Tennessee senator to change plea in campaign fraud case

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee senator accused of violating federal campaign finance laws requested a hearing Thursday to change his not guilty plea after initially criticizing the charges as a political witch hunt.

Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey is asking the federal court to “to set a change of plea hearing in this matter," according to court documents. The two-page motion does not specify what charges or whether the move is part of a plea agreement.

Kelsey's attorney, Paul Bruno, did not immediately return a request for comment.

Nearly a year ago, a federal grand jury in Nashville handed up a five-count indictmen t against Kelsey and Nashville social club owner Joshua Smith. The indictment alleged that the two violated campaign finance laws by illegally concealing the transfer of $91,000 during the Republican lawmaker’s 2016 failed congressional campaign.

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

Smith has since pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the solicitation and spending of at least $25,000 of so-called “soft money” — or funds not subject to federal limitations and reporting requirements — in connection with a federal election. The plea was part of an agreement Smith struck with prosecutors in which he agreed to truthfully testify "regarding the activities that took place.”

Up until Thursday, Kelsey has maintained a defiant tone in response to the indictment. He stood in the Senate chamber shortly after the charges were announced, declared he was “totally innocent” and vowed his name would be cleared at trial.

He later announced that he wouldn't run for reelection this year. The trial was set for January 2023.

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

Separately, the indictment mentions but does not charge two alleged co-conspirators, one of whom is described as an attorney and former Tennessee House member expelled in 2016. Former Rep. Jeremy Durham, a Republican attorney from Franklin, was the only lawmaker expelled that year.

Kimberlee Kruesi, The Associated Press