Tennessee Republican former state Sen. Brian Kelsey pleaded guilty on Tuesday to violating campaign finance laws and conspiring to defraud the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
The scheme was meant to benefit his 2016 campaign for U.S. Congress, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee.
The Justice Department announcement, which came days before Thanksgiving, said Kelsey and co-conspirator Joshua Smith, owner of the Nashville social club The Standard, were indicted by a federal grand jury in Nashville in October 2021 and charged with violating multiple campaign finance laws.
Kelsey, who previously pleaded not guilty and initially blamed the Biden administration in characterizing the charges as ‘nothing but a political witch hunt,’ changed his plea in front of a federal judge.
The move came after Smith pleaded guilty last month to one count under a deal that requires him to ‘cooperate fully and truthfully’ with federal authorities.
According to court documents, Kelsey, 44, of Germantown, admitted that he conspired to and did secretly and unlawfully 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, were also accused of causing a national political organization to make illegal, excessive contributions to Kelsey’s federal campaign committee by secretly coordinating with the organization on advertisements supporting Kelsey’s federal candidacy and to cause false reports of contributions and expenditures to be filed with the FEC.
Another two unnamed co-conspirators are described in the indictment as an attorney and former Tennessee House member expelled in 2016. Former Republican state Rep. Jeremy Durham was the only lawmaker expelled that year, according to FOX 13 Memphis’ reporting.
Kelsey and the others were also accused of orchestrating the concealed movement of $91,000 — $66,000 of which came from Kelsey’s State Senate campaign committee, and $25,000 of which came from a nonprofit corporation that publicly advocated on legal justice issues — to a national political organization for the purpose of funding advertisements that urged voters to support Kelsey in the August 2016 primary election.
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, prosecutors said.
Kelsey is scheduled to be sentenced on June 9, 2023.
In March, Kelsey announced on Twitter that he would not seek reelection. Without mentioning his indictment, he tweeted that he had been influenced by ‘a recent, exciting change to my personal life, and I look forward to spending more time with my family.’ In September, his wife gave birth to their twin sons.
After Kelsey’s guilty plea, Tennessee Republican Senate Speaker Randy McNally said in a statement: ‘Brian Kelsey has always been a friend and served the Senate well. I appreciate his willingness to take responsibility and accept punishment. I will be keeping he and his family in my prayers as he faces the consequences of his actions.’
The FBI is investigating the case.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.