Former Tennessee state senator gets 21-month sentence for campaign finance cash scheme

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A former Tennessee state senator on Friday was sentenced to 21 months in prison after he unsuccessfully tried to take back his guilty plea on federal campaign finance charges and initially described the case as a “political witch hunt.”

Former Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey received his sentence in U.S. District Court in Nashville in the case centering on his attempts to funnel campaign money from his legislative seat toward supporting his failed 2016 congressional bid. He won’t have to begin his prison time until October.

“I do think there’s a need to sentence you that sends a message for general deterrence,” U.S. Judge Waverly Crenshaw said Friday.

Crenshaw handed down the punishment after the former Memphis-area lawmaker argued in March that he should be allowed to go back on his November 2022 guilty plea because he entered it with an “unsure heart and a confused mind” due to events in his personal life — his father had terminal pancreatic cancer, then died in February, and he and his wife were caring for their twin sons born in September. Crenshaw denied the change of plea in May.

Before that, Kelsey had pleaded not guilty — often saying he was being targeted by Democrats. But he changed his mind shortly after his co-defendant, Nashville social club owner Joshua Smith, pleaded guilty to one count under a deal that required him to “cooperate fully and truthfully” with federal authorities. Smith was sentenced Friday to five years of probation.

Late last month, federal prosecutors accused Kelsey of intentionally delaying his sentencing after he switched up his legal defense team.

Dozens of Kelsey’s friends and family packed the Nashville courtroom, where many silently cried and comforted each other as Crenshaw explained why he was sentencing Kelsey to 21 months in prison.

“I’m truly sorry for the actions that led me here today,” Kelsey told the court. “I knew I was taking a risk and yet I did it anyway and in doing so, I broke the law.”

Prosecutors had initially requested 41 months of prison time and spent the majority of their Friday argument depicting Kelsey as a “sophisticated mastermind” behind a complicated campaign scheme designed to flout federal finance regulations.

However, Kelsey’s attorneys countered that the former lawmaker simply crossed a “very small line” and that the government was seeking a harsher punishment because he hadn’t shown enough remorse for his actions.

Yet Crenshaw noted that out of the four character witnesses who provided testimony that day, only one — former Democratic state Rep. John DeBerry — mentioned that Kelsey was regretful of his actions.

“Life is about living with consequences,” DeBerry said, who detailed working with Kelsey closely during their time working in the Tennessee Statehouse. “When we lose ourselves, you forget you got to do it the right way every time.”

In October 2021, a federal grand jury indicted Kelsey and Smith, who owns the The Standard club in Nashville, on several counts each. The indictment alleged that Kelsey, Smith and others violated campaign finance laws by illegally concealing the transfer of $91,000 from Kelsey’s state Senate campaign committee and $25,000 from a nonprofit that advocated legal justice issues — to a national political organization, the American Conservative Union, to fund advertisements urging support of Kelsey’s congressional campaign.

Prosecutors allege that Kelsey and others caused the organization to make illegal and excessive campaign contributions to Kelsey by coordinating on advertisements, and that they caused the nonprofit to file false reports to the Federal Election Commission.

Two co-conspirators were also involved, including former Tennessee Rep. Jeremy Durham, a Republican, who was expelled in 2016 on multiple sexual misconduct allegations. Durham cooperated with federal officials in Kelsey’s case and has not faced any charges.

Kelsey’s attorney had argued that since Durham wasn’t facing prison time, then neither should their client. Crenshaw disagreed by repeatedly pointing out that Durham and others agreed to work with federal officials early on.

Kelsey, a 45-year-old attorney from Germantown, was first elected to the General Assembly in 2004 as a state representative. He was later elected to the state Senate in 2009.

Due to his conviction, Kelsey is banned from running for state office in Tennessee and has been stripped of his law license. He also been ordered to surrender any guns from his possession.

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