Appeals panel upholds 21-month sentence for former Tennessee lawmaker who tried to withdraw guilty plea

Appeals panel upholds 21-month sentence for former Tennessee lawmaker who tried to withdraw guilty plea

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A federal appeals panel is upholding a 21-month prison sentence for a former Tennessee state senator who tried to withdraw his guilty plea to campaign finance violations.

The ruling Monday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit concerns the August 2023 conviction of former Sen. Brian Kelsey. The Republican pleaded guilty to charges related to his attempts to divert campaign money from his state legislative seat to his failed 2016 congressional bid. His attorneys argued that federal prosecutors violated Kelsey’s plea agreement when they said a harsher sentence could be applied after he tried to withdraw his guilty plea in March 2023.

Kelsey was not incarcerated pending his appeal to the 6th Circuit, per the trial judge’s order. Kelsey’s attorney, Alex Little, told media that he plans to appeal the latest ruling.

Kelsey’s legal team did not object to federal prosecutors’ alleged violation of her plea agreement, according to two of the three appeals judges. The third judge said the defense attorney properly raised the objection, but concluded that prosecutors did not violate the plea agreement.

In her opinion, Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote that Kelsey still received a more favourable sentence than the guidelines provided for his offense, with or without the increased sentence the judge applied for obstruction of justice.

“Despite the government’s conduct, Kelsey received the primary benefit of the plea agreement – ​​a sentence not only within the range contemplated by the parties, but below it – so it is unclear how any violation prejudiced Kelsey,” Moore wrote.

Prosecutors argued that Kelsey broke his agreement first when he tried to withdraw from his guilty plea and that a harsher sentence would have been appropriate, but they ultimately chose not to seek a harsher sentence.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Raymond Kethledge wrote that prosecutors’ comments on sentencing were an appropriate response to a question from District Judge Waverly Crenshaw and did not specifically ask the judge to apply the sentencing enhancement.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney Henry Leventis said the 6th Circuit panel’s decision “should ensure that (Kelsey) will finally be held accountable for his actions.”

In March 2023, Kelsey argued that he should be allowed to rescind his November 2022 guilty plea because he entered it with an “uncertain heart and a confused mind” due to events in his personal life; his father had terminal pancreatic cancer and died in February of that year, and he and his wife were caring for twins born the previous September.

Crenshaw declined to change his plea in May 2023. He expressed disbelief that Kelsey, a Georgetown University-educated lawyer and former prominent state senator, did not understand the gravity of his guilty plea.

Prior to that, Kelsey had pleaded not guilty, repeatedly saying he was being targeted by Democrats. But he changed his mind shortly after his co-defendant, Joshua Smith, a Nashville social club owner, pleaded guilty to one count under a deal that required him to “cooperate fully and honestly” with federal authorities. Smith was sentenced to five years of probation.

Kelsey, a Germantown attorney, was first elected to the General Assembly in 2004 as a state representative. He was later elected to the state Senate in 2009. He did not seek reelection in 2022.

Kelsey served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees changes to civil and criminal laws, court procedures and more.