Former Sen. Brian Kelsey, flanked by attorneys Alex Little and Zack Lawson, leaves the Fred D. Thompson Federal Courthouse in Nashville on Aug.11 after being sentenced to 21 months in federal prison. (Photo: John Partipilo)
His challenges and “delay tactics” at an end, former Sen. Brian Kelsey trudged out of federal court Friday toward a 21-month prison sentence for directing a scheme to funnel state campaign funds to his failed 2016 congressional race.
The Germantown Republican who once served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee took quite a plummet, but his sentence would have been more severe if not for four witnesses who lauded his character, numerous letters to the judge and, finally, Kelsey’s willingness to admit he committed a felony while serving as an elected state official and an officer of the court.
“I’m truly sorry for the actions I have taken,” Kelsey told U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw in Nashville during a protracted hearing.
Set to report to prison by Oct. 1, Kelsey hugged friends and family afterward.
Kelsey, who apologized for letting down his family and friends, had asked to be sentenced to probation or home confinement but received the prison term instead, based on federal sentencing guidelines, which ranged from 33 to 41 months.
Crenshaw took into consideration the testimony of a friend, Jennifer Martinez, who said she worked with Kelsey as a Sunday school teacher of 5-year-olds, in addition to several other political initiatives later, and former state Rep. John DeBerry of Memphis, now a member of Gov. Bill Lee’s cabinet, who said he felt Kelsey had learned a lesson and was remorseful.
Judge Crenshaw said he felt Kelsey “orchestrated” the plan and acted “willfully” but noted he was glad to hear Kelsey and someone connected to the former senator say he was sorry for breaking the law. Crenshaw also gave weight to Kelsey’s 2008 pro bono award for working with a Memphis area nonprofit group.
Once the sponsor of some of the state’s most conservative laws, including creation of private school vouchers, he was sentenced to one year and nine months followed by three years of probation, but only a $200 assessment, after pleading guilty to two counts of violating federal campaign finance laws, which prohibit using state campaign money for federal races because they’re guided by a different set of rules.
His co-defendant in the scheme, Josh Smith, owner of The Standard Club, a downtown Nashville restaurant frequented by Republican lawmakers, netted five years of probation, a $250,000 fine and 720 hours of public service working with local youths. Smith reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors last November and was prepared to testify against Kelsey.
U.S. prosecutors wanted Kelsey to be sentenced to three and a half years in prison and sought a longer term, in part, because of his recalcitrance. Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Klopf said at a recent hearing that Kelsey appeared to be using a “stall tactic.”
They also argued that he should receive a longer sentence because he committed perjury when he sought to have the judge drop his guilty plea and testified that he didn’t do the things he pleaded guilty to in November 2022.
The former state lawmaker admitted he took a “risk” when he met with Smith, former state Rep. Jeremy Durham and Andy Miller, who ran Citizens 4 Ethics in Government PAC, and gave Smith a $106,000 check. In court Friday, Kelsey said those in the group had questionable reputations, even though Durham was one of his closest friends at the time.
Kelsey, who as a convicted felon was suspended from working as an attorney or even holding a bank account, tried to renege on the guilty plea this year, claiming he wasn’t thinking clearly because of his late father’s illness and the crying of his twin boys, who were born last year.
Crenshaw refused to budge but in the last month allowed Kelsey to hire different attorneys, his third set of legal counsel, and push the sentencing until Friday.
Defense attorney Alex Little contended that Durham, an unindicted co-conspirator, was the one who broke the law and argued that Kelsey was not a “depraved criminal.” Prosecutors, however, pointed out Durham wasn’t charged with a crime because he cooperated with the federal government.
In contrast, Kelsey said on the Senate floor in early 2022 he was the victim of a “witch hunt” by the Biden Administration and continued to fight the charges, even after pleading guilty.
In an effort to reduce the sentence, Kelsey’s attorneys introduced evidence from Arizona attorney Kory Langhofer who reportedly advised Kelsey on how to legally use state campaign funds, or “soft money,” by issuing specific directions and sending his attorney time-stamped emails to “memorialize” his instructions.
Kelsey and Durham attended a dinner at The Standard Club where he handed Smith a check for more than $106,000 and told him to use the money “however he wanted.”
According to prosecutors, Kelsey and Durham directed the money to be funneled through The Standard PAC and Citizens 4 Ethics in Government PAC to the American Conservative Union, which bought $80,000 in radio/digital ads to back his federal campaign.
The Tennessee Journal reported Kelsey’s most recent attempt to deflect blame claims he didn’t oversee the plan to move the money into radio and digital ads to support a floundering campaign.
Instead, Durham got more closely involved with how the money was spent shortly after the Legislature expelled him for sexually inappropriate conduct toward 22 women. The expelled Franklin lawmaker and Andy Miller, another unindicted co-conspirator, reportedly went “rogue” and decided to use some of the money for attack ads.
In grand jury testimony, Durham said, “I told Brian he was a f—— idiot for placing that much trust in Smith,” according to the report.
But Kelsey grew angry about that strategy and told Durham to “scrap the ads and send the money to the ACU,” the TNJ reported.
Kelsey claimed in his latest filing that the government is trying to make him look like “some sort of con man,” but that he was not bribed, nor did he recruit “straw donors” or swindle people.
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