NASHVILLE (WSMV/AP) - A federal grand jury in Nashville returned a five-count indictment charging Tennessee State Senator Brian Kelsey, 43, and Nashville social club owner Joshua Smith, 44, with violating multiple campaign finance laws as part of a conspiracy to benefit Kelsey's 2016 campaign for U.S. Congress.

According to the indictment, beginning in February 2016 and going through October 2016, Kelsey and Smith conspired with others to violate federal campaign finance laws to secretly and unlawfully funnel money from Kelsey's state campaign to his authorized federal campaign.

Kelsey and others also caused a national political organization to make illegal, excessive contributions to Kelsey’s federal campaign committee by secretly coordinating with the organization on advertisements supporting Kelsey’s federal candidacy and to cause false reports of contributions and expenditures to be filed with the Federal Election Commission.

In 2016, the FECA limited campaign contributions to $2,700 from any one individual or organization to any one candidate in each election.

It is alleged that Kelsey, Smith and other unindicted coconspirators orchestrated the concealed movement of $91,000 to a national political organization for the purpose of funding advertisements that urged voters to support Kelsey in the 2016 primary election.

It is also alleged that the conspirators caused the political organization to make $80,000 worth of contributions to Kelsey’s federal campaign committee in the form of coordinated expenditures.

Kelsey and Smith are charged with conspiracy, illegally transferring “soft money” (funds not subject to the limitations, prohibitions, and reporting requirements of the Federal Election Campaign Act [FECA]) as a federal candidate and his agent, and illegally transferring “soft money” as a state officeholder and his agent. Kelsey is also charged with making excessive contributions to a federal campaign and accepting excessive contributions.  If convicted, they face up to 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.

Kelsey responded defiantly, calling the charges a “political witch hunt."

"I'm totally innocent and I look forward to being cleared at trial,” he said.

Kelsey took aim at Democrats as he responded to the charges.

President Joe Biden's administration "is trying to take me out because I’m conservative and I’m the No. 1 target of the Tennessee Democratic Party," Kelsey said during a brief statement made online to reporters, who were not permitted to ask questions. “I won my seat only 51 to 49 last time and the Democrats think this will make the difference. They’re wrong.”

Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown, was elected to the General Assembly in 2009 and serves as chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He's up for reelection in 2022.

Smith is the owner of The Standard, a restaurant and private club near the state Capitol that is often frequented by lawmakers. His attorney, Hal Hardin, said Monday that he and his client “look forward to presenting our proof to an impartial jury and judge.”

Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the leader of the state Senate, said he is reserving judgment for now.

“I am obviously saddened by this news," McNally said in a statement. "It is important to remember that under our laws, Senator Kelsey is innocent until proven guilty. He will have the opportunity to answer this indictment in the coming days.”

The Tennessee Democratic Party and Shelby County Democratic Party released a statement about Kelsey's indictment:

"The indictment of Republican State Senator Brian Kelsey is a reminder of the corruption that exists within our current politics, driven by campaign finance greed that often leads to unlawful activity. The Kelsey indictment is concerning and speaks to the need for campaign finance reform to eliminate future crimes in our state and across the nation.

"If these allegations are true, it can’t be missed that Sen. Kelsey has been one of the most vocal advocates of a law and order agenda but has not held himself to those same standards. Like any other citizen, he will face a jury of his peers and we hope that the legal process is thorough and fair. We are a country of laws and no one is above the law, especially not a State Senator.

"Our leadership will continue following new developments closely and will act as things precipitate."

A summons has been issued by the Court and Kelsey and Smith are directed to surrender to U.S. Marshals in the Middle District of Tennessee on or before Nov. 5, 2021, at 10 a.m. and both will make an initial appearance before a U.S. Magistrate.

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Content Producer

Blake was born and raised in Central Ohio where he began working in TV broadcast in 2011 before moving into morning radio. Blake joined the WSMV team in October 2019. Any news stories and ideas can be sent directly to blake.summers@wsmv.com

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