Indicted senator steps aside as education chairman
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee senator who was recently indicted on charges that he violated federal campaign finance laws announced Wednesday that he will step aside as chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
Earlier this month, a federal grand jury in Nashville handed down a five-count indictment against Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey and a Nashville social club owner. They are accused of illegally concealing the transfer of $91,000 during the Republican lawmaker’s 2016 failed congressional campaign.
Under Tennessee’s Senate code of ethics, an indicted senator who serves as a committee chairman has 10 days to request a hearing before the Ethics Committee on whether the chairmanship should be suspended.
Kelsey declined to make this request. Instead, he stood up on the Senate floor Wednesday — while members were gathered for a special legislative session — to say he will temporarily step aside from his chairmanship while the indictment is being pursued.
“Colleagues, let me be clear: I’m totally innocent. And I look forward to clearing my name through the judicial process,” Kelsey said.
“I trust in time the truth will prevail and I will resume my leadership role to the education committee,” he added.
Kelsey and Nashville social club owner Joshua Smith “unlawfully and secretly” funneled funds from Kelsey’s state Senate campaign committee to his federal congressional campaign committee, according to the indictment.
In his statement Monday, Kelsey accused President Joe Biden’s administration of “trying to take me out because I’m conservative.” By Wednesday, he told his fellow senators that he hoped that they would “not use political attacks on one another.”
Senate Speaker Randy McNally, a Republican from Oak Ridge, remarked that Kelsey was going through a “difficult time” and said he was praying for Kelsey’s family.
Kelsey’s removal from the key education chairmanship comes as the General Assembly is gathering for its third special legislative session. The session will be dedicated to addressing COVID-19 measures.
Biden’s administration will likely be the main target, though his workplace vaccine order trumps state authority. School board members could be required to declare a party affiliation and mask mandates in schools could be banned.
Furthermore, GOP legislative leaders have indicated they could even try to circumvent elected district attorneys if they publicly decline to enforce certain policies, including the governor’s school mask opt-out order.
Gov. Bill Lee has repeatedly resisted requests to hold a special session focused solely on COVID-19 even as GOP lawmakers have become steadily disgruntled at local mandates that have been implemented sporadically around the state.