U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's top adviser said Thursday that the campaign has no knowledge of subpoenas reportedly issued in an Iowa bribery investigation that seek information about McConnell's former campaign manager.
McConnell adviser Josh Holmes also said the campaign has no information that indicates its former manager, Jesse Benton, did anything wrong as political director for then-U.S. Rep. Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign.
Holmes said he had a "very candid" conversation with Benton in August 2013, and "Jesse denied any involvement in what was being alleged of the Ron Paul 2012 campaign."
The Center for Responsive Politics reported Thursday that a grand jury issued subpoenas in July "for emails and financial transactions between at least 17 individuals," including Benton. The campaign finance watchdog group released what it said was a partial copy of the subpoena and said several anonymous sources confirmed that they had been interviewed by the FBI, a grand jury, or both.
Holmes said neither he nor the McConnell campaign had any knowledge of the subpoenas.
It was unclear from the report whether Benton had been personally subpoenaed or whether his emails were sought through subpoenas of others associated with the Paul presidential campaign.
Holmes answered several questions from the Herald-Leader Thursday about Benton and another former staffer, whose names have surfaced in relation to the bribery scandal. The move comes after McConnell declined to discuss Benton with reporters on Tuesday and Wednesday, and after McConnell's opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, released a list of questions it said McConnell should answer.
"What did Senator McConnell know and when did he know it?" asks a web video released by Grimes. "Kentuckians deserve answers."
Benton resigned abruptly last Friday, two days after former Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson pleaded guilty to accepting bribes to switch his allegiance from the presidential campaign of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann to Paul. Sorenson also admitted to lying to investigators about the bribes.
Benton, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday, is not named in public court documents, but Sorenson named him in an audio conversation leaked to a blog called the Iowa Republican about a year ago.
On the recorded call between Sorenson and Dennis Fusaro, an aide from Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign, Sorenson identified Dimitri Kesari as the Paul aide who bribed him, but he said Benton knew about the activity.
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 owned by Kesari. The money totaled at least $73,000 throughout calendar year 2012.
Kesari's company, Hyllus Corp, was paid more than $72,000 by the McConnell campaign in 2013.
Holmes said Hyllus was "contracted to consult and work on a specific field project involving initial field organization, regional mapping, voter history research, walk maps and voter canvass technology testing."
"The project was accomplished in the spring of 2013, well before the campaign was made aware of any alleged previous impropriety," Holmes said. "The campaign has had no further dealings with Hyllus since the completion of the project."
Holmes also said that Benton has never been charged or formally accused of any wrongdoing.
"From his first day at Team Mitch to his last, there were never any allegations brought against Jesse of any wrongdoing with his previous campaign work," Holmes said.
Benton told the Herald-Leader he was leaving the campaign to avoid becoming a distraction, blasting "inaccurate press accounts and unsubstantiated media rumors about me and my role in past campaigns that are politically motivated, unfair and, most importantly, untrue."
"I hope those who know me recognize that I strive to be a man of integrity," Benton said in a statement Friday. "The press accounts and rumors are particularly hurtful because they are false."
On Thursday, the Kentucky Democratic Party continued to hammer McConnell for avoiding questions about Benton, noting that he had praised him profusely on several previous occasions.
"Should we believe what they're saying today, or the praise they heaped on Benton before?" Democrats asked in a news release.
Holmes dismissed the questions about Benton, saying "it's just amazing that Alison Lundergan Grimes is using the remaining weeks of her candidacy talking about former campaign staff rather than the problems confronting Kentuckians as a result of the Obama agenda."
Asked why McConnell has declined to talk about Benton, Holmes said the issue has nothing to do with McConnell, who "doesn't believe Kentuckians should be shortchanged of the opportunity to hear his views on the issues impacting their lives just because his opponent is falling in the polls and would rather discuss a former staffer who worked on a presidential campaign two years ago in Iowa than basically anything of concern to Kentucky families."
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com