Indictment raises questions about leadership of lawmaker’s education panel

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

Senator Brian Kelsey, a Republican representing the Memphis suburb of Germantown, called his indictment for violating electoral law a “political witch hunt” and said he expects the courts to launder at trial.

He and Joshua Smith, the owner of a Nashville social club, were charged Friday with illegally covering up the transfer of $ 91,000 during Kelsey’s campaign failure in Congress in 2016.

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

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

A spokesperson for McNally later said Kelsey had not requested a hearing before the Senate Ethics Committee to find out whether the indictment merited a suspension from her leadership position. If Kelsey doesn’t make the request within 10 days of being charged, Rules of the Senate say he will be suspended as president as long as the indictment continues.

“Lt. Governor McNally will apply the rules of the Senate as written,” McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider said.

Kelsey’s political future is being watched closely, especially as he took over as chairman of the education committee following the retirement of long-time president Dolores Gresham last year. The panel is the custodian of hundreds of proposals each year that can affect students, educators, and schools in Tennessee.

A lawyer who grew up in private schools, Kelsey took office in 2009 and supported policies that would provide public funding to help families pay for private school tuition. He works for the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center and has represented the pro-voucher organization in court regarding the constitutionality of Tennessee’s 2019 Education Savings Account Act. The law, which was overturned last year, is being appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Kelsey also supported Tennessee’s 2020 law to restrict classroom teaching about racism. He added language to limit any discussion of critical race theory, an academic framework for analyzing historical patterns of racism and their persistence.

Ahead of his re-election in 2022, Kelsey was rebellious on Monday over his indictment.

“The Biden administration is trying to get me out because I’m conservative and I’m the Tennessee Democratic Party’s No.1 target,” he tweeted. “I only won my seat 51-49% last time around, and Democrats think that will make a difference.”

A spokesperson for Senate Democrats said they had “no comment at this time.” But a joint statement by Democrats representing the state and Shelby County, where Kelsey resides, called for a “thorough and fair” trial 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, motivated by the greed of campaign finance which often leads to illegal activities, ”the statement said.

Details of the indictment published Monday, said Kelsey and Smith had “illegally and covertly” funneled funds from the Kelsey State Senate Campaign Committee to its 2016 Federal Congressional Campaign Committee.

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

As Speaker of the Senate, McNally has a reputation for following the rules. From 1989 he worked undercover for three years to help state and federal authorities investigate corruption on Capitol Hill in an investigation codenamed “Operation Rocky Top.” The FBI investigation resulted in more than 50 convictions and the imprisonment of several elected officials, including 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 the right thing” in the Kelsey case, said JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.

McNally last month called on State Senator Katrina Robinson to step down after a jury sentenced the Memphis Democrat of four counts of fraud for abusing federal grant money for a health care school she ran. Robinson is seeking a new trial and has not resigned.

The Tennessee legislature has a Republican majority. The The Senate Ethics Committee composed of five members has only one Democrat, Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis, a lawyer and the second deputy chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Senator Jon Lundberg, a Bristol Republican who is the first deputy chairman of the Senate education committee behind Kelsey, did not respond to requests for comment on Kelsey’s indictment on Monday.

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