Ex-Tennessee lawmaker asks judge to withdraw guilty plea

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A former Tennessee state senator accused of violating federal campaign finance laws is seeking to withdraw his guilty plea, arguing that he initially did so with “unsure heart and confused mind.”

Brian Kelsey had entered a guilty plea before a federal judge in November in the case related to a failed 2016 congressional campaign. Before that, Kelsey had previously pleaded not guilty — often describing his case as a “political witch hunt” — but changed his mind shortly after his co-defendant, Nashville social club owner Joshua Smith, pleaded guilty to one count under a deal that required him to “cooperate fully and truthfully” with federal authorities.

Kelsey pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the Federal Election Commission as well as 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. Yet on Friday, Kelsey's new legal team filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea and asked the court to dismiss his case.

"Though not the norm, it is permissible to withdraw a guilty plea and file a motion to dismiss," court documents state.

“Brian Kelsey was given less than 48 hours to make a decision on his plea agreement at a time when he was contending with his father on his death bed due to pancreatic cancer and newborn twins,” the documents explain. “Under these circumstances, he was in a confused state mentally and unable to fully consider the ramifications of his plea agreement. In short, he had an unsure heart and a confused mind and should be permitted to withdraw his plea.”

The motion then says Kelsey was unaware of the consequences of pleading guilty because he had no prior criminal record. Those consequences have included his bank cutting off his credit card and the suspension of his law license.

After Kelsey filed his motion on Friday, U.S. attorneys requested two weeks to respond directly while also asking the court to continue with sentencing hearings scheduled to take place later this year.

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 congressional campaign.

Prosecutors allege that Kelsey and others caused the national political organization to make illegal and excessive campaign contributions to Kelsey by coordinating with the nonprofit 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.