Stockard on the Stump: Kelsey bail argument tries to lay groundwork for conviction appeal

Comptroller avoids question about funding for TSU

By: - September 22, 2023 6:30 am
Former state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, leaves the U.S. Federal Building in Nashville, Tenn. on July 27, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

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

It’s growing ever clearer that former Sen. Brian Kelsey’s case is clear as mud. At least that’s what the defense wants the judge to think.

Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys turned down U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw’s offer Thursday for an evidentiary hearing to decide whether Kelsey should be allowed to remain free on bail while he appeals a 21-month prison sentence with the claim the feds breached a plea agreement. Crenshaw didn’t make a declaration, but maybe he will decide soon.

Kelsey, a former Germantown Republican, pleaded guilty in November 2022 to masterminding a scheme to shift more than $90,000 from his state account through two political action committees to the American Conservative Union, which bought radio/digital ads backing his failed 2016 congressional race.

But this spring, he reneged on the plea after firing his first three attorneys and hiring a new one. Crenshaw rejected his request to drop the plea — which led Kelsey to hire Nashville attorney Alex Little — and ordered the former Senate Judiciary chairman to serve a year and nine months in prison starting in mid-October. 

Little wants to jump Circuit Court and take the case to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, even though Crenshaw said Thursday “that’s something they typically don’t do.” Crenshaw also pointed out he never determined whether the feds breached the plea agreement, mainly because the defense never asked him to. (They might not like the answer.) 

Federal prosecutor Amanda Klopf continued to maintain the government’s stance that it didn’t breach the agreement simply by asking for a harsher sentence. 

The feds say Kelsey was first to breach when he tried to renege and testified that his first plea was untruthful, which would be perjury.

Klopf argued that Kelsey’s counsel should have asked Crenshaw to decide the breach question during August sentencing.

In a fast-moving hearing in which both sides threw legalese around like mud pies, Little accused prosecutors of trying to make the question “a little messier.” He is hoping the 6th Circuit will take up the case and give Kelsey a new trial. (He never got one in the first place because he pleaded guilty, then claimed crying twin babies and his late father’s illness hurt his judgment.)

The feds say his plea is unlikely to be averted and, if anything, he could receive a new sentencing hearing. Klopf has been slightly irritated by what she called Kelsey’s “delay tactics.”

And even Crenshaw seemed incredulous at one point Thursday in a back and forth with Little when the judge told him, “to answer my question you cannot answer my question?”

What it comes down to is this: Kelsey doesn’t want to go to prison.

He admitted last month he is a “convicted felon” and tried to throw himself on the mercy of the court. Yet it’s painfully obvious he can’t deal with the idea of falling from the pinnacle of state senatorship to that of a convict trapped in a prison cell.

Who would? 

Well, maybe he hasn’t heard, but Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard made a mint writing songs about serving time. If he’s going to stay out on bail while hoping for appeal, this would be a good time to grab a guitar and start pickin’ and grinnin’. Buck and Roy were pretty good too.

D.C. bound

Three Tennessee lawmakers are headed for Washington with an invitation by the Biden Administration for a Friday announcement on a new office of gun violence prevention.

House Minority Leader Karen Camper, Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, both of Memphis, and state Rep. Harold Love, D-Nashville, are making the trip.

Our neighborhoods and our schools are less safe today than they were in the past. We should be able to shop, worship and learn without worrying about being shot.

– House Minority Leader Karen Camper

The office will oversee gun violence prevention bills and work with advocacy groups and Congress on issues such as universal background checks, safe storage and restrictions on military-style rifles, according to the Washington Post.

Calling gun violence a “plague” on Memphis, Tennessee and the nation, Camper said she’s seen state laws passed that led to more guns on the streets and policies that caused more gun crimes, mainly in Memphis.

“Our neighborhoods and our schools are less safe today than they were in the past. We should be able to shop, worship and learn without worrying about being shot,” said Camper, a Memphis mayoral candidate.

Among those new laws, the state Legislature passed Gov. Bill Lee’s permitless carry bill, which allowed “law-abiding” residents to go armed with handguns without obtaining a state permit. Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti then negotiated a deal with a California-based pro-gun group that sued the state to allow the carry law to apply to anyone between 18 and 21.

Police officials believe that law and the state’s “guns in trunks” measure, passed more than a decade ago, caused a proliferation of vehicle gun thefts.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly, however, refused to take up gun-related restrictions this year in regular and special sessions despite the mass shooting at The Covenant School in south Nashville where three 9-year-olds and three adults were killed March 27th.

