Confident that his legal problems are behind him, Republican political operative Jesse Benton has started a communications company, and among his first clients are U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and a politician looking to challenge one of Paul's potential rivals.
Benton, who ran Paul's successful 2010 campaign, has kept a low profile since resigning as U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's campaign manager in late August, when Benton's name surfaced in relation to a bribery scandal in Iowa.
In an interview with the Herald-Leader Wednesday, Benton said his link to the scandal, which took place in the closing days of the 2012 Iowa presidential caucuses, was never based on fact and said he is "very confident" that the matter is over. Benton has not been charged with wrongdoing in the case, which has had no public developments since September.
"Now that a little time has passed, rumors and innuendo can be left behind us," Benton said.
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Benton said his new company, Titan Strategies, has already signed up Paul, a couple of corporate clients that Benton declined to name, a super PAC and a state representative who will file to run for statewide office on Friday.
State Rep. Mike Harmon, R-Danville, plans to run against state Auditor Adam Edelen, an outspoken critic of Paul and one of a handful of Democrats consistently mentioned as a possible challenger to Paul as he runs for re-election in 2016, in addition to a possible White House bid.
Benton said that "first and foremost" his goal is to elect Harmon because he's more "in line with Kentucky values" than Edelen, but he readily acknowledged that eliminating a potential challenger to Paul is part of the equation.
"We want to take him out, and if we can take him out and replace him with someone much more conservative and in line with Kentucky values, that's what we want to do," Benton said. "It's better to stop him now."
Benton was harsh in his criticism of Edelen, calling him a "hyper-liberal, career politician, Obama acolyte."
Harmon, who ran for lieutenant governor with Republican Phil Moffett in 2011, is "exactly the kind of thoughtful and technical mind that I think we need in this auditor position," Benton said.
Edelen immediately seized on Benton's departure from the McConnell campaign.
"The fact that Mike Harmon's first hire is Jesse Benton says more about his campaign to be state auditor than I ever could," Edelen said. "Those who wish to be the taxpayer watchdog ought to have a record of ferreting out those linked to bribery rather than employing them."
Edelen went on to say that the race "will be about the historic accomplishments of my tenure, from sending corrupt public officials to prison to becoming the first auditor to provide real oversight of our public schools."
He noted that Harmon has voted for all three pieces of legislation Edelen pushed as auditor, even co-sponsoring one of them."
"I look forward to watching him make the case to the people of Kentucky that they shouldn't support my efforts when he himself has at every opportunity," Edelen said.
During last year's contentious U.S. Senate race, Edelen was conspicuous in adding criticisms of Paul to Democrats' relentless attacks on McConnell, referring to the two senators as "Senator Out-of-touch and Senator Out-of-town." But Edelen has said since the election that he is not looking at a 2016 challenge to Paul, focusing instead on winning re-election as auditor.
Harmon said he was "tickled" to be working with Benton, specifically pointing to fundraising as a weakness he thinks Benton can help him shore up. Harmon said he had not spoken to Benton about the Iowa scandal, but said he and Benton agreed that "we do everything 100 percent aboveboard."
"It wasn't a huge concern," Harmon said. "What is reported is not always what is accurate."
The Center for Responsive Politics reported in early September 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.
Benton resigned abruptly from McConnell's campaign on Aug. 29, 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 then-U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, Rand Paul's father.
Benton, who was political director for Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign, said he resigned from McConnell's campaign to avoid becoming a distraction.
Benton was not named in public court documents, but Sorenson named him in an audio conversation leaked to a blog called the Iowa Republican in 2013.
On the 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 Ron 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 2012.