Mitch McConnell's campaign manager resigns after Iowa bribery scandal deepens

syoungman@herald-leader.comAugust 29, 2014 

Senator Mitch McConnell, left, and Jesse Benton

  • Details of the '12 Iowa campaign scandal

    By John Cheves

    jcheves@herald-leader.com

    Jesse Benton is not named in court documents, but according to a November 2011 email exchange later made public by Iowa Republican activists, Benton played a personal role in recruiting former Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson from Michele Bachman's presidential campaign to Ron Paul's.

    In his guilty plea, Sorenson said the Paul campaign gave his wife a $25,000 check, which he did not cash, and then paid him $8,000 a month in payments concealed from the Federal Election Commission through a film production company. The money totaled at least $73,000 throughout calendar year 2012.

    Sorenson switched allegiances to Ron Paul in December 2011.

    In August 2013, a blog called The Iowa Republican published an audio recording of a conversation allegedly between Sorenson and Dennis Fusaro, an aide from Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign. In the call, Sorenson identified Dimitri Kesari as the Paul aide who bribed him, but he said Jesse Benton knew about it.

    Fusaro: "Sure, I'm sure Jesse Benton knows, he's a scum ..."

    Sorenson: "Oh, I know that Jesse knows. I know Jesse knows."

    In 2013, Benton and Kesari came to work for Mitch McConnell's re-election campaign. Benton became campaign manager. Kesari worked for a time as a consultant through one of his companies, Hyllus Corp., collecting $72,099 in reported payments through McConnell's campaign committee and his leadership PAC, the Bluegrass Committee.

    In December, McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore told the National Journal that Hyllus "was contracted in early 2013 for a specific project, which was accomplished last spring. The campaign has had no further dealings with Hyllus or Mr. Kesari since the completion of the project."

Jesse Benton, the campaign manager for U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, will resign his post as a bribery scandal from the 2012 presidential campaign threatens to envelop Benton and become a major distraction for McConnell's campaign.

Benton told the Herald-Leader that he met with McConnell on Friday afternoon and offered his resignation, which McConnell "reluctantly accepted."

Benton said he offered his resignation, effective Saturday, with a "heavy heart."

He maintained his innocence, faulting "inaccurate press accounts and unsubstantiated media rumors."

"This decision breaks my heart, but I know it is the right thing for Mitch, for Kentucky and for the country," Benton said.

Benton's name has surfaced in connection to a bribery scandal dating to his time as former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul's political director during the 2012 presidential election.

On Wednesday, former Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson pleaded guilty to accepting $73,000 from Paul's campaign in exchange for his endorsement and to obstruction of justice for lying about his involvement.

Sorenson's guilty plea included two sealed documents, which could threaten to involve Benton.

In a statement provided first to the Herald-Leader, Benton said there "is no more important cause for both Kentucky, my new home I have come to love, and our country than electing Mitch McConnell Majority Leader of the United States Senate."

"I believe this deep in my bones, and I would never allow anything or anyone to get in the way," Benton wrote. "That includes myself."

Benton said in his statement that "there have been inaccurate press accounts and unsubstantiated media rumors about me and my role in past campaigns that are politically motivated, unfair and, most importantly, untrue."

But Benton said he found it more "troubling" that the rumors "risk unfairly undermining and becoming a distraction to this re-election campaign."

"Working for Mitch McConnell is one of the great honors of my life," Benton said. "He is a friend, a mentor and a great man this commonwealth desperately needs. I cannot, and will not, allow any possibility that my circumstances will affect the voters' ability to hear his message and assess his record. This election is far too important and the stakes way too high."

It was unclear Friday evening what effect Benton's resignation and the circumstances surrounding it might have on McConnell's campaign against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is Kentucky's secretary of state.

Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said the resignation probably won't have any immediate impact on McConnell's campaign organization since Benton has played a less visible role than McConnell's senior adviser, Josh Holmes, in recent months.

"Benton already served his role of helping McConnell appeal to the conservative base during the party primary, and a lot of campaign responsibilities had already passed from his shoulders," Voss said.

"The problem with the scandal is the negative attention it brings to the McConnell campaign, which will come regardless of whether it turns out Benton really did anything wrong," Voss said. "Any whiff of scandal within a campaign organization can bring criticism, because opponents suggest that it reflects on the judgment of the candidate who appointed the individual."

In a statement, Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton said, "Senator McConnell owes the people of Kentucky a full account of what he knew and when he knew it."

The Kentucky AFL-CIO, which has endorsed Grimes, said Benton's resignation is proof that McConnell's campaign is "self-destructing from within."

"McConnell owes the voters of Kentucky an explanation for hiring Benton and paying him hundreds of thousands of dollars while knowing about his tainted past," AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan said in a statement.

Benton's role with the McConnell campaign was viewed as a surprise within the political arena given his close ties to the Paul family. In addition to running Paul's presidential campaign, Benton also ran U.S. Sen. Rand Paul's 2010 Senate campaign in Kentucky, and he is married to the older Paul's granddaughter.

When Benton joined the McConnell camp, observers viewed it as a ploy by McConnell to quiet a restless Tea Party faction and win favor with Rand Paul.

That view was reinforced last year when a secret recording of Benton was released in which he said he was "holding my nose" working for McConnell in an effort to better position Rand Paul for a 2016 White House run.

When the tape became public, Benton expressed his regret for letting down McConnell, who is vying for a sixth term.

Earlier Friday, the McConnell campaign said it would be inappropriate for it to comment on the ongoing Iowa investigation.

"Sen. McConnell obviously has nothing to do with the Iowa presidential caucus or this investigation, so it would be inappropriate for his campaign to comment on this situation," McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore said in a statement.

Benton's abrupt departure comes just days after McConnell was heard in a secret recording, reported first by the liberal-leaning publication The Nation, telling an audience of major Republican donors that he would block a vote on the minimum wage and other issues pushed by Democrats if he becomes Senate majority leader.

The resignation and secret recording could provide the Grimes campaign with a one-two punch, Voss said.

"Both revolve around big money in campaigns, so they threaten to reinforce each other," Voss said. "Even worse, both events reinforce a longstanding Grimes campaign theme that McConnell is too tied into the world of lavish election spending to represent Kentucky. This week has been a gift, falling into the lap of Grimes just when she had a bus-rental scandal dogging her own campaign."

On the plus side for McConnell, Voss noted that Benton is not known as a "McConnell man."

"His presence in the McConnell camp was more of a bridge to Rand Paul's wing of the party than a reflection of the minority leader's longtime political organization," Voss said. "The photo of Benton holding his nose as he stands next to McConnell, a joke that nonetheless illustrated the distance between them, has gone from being a liability to being a defense for Team Mitch."

Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

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