Look for the debate to continue in 2024.

Strong Families grants

Gov. Bill Lee reaffirmed his support for crisis pregnancy centers, which provide anti-abortion counseling, by announcing $20 million is available for the Strong Families Grant Program.

The program boosts access to maternal health care and nonprofit agencies statewide, such as “pregnancy centers,” one of which Lee backed as a member of its board of directors.

“Being pro-life is much more than protecting the lives of the unborn – it’s also about protecting the dignity of every human being,” Lee said in a recent statement. “Strong families are central to strong communities, and we’re proud to partner with the General Assembly to prioritize resources for local partners that serve Tennesseans in need. We welcome any Tennessee organization that serves expecting mothers and families to apply for these critical grant funds.”

Gov. Bill Lee has reaffirmed his support for so-called crisis pregnancy centers as talk is surfacing about methods to track women who go out of state for abortion services.

Meanwhile, the Lookout reported Thursday morning that Tennessee is among the national leaders for arresting pregnant women accused of endangering their fetuses.

Many of these are women who violate “personhood” laws by using legal or illegal drugs – the majority of them poor and white, although Black women are disproportionately represented too, according to the report.

Oddly enough, the state’s abortion ban exempts women from prosecution for seeking an abortion. But talk is surfacing about methods to track women who go out of state for abortion services.

The oddities continue in an argument that will never end.

No problems here

The Comptroller’s Office made a scathing indictment of Tennessee State University this year in which it called for getting rid of the president and board of trustees and putting TSU under the authority of the Board of Regents.

It all stemmed from TSU’s failure to handle housing needs — some students were sent to live in hotels as far away as the Opryland Hotel area, though they certainly didn’t stay in those posh rooms — amid an effort to boost scholarships coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet the Comptroller’s Office was mum this week when asked whether it would dig into finding the culprit for shorting the historically Black university by $2.1 billion or even $554 million. The 2023 report barely mentioned the disparate funding, and Comptroller Jason Mumpower doesn’t seem too excited about investigating this matter.

Staying mum(power) on Tennessee State University's audit Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Staying mum(power) on Tennessee State University’s audit Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“We are currently in the process of a financial and compliance audit of Tennessee State University for the fiscal year July 1, 2021 – June 30, 2022. It would not be proper for us to comment on what may be included in our audit scope during the course of an on-going audit,” spokesman John Dunn said in response to questions.

The silence is somewhat deafening as a $2 million third-party audit starts, in addition to the state’s regular audit. But more than likely they’re not looking at the sources of $2.1 billion worth of hosiery.

This all comes up — and will keep raising its head for eternity — because the federal secretaries of education and agriculture sent Lee a letter saying TSU was shortchanged by billions from 1987 to 2020. The National Center for Education Statistics came up with the numbers that found TSU and North Carolina A&T led the nation in being cut short. All told, Black land grant universities formed in 1890 lost more than $12 billion over 30-plus years.

“No one wants to hear the acknowledgement of a debt,” TSU President Glenda Glover told the Tennessee Lookout this week.

But Glover also says, “it’s nobody’s fault,” though she adds, “it becomes our fault if we do nothing about it.”

Glover is playing nice because it’s not her DNA to be confrontational. She also wants to get along with the governor’s office in order to make sure TSU is repaid. 

Clearly, though, it is somebody’s fault. This didn’t happen in the 1800s, and considering the amount of energy poured into pinpointing TSU’s shortcomings over the last few years — especially with accounting measures — the state should figure out exactly who diverted money that was supposed to go to TSU and where it went.

No doubt, TSU fell short in communicating with freshmen who thought they were getting “full rides” and dealing with their housing problems. But the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and University of Memphis went through their own housing struggles. 

And, as Glover pointed out, if TSU had gotten its money all along, she and the trustees wouldn’t have been hauled before a Senate committee and excoriated as if they’d hidden millions in Bahamas bank accounts. (Well, those are my words, not hers. But you get the point.)

With the comptroller barely responding, apparently the task of a new investigation falls back to the Office of Legislative Budget Analysis, which determined TSU was shorted up to $544 million.

Lawmakers hold the keys to the bank, and many of them are addicted to spending money. Who spent what and when did they do it?

“There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes. Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose.”*

(* “Sam Stone,” by the late, great John Prine.)



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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.