on each of two counts for directing a scheme to use money from his state campaign account to support his failing 2016 congressional run. Kelsey gave co-defendant, The Standard Club proprietor Josh Smith, whose sentencing is set for the same day, a check for $106,000, which was filtered through The Standard Club PAC and Citizens 4 Ethics in Government PAc to the American Conservative Union, which bought radio/digital ads backing Kelsey’s campaign shortly before he finished fourth in the race seven years ago.

Kelsey was set to go to trial late last year until Smith pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the feds.

Former state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, leaves the U.S. Federal Building in Nashville, Tenn. on July 27, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Federal prosecutors say Kelsey illicitly used “soft money” not governed by federal laws to bolster his campaign, even though it’s illegal to direct state campaign funds to a federal race.

Months after his guilty plea last November, Kelsey sidelined attorneys Paul Bruno, Jerry Martin and David Rivera in favor of David Warringon of Dhillon Law Group in Alexandria, Virginia when he sought to renege. Crenshaw said no way.

But that didn’t stop Kelsey from trying to find another way to put off potential prison time.

He hired Little and Lawson recently (one wonders how he keeps getting all this money since he no longer can practice law), citing a breakdown in the relationship with the initial trio. 

Kelsey also set the stage for a possible lawsuit against his former attorneys. The potential for legal action against his former attorneys isn’t expected to derail the Aug. 11 sentencing but could run parallel if he follows through.

Little said in court Thursday he plans to do a couple of things differently than the now-former counsel, and he noted Kelsey was surprised by some of Bruno’s actions. Bruno testified at a May hearing when called by the feds.

(They tell me that Kelsey finally got the right defense attorney. But others tell me he had good counsel already.)

Still, federal prosecutor Amanda Klopf pointed out Kelsey’s sentencing has “dragged out quite a bit,” and she added, “this does feel like a delay tactic at this point.” 

For anyone trying to catch up, Kelsey complained that crying twin babies and his later father’s illness kept him from making the right decision last fall when he pleaded guilty. He also claimed he didn’t understand the criminal legal system, even though he served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and worked as an attorney for the Liberty Counsel trying to undermine union activity nationwide. 

He also nearly pulled Little’s arm off several times during Thursday’s hearing to give him legal advice, not that Little needs it.

The judge noted that Kelsey testified he wanted Bruno and team to represent him, then changed his mind, not once but twice.

Amid the finagling for new legal representation and claims that the Bruno team wasn’t doing its job, Crenshaw appeared to sum up the last few months when he said: “I’m wondering if I was misled.”

Klopf also said Kelsey’s maneuvering threw a “last-minute wrench” into the proceedings, which could work against him if he’s trying to get the feds to agree to anything.

Likewise, when trying to get the judge to go light at sentencing you throw yourself at the mercy of the court. But when you’ve been labeled the “stunt baby of Germantown,” shenanigans become the norm.

You can go your own way

Still dealing with a campus housing shortage, Tennessee State University won permission this week to enter two hotel leases totaling more than $7 million in the coming school year – but not with the help of state Comptroller Jason Mumpower.

The comptroller delivered a blistering report on the university early in 2023 calling for replacement of the board of trustees and President Glenda Glover. He continued to throw up a roadblock for the historically black university as it sought approval for the hotel rooms this week before the Tennessee School System Bonding Authority.

Mumpower, a voting member of the authority who sat in on the meeting via conference call, told the board he couldn’t support the leases because with everything else TSU has going on financially, the university could come up a million dollars short next year. 

“I will not be voting for the items today. As the money cop, I am not comfortable with what I have seen,” Mumpower said.

Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The comptroller’s questions also raised the eyebrows of Secretary of State Tre Hargett, who said “that gives me pause,” though he ultimately voted for the leases, giving TSU a 5-0 vote with one abstaining in its favor.

A certification letter drafted by the Attorney General’s Office also will have to be signed by Glover promising that TSU can pay the bills.

Before the vote, which was later approved by the State Building Commission Executive Subcommittee, TSU Vice President of finance Doug Allen disagreed with Mumpower’s assessment, though he did say the university could fall about $120,000 short on cash. Allen pointed out the university has a $31 million repair fund it could tap to cover costs.

