Kelsey temporarily relinquishes committee chair as Tennessee's COVID special session begins

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The Tennessee Legislature began its COVID-19-related special session Wednesday, but the largest action was Sen. Brian Kelsey temporarily stepping down from chairing the Senate Education Committee as he faces campaign finance charges related to his 2016 bid for Congress.

Kelsey, R-Germantown, was indicted last week, along with Nashville social club owner Joshua Smith. Both are accused of conspiring to violate federal campaign finance laws by funneling soft money from Kelsey’s state senate campaign to his federal campaign committee between February 2016 and mid-October 2016.

“Colleagues, let me be clear, I am totally innocent,” Kelsey said Wednesday during the Senate floor session. “I look forward to clearing my name through the judicial process.”

Kelsey said he wanted to make three points clear, including he believed he was within campaign finance rules. He also said a witness was given immunity for his statements.

“The timing of the evidence investigation is questionable because they waited five years and a change in administrations to pursue it,” Kelsey said.

The special session, meanwhile, began Wednesday with the first reading of 81 House bills and 45 Senate bills that could be discussed in the special session. The bills ranged from making local school board elections partisan to a variety of efforts to block any COVID-19 mask or vaccine mandates in the state.

The House and Senate will meet again Thursday for second readings of the bills before committee hearings begin. Only bills with have companion bills in each chamber will be heard.

The Senate will have its Commerce and Labor, Education, Judiciary and Health and Welfare committees meet Thursday. The House – though not yet released – also should have a full slate of committees scheduled for Thursday.

The Senate plans to have its State and Local Government Committee and Judiciary Committee meet Friday morning before the Senate Floor Session begins at 12:30 p.m.

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