NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Former Tennessee State Sen. Brian Kelsey pleaded guilty Tuesday to violating campaign finance laws and conspiring to defraud the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as part of a scheme to benefit his 2016 campaign for U.S. Congress.
Kelsey and co-defendant, Joshua Smith, a Nashville social club owner who ran a political action committee, were indicted by a federal grand jury in Nashville in October 2021.
Kelsey had previously proclaimed his innocence, pleading not guilty last year and calling the case a “political witch hunt.” However, Kelsey filed a motion last month for a change of plea hearing in the federal campaign finance case.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Kelsey admitted that he conspired to funnel money from multiple sources, including his own Tennessee State Senate campaign committee, to his authorized federal campaign committee.
Kelsey and his co-conspirators, including Smith, also caused an unnamed “national political organization” to make “illegal, excessive” contributions to his federal campaign committee, according to the DOJ.
They did so by “coordinating with the organization on advertisements supporting Kelsey’s federal candidacy,” the DOJ said. That also caused false reports of contributions and expenditures to be filed with the FEC.
In total, Kelsey and the other conspirators orchestrated the concealed movement of $91,000 to the national political organization for the purpose of funding advertisements that urged voters to support him in the August 2016 primary election, the DOJ said.
A total of $66,000 came from Kelsey’s State Senate campaign committee, and $25,000 came from a nonprofit corporation that publicly advocated on legal justice issues.
Kelsey, Smith, and others also caused the political organization to make $80,000 worth of contributions to Kelsey’s federal campaign committee in the form of coordinated expenditures.
On Tuesday, Kelsey pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the FEC and aiding and abetting the acceptance of excessive contributions on behalf of a federal campaign. He is scheduled to be sentenced on June 9, 2023, and faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison on each count.
According to the DOJ, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr. will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
Smith pleaded guilty last month to aiding and abetting the solicitation, receipt, direction, transfer and spending of soft money in connection with a federal election and is awaiting sentencing.
Kelsey (R-Germantown) represented parts of east Shelby County and East Memphis in the Tennessee Senate. Brent Taylor was elected earlier this month to serve in Kelsey’s former district.