Mitch McConnell declines to discuss his campaign manager's resignation

bestep@herald-leader.comSeptember 2, 2014 

Senator Mitch McConnell, left, and Jesse Benton

SOMERSET — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declined Tuesday to discuss the resignation of his former campaign manager, Jesse Benton, who quit last week as questions swirled about his role in a federal bribery case in Iowa.

McConnell and his camp had reportedly avoided questions about the issue over the weekend, but McConnell stopped to talk with reporters Tuesday afternoon after a speech to the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce.

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He responded to several questions, criticizing President Barack Obama and pushing for Republican control of the Senate, which would probably put McConnell in charge. However, he did not respond directly when asked what Benton had told him about the federal bribery case in Iowa and whether he was confident Benton had done nothing wrong.

"Yeah, we're moving on. We've got 60-some odd days left in the campaign. We're talking about the future and not the past," McConnell said.

Asked whether there had been concern that having Benton stay on would cause a problem for the campaign, McConnell made clear he had nothing more to say about the issue.

"I think everything relating to that issue has already been discussed. It was all out there several days ago," McConnell said. "We're moving on." When it was mentioned that the public hadn't heard directly from McConnell about Benton, McConnell said, firmly, "You're hearing from me now.

"I think it is time to move on and deal with the issues that are before us for the next six weeks."

McConnell is in a tight race with Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state.

Grimes quickly tried to capitalize on Benton's resignation, releasing a video online Tuesday featuring news reports about the issue and asking what McConnell knows and when did he know it.

"It is deeply troubling that Mitch McConnell refuses to answer questions regarding his campaign manager's connection to the bribery scandal's federal criminal investigation," Grimes' campaign spokeswoman, Charly Norton, said in a statement Tuesday. "After dodging questions from reporters and voters alike, Kentuckians deserve answers."

The day Benton announced his resignation, McConnell's campaign said the senator had nothing to do with the election in Iowa that begat the bribery case and so it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the situation.

On Tuesday, McConnell said the political impact is not clear from dust-ups such as Benton's resignation and questions over whether Grimes has received an improper benefit from the use of a bus owned by her father's company.

"I think the people of our state will decide what's important to them," McConnell said.

Benton's name surfaced in relation to a bribery scandal that occurred when he was political director in then-U.S. Rep. Ron Paul's bid for president in 2012.

Kent Sorenson, who was a Republican state senator in Iowa in 2012, admitted last week he accepted $73,000 from Paul's campaign to switch his allegiance to Paul from another candidate.

Sorenson pleaded guilty to having a campaign committee submit false reports to cover the payments and to obstruction of justice.

The documents made public in Sorenson's case do not mention Benton, but GOP activists in Iowa had earlier released a recording in which Sorenson said Benton knew of the payments.

Benton said last week that he had done nothing wrong, but he was resigning because he did not want the issue to interfere with McConnell's re-election bid.

Benton has close ties to the Paul family. He is married to Ron Paul's granddaughter and ran Republican Rand Paul's successful 2010 campaign to become Kentucky's junior senator.

Rand Paul, of Bowling Green, has not commented about Benton's resignation from the McConnell campaign. Paul was scheduled to host a fundraiser Tuesday afternoon at Forcht Bank in Lexington's Hamburg Place for Republican state House candidate Ken Kearns, who is trying to defeat Democratic incumbent Susan Westrom.

The Kearns campaign said last Friday that media could attend the event but on Monday said the event had been closed to the media, at Paul's request.

The Kearns campaign gave no reason Paul, who generally is talkative to reporters, did not want the media to attend.

Paul spokesman Dan Bayens said Tuesday that Paul is "most accessible to the media but he's doing a series of fundraisers that were billed as private. Private fundraisers are not routinely covered by the media."

On other fronts Tuesday, McConnell criticized Obama on a number of issues but said he is willing to negotiate with the president. He noted that he helped hash out three of the largest bipartisan agreements during Obama's term — a December 2010 deal on Bush-era tax cuts, a budget deal in 2011, and a December 2012 deal to avert the so-called fiscal cliff.

"So I'm not opposed to sitting down with the president, but we're not gonna go over on the political left and do the kind of things that he did the first two years," such as the massive health care overhaul known as Obamacare, McConnell said.

"He needs to come to the middle" to negotiate on pressing issues, including the urgent need for comprehensive tax reform, McConnell said of Obama.

Reporter Jack Brammer contributed to this story. Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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