Jesse Benton, the head of a super PAC supporting U.S. Sen. Rand Paul's presidential bid, and two other aides to then-U.S. Rep. Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign have been indicted by a federal grand jury for their alleged roles in the bribery of an Iowa state lawmaker.
Benton, who is married to Ron Paul's granddaughter and was the campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's 2014 re-election campaign, was charged with conspiracy, causing false records to obstruct a contemplated investigation, causing the submission of false campaign expenditure reports to the Federal Election Commission, and engaging in a scheme to make false statements to the FEC, according to the indictment, which was handed down last week and revealed Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Benton also has been charged with making false statements to the FBI.
Also charged in the bribery scheme were John Tate, who works with Benton at America's Liberty PAC, and Dimitrios Kesari.
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Benton and Tate are scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Iowa on Sept. 3.
Justice Department officials said the three men were involved in paying off Kent Sorenson, then an Iowa state senator, to switch his endorsement to Ron Paul. Sorenson originally committed his support to the 2012 presidential campaign of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.
"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," Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said.
Roscoe Howard, an attorney based in Washington, D.C., who is representing Benton, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that he was "deeply disappointed" to learn of the indictment and that Benton "has cooperated with the government during its multiyear investigation."
"That this indictment is now suddenly announced on the eve of the first Republican presidential debate strongly supports our belief that this is a politically motivated prosecution designed to serve a political agenda, not to achieve justice," Howard said. "Mr. Benton is eager to get before an impartial judge and jury who will quickly recognize this for what he believes it is: character assassination for political gain."
Benton was Ron Paul's Iowa political director in 2012.
According to the indictment, Benton emailed Sorenson and a representative of the senator on Oct. 31, 2011, offering "to continue to pay Sen. Sorenson the salary he had been receiving" from Bachmann's campaign if he would "defect" to the Paul campaign.
After Bachmann publicly accused the Ron Paul campaign of bribing Sorenson, Paul's campaign denied the allegation.
The indictment alleges that Benton, Tate and Kesari conspired to hide the payments in Federal Election Commission reports as "audio/visual expenses." The money allegedly was paid to Kesari's production company, which funneled it to Sorenson's consulting firm.
In June 2012, Tate wrote Kesari asking why another invoice had been filed with the campaign for payment to Kesari's production company, prompting Kesari to explain it was for "the deal Jesse agreed to with Kent," according to the indictment.
In July 2014, while he was working as McConnell's campaign manager, Benton told the FBI that no payments had been made from the Paul campaign to Sorenson "either directly or through another entity."
"I am not splitting hairs: Sorenson was not getting paid," Benton told FBI investigators, according to the indictment.
Benton resigned as McConnell's campaign manager last August, just days after Sorenson pleaded guilty to accepting $73,000 to change his endorsement and to obstruction of justice for lying about his involvement. When Benton resigned, he maintained his innocence, blaming "inaccurate press accounts and unsubstantiated media rumors."
In January, after Benton founded a political consulting company called Titan Strategies, he told the Herald-Leader he was "very confident" his legal troubles were behind him.
"Now that a little time has passed, rumors and innuendo can be left behind us," Benton said at the time.
In addition to running Paul's super PAC, Benton is managing the campaign of Republican state auditor candidate Mike Harmon, a state representative from Danville who is trying to oust incumbent Adam Edelen in November.
Harmon, who was one of the first clients to sign with Titan Strategies, told the Herald-Leader at the time that he hadn't asked Benton about the Iowa scandal and that he was "tickled" to be working with the GOP operative.
"It wasn't a huge concern," Harmon said. "What is reported is not always what is accurate."
Edelen said in a statement provided by his campaign Wednesday that "voters ought to question the judgment of a candidate for state auditor who ignored these allegations."
"It was well known from the first day Mike Harmon hired Jesse Benton last winter that Rand Paul's henchman was under investigation for his potential role in bribing an elected official in Iowa," Edelen said. "I said then that those who wish to be the taxpayer watchdog ought to have a record of ferreting out those linked to bribery, rather than employing them."
Harmon said Benton called him about 2 p.m. Wednesday to inform him of the indictment.
"We both agreed that I would take about 24 hours to think about it and pray about it, and he said he would be comfortable with any decision I make about whether to keep him on staff," Harmon said.
He also said Benton told him that Rand Paul "is sticking by him."