Benjamin Kelly, District Secretary for state Rep. Shawn Harrison of Florida, was fired for reaching out to a journalist on official channels and claiming that Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg were crisis actors rather than actual students from Stoneman High School. His claim was quickly debunked, as there is plenty of proof available to show that these two really are students. After he was fired, Kelly shared an apology on Twitter and then appeared to make his account private, but not before tweeting a Bible verse. He previously ran into trouble with the law in 2012 when he was charged for not filing his tax returns. Here’s everything you need to know about Benjamin A. Kelly.
1. Benjamin A. Kelly Contacted Alex Leary of the Tampa Bay Times and Said the Students Were Crisis Actors
Benjamin A. Kelly sent the message on February 20 to Alex Leary of the Tampa Bay Times. In his message, he wrote: “Both kids in the picture are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis when they happen.” Leary wrote that he asked for more proof and was sent a link to a YouTube video alleging they were crisis actors. Kelly included with the note: “There is a clip on you tube that shows Mr. Hogg out in California. (I guess he transferred?).” So from the details that Leary has shared, it appears that Kelly’s allegation was based only on a the video showing Hogg on vacation in California in August, when a video he made of a lifeguard went viral. Prior to Hogg’s vacation, he talked on his social media accounts about how he always went to California on vacation during the summer to visit friends, since he used to live in California. He’s been making posts about attending school at Stoneman, on various social media accounts, since 2015. You can read more about Hogg in Heavy’s story here.
Kelly’s email to Leary was sent from an official state email account, and not Kelly’s personal email, Leary later clarified. Leary immediately reached out to Rep. Shawn Harrison, whom Kelly worked for, to ask if he knew about the message.
Harrison responded that he was going to talk to Kelly and try to get more information. He said, “If my aid disparaged a student from Parkland who is grieving then I will deal most strongly with my aide… Clearly it was inappropriate for him to send that.”Harrison later shared that Kelly was terminated for his message. House Speaker Richard Corcoran confirmed that he was so shocked, he decided to terminate Kelly’s employment.
It’s not known if Kelly reached out to anyone else in the media.
Harrison wrote: “Tonight Mr. Kelly was terminated from his position as my District Secretary. I am appalled at and strongly denounce his comments about the Parkland students. I am again sorry for any pain this has caused the grieving families of this tragedy.”
2. Kelly Said His Message Was an ‘Error in Judgment’
Kelly later took to Twitter to apologize for his message, writing: “Rep. Shawn Harrison is an honest and respectable man. In no way should he be held responsible for my error in judgment.” He also wrote the message you can read above: “I’ve been terminated from the State House. I made a mistake whereas I tried to inform a reporter of information relating to his story regarding a school shooting. This was not my responsibility. I meant no disrespect to the students or parents of Parkland.” Interestingly, he doesn’t retract his statement in this apology, but simply writes that it wasn’t his place to send the message.
Shortly after tweeting the messages, Kelly’s entire account was changed to protected mode. He likely received a lot of hate for his accusations. It appears he liked a few more tweets on Twitter before making his account private. Here’s one tweet pointing out something he liked on Twitter today:
3. Kelly’s Last Tweet Read ‘You Will Know the Truth, and the Truth Will Set You Free’
According to Fox News, after his firing and before he made his account private, Kelly tweeted: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This is a direct quote from John 8:32 and will likely fuel more conspiracy theories about Kelly and why he sent out his messages. However, it should be emphasized that the students were legitimately students at Stoneman and were not crisis actors. This article about David Hogg goes into great detail explaining why we know for certain that he is really a student at Stoneman. Ever since the news about Kelly came out, he’s received numerous callouts on Twitter.
Interestingly, it appears that Kelly did not delete his account. Rather, he may have changed his username from @benakelly to @truthfinger74, or he had two nearly identical accounts. All his tweets are now protected.
4. Kelly Is a Veteran and Offers Consulting Services
You can still see what his bio used to read if you perform a Google search for his name or look at screenshots showing his Twitter page. It reads: “Veteran, dog rescue, fire arms, sailing, politics, fine foods, beverage and smoke. Tampa, Florida.”
Kelly’s LinkedIn indicates that he was in the U.S. Army for two years, from October 1974 to October 1976. During that time, he was a Crew Chief for helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. Under his LinkedIn, he lists his specialties as using computers for 30 years (MAC/IBM), photography, and graphics editing. He also wrote: “My specialty is identifying a specific target or goal and achieving it by whatever means necessary with whatever means at my disposal.”
According to Kelly’s LinkedIn account, he offers consulting in Florida, in addition to serving on legislative staff. He was on staff for the Florida House from June 2015 to the present, and was previously Chief of Staff for Florida State Senate District 12 from November 2010 to November 2012. It appears he did not work in state politics for about three years after his tax issues before he got a new position. From 1996 to 2010, he was a senior legislative aide for the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners. From 1980 to 1993, he worked in International Sales for Northwest Airlines.
5. In 2012, Kelly Was Sentenced to Three Months’ House Arrest for Not Filing Tax Returns
This isn’t the first time Kelly has been in the news. He was previously an aide for State Sen. Jim Norman of Tampa. In 2012, an unsealed indictment revealed that Kelly had been charged with five counts of failing to file a tax return over the course of five years, from 2006 to 2010. He faced five years in prison if found guilty. The indictment stated that his gross income over those five years ranged from $88,758 in 2006 to $108,037 in 2008. The gross income covered his income as a commission aide and money he received while working on Norman’s campaigns. The five charges were later dropped to one in exchange for Kelly’s pleading guilty in May to one misdemeanor charge of not filing a tax return.
The allegations came after Norman was cleared after lawyers scrutinized his wife’s acquisition of a lakefront home in Arkansas from one of his benefactors. The indictment only accused Kelly of not filing tax returns; it did not accuse him of not paying his taxes.
Norman and Kelly were close friends, Tampa Bay reported. Kelly frequently joined Norman at Tampa Bay Buccaneers games, enjoying free luxury suite tickets. He was also with Norman when he was found gambling at a Las Vegas casino in 1999 after Norman said he was tending to “family matters.”
Kelly was later sentenced to three months house arrest and four years of probation for failing to file and pay his taxes. He was also ordered to pay $28,527 in restitution to the IRS, in the form of $400 a month. Depending on his financial situation, the figure could be modified, the judge ruled. Kelly apologized to Norman and his family for the difficulties he had caused.
Kelly’s attorney, Todd Foster, said that Kelly didn’t have a prior criminal history.