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Former state Sen. Brian Kelsey won't be allowed to change guilty plea; July sentencing set

The Tennessean (Nashville) 5/16/2023 Melissa Brown, Nashville Tennessean
Former Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey leaves federal court Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. A federal judge denied his request to change his guilty plea. © Mark Humphrey, AP Former Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey leaves federal court Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. A federal judge denied his request to change his guilty plea.

Former Tennessee state Sen. Brian Kelsey will not be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea in a federal campaign finance case, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Kelsey sought to take his case to trial after what he called a mistake of a plea deal in November 2022, when he pleaded guilty to two campaign finance charges stemming from his failed 2016 congressional campaign.

Kelsey, R-Germantown, said he was innocent of the criminal charges he previously pleaded guilty to and made a mistake when taking a plea bargain under the stress of newborn twins and the failing health of his father. The November plea hearing was an "out-of-body experience," the former lawmaker testified.

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Ruling from the bench on Tuesday, U.S. Chief District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr., said he didn't find Kelsey's argument persuasive as the court had given Kelsey multiple opportunities to raise issues with the plea agreement. Crenshaw also criticized Kelsey's legal argument that he did not fully understand the implications of a criminal felony plea, given his career as a constitutional lawyer and a Tennessee lawmaker.

"Quite frankly, he came to the court with much more understanding of the process and repercussions than the vast majority of criminal defendants," Crenshaw said, referring to Kelsey as a "sophisticated legal party."

It was an unusual hearing on Tuesday during which the government subpoenaed and called one of Kelsey’s current attorneys as a witness, who testified he would generally have advised a client to delay if they were having second thoughts about taking a plea.

Kelsey testified he didn't inform his legal team he felt he'd made a mistake until earlier this year, after his father died of pancreatic cancer, though he'd privately told family immediately following the November 2022 plea hearing.

Crenshaw said there was "no credible explanation" for Kelsey not telling his attorneys earlier and filing a motion to pull his plea more than 100 days after his initial plea hearing.

The former lawmaker continually argued he always maintained his innocence and did not believe he was guilty when he entered his plea last November, but rather felt it was the “virtuous” thing to do to take responsibility for the case in an effort to protect his family from a lengthy prison sentence.

“I made a big mistake,” Kelsey told the judge. “I’m sorry, Your Honor, for what I did to this court and put counsel through, on both sides.”

Prosecutors argued Kelsey was not only familiar with the criminal justice system but was a “highly sophisticated” defendant, given his legal education and career as a constitutional attorney. While Kelsey argued on Tuesday he had little criminal law education, prosecutors pointed out he personally sponsored legislation during his time in the Tennessee General Assembly that enacted new legal consequences on criminal defendants.     

"He is literally responsible for passing criminal laws and he's done so for 18 years," said John Taddei, a prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice. "That's not a naïve stranger to this system."      

On the stand Tuesday, Kelsey specifically denied coordinating the campaign donations at the heart of his legal troubles, which involve the American Conservative Union and two ACU employees, including one who is now Kelsey’s wife.

Kelsey was indicted alongside Nashville social club owner Joshua Smith, who has since pleaded guilty. Prosecutors allege the pair illegally concealed the transfer of tens of thousands of dollars from Kelsey's state Senate campaign to the ACU to buy political advertising for Kelsey's campaign.

The Tennessean first reported on Kelsey's questionable campaign finance donations in 2017. A watchdog group later filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing Kelsey of potentially illegal straw donations and other campaign finance wrongdoings.

Kelsey and Smith are now expected to be sentenced in late July. Defendants often apologize and show contrition during sentencing hearings while asking for a favorable sentence, which could prove difficult in Kelsey's case after unsuccessfully arguing he made an untruthful plea and is innocent of the charges he will be sentenced for.

“I could be causing myself a lot more harm, I’m fully aware of that, but I still think it’s the right thing to do," he said Tuesday about seeking to change his plea.

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This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Former state Sen. Brian Kelsey won't be allowed to change guilty plea; July sentencing set

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