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Judge: Tennessee lawmaker can't withdraw guilty plea on campaign finance charges

FILE - Former Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey, left, arrives at federal court, Nov. 22, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. A federal judge on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, declined to let the former Tennessee state senator withdraw his guilty plea on federal campaign finance charges. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A federal judge on Tuesday declined to let a former Tennessee state senator withdraw his guilty plea on federal campaign finance charges.

In the case related to his failed 2016 congressional campaign, former Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey's attorneys had argued he should be allowed to go back on his guilty plea because he entered it in November with an “unsure heart and a confused mind” due to events in his personal life — his father had terminal pancreatic cancer, then later died in February, and he and his wife were caring for their twin sons born in September.

U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw in Nashville said that those stressors are not sufficient to allow the reversal of his guilty plea. Kelsey's sentencing was set for late July.

“A guilty plea is a grave and solemn act,” Crenshaw said, according to The Daily Memphian.

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Kelsey and his mother were among those who testified at the hearing Tuesday.

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.

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. Smith's sentencing is also scheduled for late July.

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's motion to withdraw his plea, which he filed in March, also argued he 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.

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. He didn't seek reelection in 2022.

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