MEMPHIS, Tenn. — State Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) was indicted by a federal grand jury Friday along with a Nashville social club owner as part of an alleged campaign finance scheme, the Department of Justice said Monday.
The alleged conspiracy benefited Kelsey’s unsuccessful 2016 campaign for the 8th District U.S. Congressional seat. The indictment states that money was funneled from a state committee to Kelsey’s federal campaign, and illegal excessive contributions were made to the federal campaign and concealed from the Federal Election Commission.
Joshua Smith of Nashville is also accused in the indictment. Prosecutors said Smith is the owner and operator of a members-only Nashville club popular with politicians and businessman. He also operated a political action committee.
“The indictment alleges that Kelsey, Smith, and others orchestrated the concealed movement of $91,000 to a national political organization for the purpose of funding advertisements that urged voters to support Kelsey in the August 2016 primary election, and that the conspirators caused the political organization to make $80,000 worth of contributions to Kelsey’s federal campaign committee in the form of coordinated expenditures,” the DOJ wrote in a release.
“Kelsey and Smith are charged with conspiracy to defraud the FEC, illegally transferring ‘soft money’ as a federal candidate and his agent, and illegally transferring ‘soft money’ as a state officeholder and his agent. Kelsey is also charged with making excessive contributions to a federal campaign and accepting excessive contributions,” they continued.
Kelsey and his attorney Ty Howard responded to the indictment in a video chat, calling the five-year-old allegations false. Kelsey said the accusations were a “political witch hunt.”
“I’m totally innocent and I look forward to being cleared at trial,” Kelsey said.
Kelsey, 43, represents parts of east Shelby County and Memphis in the state Senate. He narrowly retained the seat by a 51-49 margin in a Nov. 2018 election against Democrat Gabby Salinas.
“The Biden Administration is trying to take me out because I’m conservative and I’m the number one target of the Tennessee Democratic Party,” Kelsey said.
The indictment also includes two unnamed co-conspirators, a “prominent political fundraiser” and a “member of the Tennessee House of Representatives” who was expelled by a House vote in 2016.
Another person, called Individual 1 in the indictment, is identified as director of government affairs for a political group and the manager of the group’s campaign funds. The indictment states that person and Kelsey were married in 2018. Kelsey married his wife Amanda in January 2018.
Count 1 of the indictment is the alleged conspiracy between Kelsey and Smith. Count 2 alleges Kelsey, a federal candidate, received soft money not subject to limitations by federal law. Count 3 alleges Kelsey, as a state lawmaker, gave that money. Count 4 alleges excessive contributions to a political organization and Count 5 alleges accepting those contributions.
If convicted, the DOJ says the men could face five years in prison on each of the counts. They are scheduled for their first court appearance Nov. 5. The FBI is also investigating.
Rep. Vincent Dixie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, noted the Biden administration wasn’t in power when the allegations were first reviewed five years ago, which he said undercut Kelsey’s claims of a political witch hunt.
“He had some issues in the background that were going to come forward at some point. We just didn’t when or where,” Dixie said. “Whatever it is, own it. Whatever happens, happens. But don’t blame it on a witch hunt and try to create smoke and mirrors when it’s something that’s not true.”