TSU officials also said they hope to get out of the hotel business in two to three years when a new dorm opens. They also cut back on freshmen enrollment for the coming year, down to 1,600 from 3,100 last year, a number that caused lawmakers to threaten nuclear action.

The weird thing is lawmakers last year approved $250 million – at Gov. Bill Lee’s request – for university upgrades. Yet it can’t be used for housing.

It’s almost as if state officials are helping TSU and slapping it down at the same time, while saying, “We want to see TSU succeed.”

If that’s the case, just make it happen.

The University of Tennessee in Knoxville depends on outside housing too. Yet it has hundreds of millions pouring in for silly things such as renovation of Neyland Stadium, which has absolutely nothing to do with academics other than giving students a chance to get their ya-yas out for six Saturdays every fall.

Granted, TSU plays home games at Nissan Stadium and will continue playing at the Titans’ new domed stadium when it’s built. But the bigger question is whether the state is going to keep kicking Glover and the TSU administration because, suddenly, a large number of high school graduates want to go there. Some would call that a good thing. Mumpower and Co. stand in the way.

Cothren seeks case dismissal

Joining co-defendant Glen Casada, former House speaker chief of staff Cade Cothren filed for dismissal of corruption charges against him this week, claiming the feds’ case is largely trumped up.

Cothren is accused of giving former House Speaker Casada – who holds the record for shortest tenure in history at seven months – kickbacks along with former Rep. Robin Smith in return for helping his secretive vendor, Phoenix Solutions, get nearly $52,000 in business from House Republicans for their state-funded constituent mailers.

Cothren was relieved of his duties as chief of staff in the midst of a racist and sexist texting scandal that helped lead to Casada’s demise, along with complaints about heavy-handed leadership, including “kill bill” lists.

Smith, who pleaded guilty last year and started working with the feds in the case, and Casada are said to have kept the identity of Phoenix Solution’s top man, Cothren, on the down low because, otherwise, he wouldn’t have gotten a bit of work. Coming off a fat state salary, he needed the money – and fast.

Cade Cothren, former chief of staff to ex-House Speaker Glen Casada, leaving the federal courthouse in Nashville following his arraignment on conspiracy charges. (John Partipilo)
Cade Cothren, former chief of staff to ex-House Speaker Glen Casada, leaving the federal courthouse in Nashville following his arraignment on conspiracy charges. (Photo: John Partipilo)

In his latest filing, though, Cothren claims his customers got exactly what they bargained for, thus there was no wrongdoing. His attorneys also say he didn’t violate any federal funding provisions.

It might be harder to prove he didn’t sign a tax form with the signature “Matthew Phoenix,” purported owner of Phoenix Solutions.

Casada filed a similar motion to dismiss before Cothren as they try to wriggle off the hook before an October trial.

Meanwhile, Cothren claims that after he left his chief of staff post, he talked constantly with Cameron Sexton, now the House speaker, and helped in his bid for the post, communicating regularly. He says phone and encrypted communication records will prove they were tight, and he expects to bring those to court.

Sexton, who is cooperating with the feds in the case, could be a little uncomfortable, considering Cothren’s legal team is likely to skewer him if he takes the stand. Cothren is clearly peeved at the entire House Republican leadership, and he won’t be holding back – if it ever goes to trial.

At it again

First Jeremy Durham was expelled from the House of Representatives for raunchy activity with women. Then, he ran afoul of the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. Last year, he was charged with DUI in Nashville’s party district. The latest? According to a Hendersonville Standard article, his real estate company, J and J Ventures was ordered to pay court costs and a (shocking) $50 fine each for two violations of Hendersonville’s short-term rental/vacation law, which prohibits operations such as AirBnB in anything but commercial areas. Short-term rentals aren’t allowed in regular residential neighborhoods, and heaven forfend they try to party in the hallowed Indian Lake Road area.

Poor Durham. He just can’t buy a break, even when he claims to be free from the eye of the feds. He’s an unindicted co-conspirator in the Kelsey case. 

A Hendersonville city court judge ruled against him July 11, and he has to come up with $550 or appeal to Sumner County Circuit Court.

He just can’t seem to buy a break. Then again, some of this stuff could be self-inflicted.

“Trouble been doggin’ my soul since the day I was born.”

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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.