Tennessee lawmaker’s indictment raises questions about his leadership of key education panel

Man in suit and tie speaks in a legislative chamber.
Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican representing Germantown, said he expects the courts to clear him at trial. Kelsey spoke briefly to reporters Monday about the charges against him (Video still via The Commercial Appeal)

A Tennessee state senator declared his innocence of federal charges Monday, while legislative leaders mulled ethics rules that could lead to his suspension as chairman of a powerful education committee.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican representing the Memphis suburb of Germantown, called his indictment on campaign law violations “a political witch hunt” and said he expects the courts to clear him at trial.

He and Joshua Smith, the owner of a Nashville social club, were indicted Friday on charges they illegally concealed the transfer of $91,000 during Kelsey’s failed U.S. congressional campaign in 2016.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, a Republican who appointed Kelsey chairman of the Senate Education Committee in January, said the senator “is innocent until proven guilty.”

“I have confidence in our judicial system and will reserve judgment and comment at this point in order to allow the process to unfold,” McNally said in a statement Monday.

A McNally spokesman said later that Kelsey had not requested a hearing before the Senate’s ethics committee on whether the indictment merits suspension from his leadership position. If Kelsey does not make the request within 10 days of his indictment, Senate rules say he will be suspended as chairman for as long as the indictment is being pursued.

“Lt. Gov. McNally will enforce the Senate rules as written,” said McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider.

Kelsey’s political future is being closely watched, especially since he ascended to lead the education committee after longtime Chairwoman Dolores Gresham retired last year. The panel is the gatekeeper of hundreds of proposals annually that can affect Tennessee students, educators, and schools. 

An attorney who grew up attending private schools, Kelsey took office in 2009 and has backed policies that would provide state funding to help families pay for private school tuition. He works for the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center and represented the pro-voucher organization in court over the constitutionality of Tennessee’s 2019 education savings account law. That law, which was overturned last year, is under appeal before the State Supreme Court.

Kelsey also supported Tennessee’s 2020 law to restrict classroom instruction about racism. He added language for limiting any discussion of critical race theory, an academic framework for analyzing historic patterns of racism and how they persist.

Up for reelection in 2022, Kelsey was defiant Monday about his indictment.

“The Biden Administration is trying to take me out because I’m conservative, and I’m the #1 target of the Tennessee Democratic Party,” he tweeted. “I won my seat only 51 to 49% last time, and the Democrats think this will make the difference.”

A spokesman for Senate Democrats said they had “no comment for the time being.” But a joint statement from Democrats representing the state and Shelby County, where Kelsey resides, called for a “thorough and fair” vetting at trial, as well as reforms to campaign finance laws.

“The indictment of [Kelsey] is a reminder of the corruption that exists within our current politics, driven by campaign finance greed that often leads to unlawful activity,” the statement said.

Details about the indictment released Monday said Kelsey and Smith “unlawfully and secretly” funneled funds from Kelsey’s state Senate campaign committee to his 2016 federal congressional campaign committee.

Kelsey is to appear in federal court on Nov. 5 and, if convicted, could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each of five counts.

As speaker of the Senate, McNally has a reputation for following rules. Beginning in 1989, he worked undercover for three years to assist state and federal authorities investigating corruption on Capitol Hill in a probe code-named “Operation Rocky Top.” The FBI investigation resulted in more than 50 convictions and the imprisonment of several elected officials, including then-House Majority Leader Tommy Burnett, a Democrat.

“McNally has a long history of running an ethical ship, and I have no doubt that he will do what’s right” in the Kelsey matter, said JC Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee. 

Last month, McNally called on state Sen. Katrina Robinson to resign after a jury convicted the Memphis Democrat of four counts of fraud for misusing federal grant money awarded to a health care school she operated. Robinson is seeking a new trial and has not stepped down.

Tennessee’s legislature has a Republican majority. The Senate’s five-member ethics committee has only one Democrat, Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis, an attorney and the second vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Jon Lundberg, a Bristol Republican who is the Senate education panel’s first vice chairman behind Kelsey, did not respond to requests Monday for comment about Kelsey’s indictment.

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