Former Aide To Ron Paul And Rand Paul Indicted In Campaign Finance Inquiry
A former campaign manager and close adviser to both former Texas Congressman Ron Paul and Kentucky Congressman Rand Paul has been indicted in connection with a scheme that involved payments to an Iowa politician to switch endorsements in advance of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses:
Jesse Benton, a longtime ally of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) who is heading up a super PAC supporting his presidential campaign, was indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday on charges that he concealed payments made to a former Iowa state senator during the 2012 presidential campaign in order to win his support.
The indictment marks a new complication for Paul, whose political future is on the line in 2016. He is hoping to hold onto his U.S. Senate seat, which is up for reelection, if he does not win the GOP White House nomination. In a statement, Ron Paul speculated that the indictment may have been timed to hurt his son’s presidential campaign.
“I am extremely disappointed in the government’s decision,” said Paul. “I think the timing of this indictment is highly suspicious given the fact that the first primary debate is tomorrow. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those involved. I will not be commenting further on this matter at this time.”
The charges against Benton, a member of the Paul family by marriage, stem from anendorsement-for-pay scheme during the 2012 campaign of former Republican congressman Ron Paul of Texas, which Benton chaired. Two other former Ron Paul campaign officials were indicted, including John Tate, who was Ron Paul’s campaign manager and is now also involved with heading up the pro-Rand Paul super PAC; and Dimitri Kesari, who was Ron Paul’s deputy national campaign manager.
The indictment charges the defendants with conspiracy, causing false records to obstruct a contemplated investigation and causing the submission of false campaign expenditure reports. It alleges they paid more than $70,000 to then-Iowa state senator Kent Sorenson in exchange for his support. The indictment accuses the men of concealing their payments from the Federal Election Commission and the FBI.
“Federal campaign finance laws are intended to ensure the integrity and transparency of the federal election process,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell in a statement announcing the indictment. “When political operatives make under-the-table payments to buy an elected official’s political support, it undermines public confidence in our entire political system.”
Benton is married to the granddaughter of Ron Paul, Rand Paul’s father. He’s been a close family confidant since 2007. The case has its roots in a pay-for-endorsement scheme that roiled the Iowa Republican caucuses in 2012.
Last August, Sorenson pleaded guilty to concealing campaign expenditures and obstructing justice as part of the scheme, admitting in federal district court that Ron Paul’s presidential campaign secretly paid him $73,000 after he dramatically dropped his backing of then-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) in late 2011 and endorsed Paul’s White House bid.
At the time of his flip, a furious Bachmann charged that Sorenson was being paid to back Paul — an accusation that Sorenson, Paul and his campaign officials all initially denied.
In fact, Sorenson was first paid by Bachmann’s campaign and her PAC, which routed him between $7,000 and $7,500 a month for most of 2011, according to court documents. Then in December 2011, after two months of secret negotiations with Paul’s campaign, the state senator met with a Paul political operative at a restaurant in Altoona, Iowa, and agreed to change his allegiance. The operative gave Sorenson’s wife a check for $25,000 to secure Sorenson’s support. (The check was apparently never cashed.)
The court filings did not identify the Paul operative who gave Sorenson a check, but in a recording of a phone call posted by TheIowaRepublican.com, Sorenson identified him as Kesari. TheIowaRepublican.com and OpenSecrets.org, the Web site of the nonpartisan research group Center for Responsive Politics, also revealed emails in which representatives of Paul and Sorenson allegedly discussed his demands for payment.
After Sorenson publicly switched his endorsement, Paul’s campaign routed the state senator a total of $73,000 in 2012, transferring the payments through a film production company and another company to conceal the intended recipient, according to court filings. Sorenson wanted the payments kept secret because of Iowa Senate ethics rules that prohibit sitting senators from accepting payments from a political campaign, according to court papers.
Benton was allegedly at the heart of the 2012 campaign scheme, according to the grand jury indictment unsealed Wednesday. He emailed Sorenson on Oct. 31, 2011, and offered to match the money he was making from Bachmann’s campaign if he switched his endorsement to Paul, according to the filing.
Two months later, Benton, Tate and Kesari helped edit Sorenson’s press release announcing he was backing Paul, the indictment alleges.
Benton then allegedly told campaign officials to hold off on a wire transfer to Sorenson so the payment would not show up that quarter’s Federal Election Commission report. When a finance staffer inquired about “Dimitri’s mystery wire” for $25,000, Tate allegedly wrote back, “There will not be the $25K dimitri wire for now. Wipe it off the books.”
Jesse Benton was last in the news nearly a year ago when he was forced to resign as the manager of Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign after it had been reported that Sorenson had plead guilty and was cooperating with authorities in their investigation of the scheme that led him to switch his endorsements to Ron Paul from Michele Bachmann. After that incident, Benston essentially disappeared from public view only to pop up a few months ago when it was announced that he would be heading one of the principal SuperPAC’s supporting Rand Paul’s Presidential campaign. Even that move was somewhat surprising given the fact that it was well known at the time that two separate grand juries in Iowa were investigating the matter and that, because of his position at the head of Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign for President, Benton was the focus of at least one of those investigations. Presumably, this latest news will lead to his departure from the SuperPAC.
You can read the Indictment here.