Photo: Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, stands next to Sen. Richard Briggs of Knoxville in the Senate Chambers on Wednesday. Photo Credit: John Partipilo
By Sam Stockard [The Tennessee Lookout CC BY-NC-ND 4.0] –
Facing a five-count federal indictment, Sen. Brian Kelsey resigned his Education Committee chairmanship Wednesday, proclaiming his innocence while saying the federal government’s lead witness received immunity.
On the first day of a special session to deal mainly with COVID-19 issues, Kelsey said on the Senate floor, for the second time in three days, “I’m totally innocent” and added he looks forward to clearing his name.
In doing so, he stepped down from the Senate Education leadership post. He would have been removed automatically had he not requested a hearing before the Ethics Committee in 10 days.
Kelsey and Joshua Smith, owner of the The Standard Club, an upscale restaurant in downtown Nashville, are charged with funneling more than $90,000 from his state account to his failed 2016 congressional campaign through the social club’s political action committee and then to the American Conservative Union, which bought independent ads supporting Kelsey’s run.
The Germantown Republican, an attorney, said, “I understood I was operating within campaign finance rules. I believe the donation issue was legal and was made on the advice of counsel,” he said, repeating previous claims.
Kelsey also pointed out, “As I’m sure you saw in the Tennessee Journal, according to his lawyer, the government’s lead witness was given immunity from criminal charges.”
As he left the chamber after Wednesday’s organizational meeting for the special session, he declined to answer questions or identify the feds’ lead witness.
It is unclear who the feds’ lead witness is, but the indictment identifies former state Rep. Jeremy Durham as an unindicted conspirator in the alleged scheme, saying he was present when Kelsey arranged the movement of money from his Red State PAC to The Standard Club PAC for the independent expenditures.
The TNJ later reported that Kelsey’s comment about its reporting was erroneous. It noted that it previously reported that Durham’s attorney said in a separate court appearance that federal attorneys said he wouldn’t face criminal charges after an investigation.
Andy Miller, a longtime supporter of Kelsey, is believed to be another unindicted conspirator identified in the indictment. Neither he nor Durham are named.
In addition, the indictment identifies Kelsey’s wife, Amanda Bunning, as a participant in the alleged violation when she worked as a lobbyist for the American Conservative Union. She is now a lobbyist for the Ingram Group in Washington, D.C.
Kelsey also claimed Wednesday that the timing of the government’s investigation “was questionable” because it took five years and a change of presidential administrations to pursue the indictment. Earlier this week, Kelsey blamed the indictment on President Joe Biden, though he wasn’t serving when the investigation into Kelsey began.
The senator tried to regain trust Wednesday evening from his colleagues in a rare moment in only the third special session ever called by the General Assembly.
“Like many of you, I entered public service as a calling,” he said, adding “regretfully, partisan politics” comes into play.
Kelsey has carried legislation that constitutionally prohibits a state income tax, led to the downfall of Medicaid expansion and and advocated for charter schools through Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account bill.
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“We may not agree on every issue. I hope that you will agree that for 17 years, 17 years, I, like you, have always voted for what I thought was best for Tennessee,” he said. “We must find a way in state government and in our nation to heal these divisions, to work together on behalf of people, to move past this extremely divisive time and to not use political attacks on one another to discourage good people from running for office and from participating in vital government processes.”
Kelsey, who won re-election against Democrat Gabby Salinas by only 2 points, sponsored the constitutional amendment that led to the prohibition of an income tax in Tennessee. He also sponsored the legislation that led to the downfall of Medicaid expansion in Tennessee by forcing the governor to bring a proposal back to the Legislature for approval. Ultimately, former Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan failed in the General Assembly.
In addition, Kelsey carried the governor’s education savings account bill and sponsored the legislation to place Tennessee’s Right to Work law in the state Constitution.
Kelsey said his faith in God will help him make it through the legal challenge, and he noted that he is “extremely blessed” to have support from his wife, as well as a 2-year-old daughter.
He also expressed appreciation to Senate colleagues for their backing since he was indicted last Friday.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who appointed Kelsey to the Senate Education post after removing him as chairman of Senate Judiciary, said he understood how difficult a time it is for Kelsey and his family.
“I want you to know my prayers are with you and your family, and I appreciate the action you have taken today. I think this will allow you to concentrate fully on your case and not be burdened with the issues of a chairmanship, and I appreciate you as a senator and as a person,” McNally said.
Sen. Frank Nicely also gave support to Kelsey on the Senate floor, saying state lawmakers ought to be able to use their state campaign accounts to run for Congress. He blamed Congress for passing unfair legislation.
“It was self-serving and it’s not right,” said Nicely, a Strawberry Plains Republican.
Legislators rarely say anything about a colleague who is facing legal trouble.
But the Tennessee Democratic Party issued a statement this week saying Kelsey’s indictment is a “reminder of the corruption that exists within our current politics, driven by campaign finance greed that often leads to unlawful activity.”
The party pointed out that Kelsey has been an advocate for “law and order” but has not held himself to those standards.
About the Author: 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 from the Tennessee Press Association. Follow Stockard on Twitter @StockardSam