Legality of Kelsey-PAC campaign money shifting questioned

There’s a money trail leading from the state campaign coffers of Sen. Brian Kelsey to radio advertisements used by an outside group to buoy his unsuccessful 2016 congressional bid, reports The Tennessean.

Kelsey’s trail involves the use of political action committees controlled by a private Nashville club (The Standard Club), a prominent but controversial GOP donor (Andrew Miller) and a well-known conservative advocacy organization (the American Conservative Union). It also may indicate illegal conduct by Kelsey and others, an expert said.

“There’s certainly enough smoke here to open an investigation to determine if there’s fire, because it sure smells like fire,” said Brendan Fischer, an attorney and Federal Election Commission reform program director with Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center.

But a different expert said illegal conduct may be hard to prove.

“Ties don’t always mean there’s fire,” said David Mitrani, a Washington, D.C., attorney and campaign finance expert.

…Kelsey gave $106,000 of state campaign funds on July 11 to The Standard Club PAC,… The Standard Club PAC then gave $30,000 on July 15 and an additional $7,000 on July 20 to a federal PAC called Citizens for Ethics in Government, a group founded by controversial Tennessee GOP donor Andy Miller.

Also on July 15, The Standard Club PAC gave $30,000 to the federal PAC for the American Conservative Union, a national political organization that advocates for conservative policies. Miller’s federal PAC took the $37,000 given to it by The Standard PAC — the only contribution it received that financial quarter — and gave all but $1,000 of it to the ACU PAC on July 21.

The same day, the ACU announced it had created a radio advertisement in support of Kelsey. The ACU eventually spent $80,000 on radio ads in the Memphis and Jackson markets in support of Kelsey, according to FEC and local radio files. All of the airtime was purchased for late July and early August, days before the GOP primary and after The Standard Club PAC and Miller’s PAC donated money to the ACU. (Note: The Tennessean reported earlier on the maneuvers, perhaps in more detail. Previous post HERE.)

… Aside from the connections between Kelsey, Miller and The Standard PAC, there’s another person with ties to the various actors involved: Thomas A. Smith (aka Thomsen Smith, a veteran fundraiser for Tennessee Republicans).

…Kelsey wouldn’t answer why he gave The Standard Club PAC more than $106,000.

“My campaign and I had no discussions with Standard Club PAC or its representatives regarding how my donation could or should be used, and I don’t know who or what Citizens for Ethics in Government is,” Kelsey said.

Smith declined to comment. The ACU, Miller and Josh Smith, owner of The Standard Club and PAC operator, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Note: Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini was quick with a emailed comment to media: “The story about Republican State Senator Brian Kelsey is deeply concerning, particularly at this time when Tennessee’s Republican U.S. Senators are enabling what will no doubt prove to be the most corrupt administration of our lifetime. Stories like this about shadowy clubs with political action committees wielding outsized and undue influence make Tennesseans even more disgusted with the system, as they should be, and demonstrates the clear need for robust campaign finance reforms.”

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.
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