Tennessee suspends ex-senator’s law license over guilty plea

Dec 8, 2022, 4:10 PM | Updated: Dec 9, 2022, 6:29 am
Former Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey, left, leaves federal court Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, in Na...

Former Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey, left, leaves federal court Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. Kelsey changed an earlier plea of not guilty to guilty Tuesday, on charges of violating federal campaign finance laws. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Supreme Court has suspended the law license of a former Tennessee state senator who pleaded guilty last month to violating federal campaign finance laws.

The court suspended former Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey’s law license Thursday at the request of the Board of Professional Responsibility, pending further orders by the court. The state Supreme Court cited its own rules requiring the suspension because of Kelsey’s guilty plea.

The board, which oversees regulates the practice of law in Tennessee, said it will hold formal proceedings to determine the final discipline against Kelsey.

Kelsey had previously pleaded not guilty to the campaign finance charges in the case related to his failed 2016 congressional campaign, calling them a “political witch hunt” and claiming he was “totally innocent.” He then changed his plea in front of a federal judge late last month.

The move came after his co-defendant, Nashville social club owner Joshua Smith, pleaded guilty in October to one count under a deal that requires him to “cooperate fully and truthfully” with federal authorities.

Kelsey pleaded guilty to two counts: conspiracy to defraud the Federal Election Commission, and aiding and abetting the acceptance of excessive contributions on behalf of a federal campaign. He faces up to five years in prison for each count. He and Smith are both awaiting sentencing.

Kelsey ignored reporters’ questions on the way in and out of court during his change of plea hearing, and he has still not publicly addressed his change of plea.

In October 2021, a federal grand jury in Nashville indicted Kelsey and Smith, who owns The Standard club, on several counts each. The indictment alleged that Kelsey, Smith and others violated campaign finance laws by illegally concealing the transfer of $91,000 — $66,000 from Kelsey’s state Senate campaign committee and $25,000 from a nonprofit that advocated about legal justice issues — to a national political organization to fund advertisements urging support of Kelsey’s 2016 failed congressional campaign.

Prosecutors allege Kelsey and others caused the national political organization to make illegal and excessive campaign contributions to Kelsey by coordinating with the organization on advertisements, and that they caused the organization to file false reports to the Federal Election Commission.

Kelsey, a 44-year-old attorney from Germantown, was first elected to the General Assembly in 2004 as a state representative. He was later elected to the state Senate in 2009.

In March, Kelsey announced on Twitter that he would not seek reelection.

After his indictment, Kelsey continued to represent parents and schools as intervenors in a case in which they wanted the state’s two-county school voucher program to take effect. The program backed by GOP Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee had long been blocked in court until the state Supreme Court ruled in its favor in May.

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Tennessee suspends ex-senator’s law license over guilty plea