Jesse Benton, a top ally to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, announced Thursday that he was taking a leave of absence from Paul's super PAC, a day after it was revealed that he had been indicted by a federal grand jury for his alleged role in a 2012 bribery scheme.
State Rep. Mike Harmon, the Republican nominee for state auditor, also announced Thursday in a lengthy open letter that he has cut ties with Benton, who was a consultant for his campaign.
Benton and John Tate, the two top figures at Paul's super PAC, America's Liberty, announced in a statement that they were taking leave from the committee while they fight the charges brought against them by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Benton, a longtime aide to the Paul family who is married to former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul's granddaughter, joined Ron and Rand Paul in questioning the timing of the indictments, suggesting that the announcement was politically motivated and was timed to coincide with the first Republican presidential debate Thursday night.
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In the indictment, Justice Department officials allege that Benton was at the center of a bribery scheme to get former Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson to switch his 2012 presidential endorsement from U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann to Ron Paul.
The indictment alleges that Benton, Tate and Dimitrios Kesari conspired to pay Sorenson $73,000 to change his endorsement and covered up the payments by listing them on federal campaign finance reports as "audio/visual expenses."
Benton also is charged with lying to the FBI after he told investigators that Sorenson was not paid.
Benton has long denied any wrongdoing, even after he resigned last August as U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's re-election campaign manager just days after Sorenson pleaded guilty to his role in the conspiracy.
Harmon announced in his letter that "Jesse has agreed to step completely away from the campaign until such (time) he can fully resolve this issue."
"I wish Jesse the best of luck both for this issue and his future," Harmon wrote. "We will certainly keep him in our prayers."
Benton had taken on Harmon as a client in an effort to damage State Auditor Adam Edelen in advance of a potential challenge by Edelen to Rand Paul's Senate re-election campaign next year.
After the indictments were announced Wednesday, Harmon said he would take 24 hours to evaluate his relationship with Benton, even as Edelen went on offense.
"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.
He added: "Voters ought to question the judgment of a candidate for state auditor who ignored these allegations and allowed Jesse Benton to run a campaign that was based solely on personally attacking me and smearing my track record as one of Kentucky's most accomplished auditors in recent history."
Harmon said he didn't expect Benton to be indicted.
"After Jesse reached out to me initially and we discussed the accusation, I was satisfied that those were just that, accusations, and that the issue was settled," he wrote.
But when Harmon signed up with Benton in January, he told the Herald-Leader that he had not discussed the investigation with Benton, although he added that he had insisted that "we do everything 100 percent above board."
"It wasn't a huge concern," Harmon said at the time. "What is reported is not always what is accurate."
At the same time, Benton told the Herald-Leader that he was "very confident" that his legal troubles were behind him.
"Now that a little time has passed, rumors and innuendo can be left behind us," Benton said.
Rand Paul, who joined nine of his opponents Thursday night for the Republican presidential nomination on a debate stage in Cleveland, said through an unnamed spokesperson Wednesday that the charges were "suspiciously timed and possibly, politically motivated."
Benton and Tate were already struggling to raise money for Paul's faltering presidential campaign, reporting only $3.1 million in their political action committee's first campaign finance report last month.
By comparison, the super PAC supporting Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, who did not make the cut for Thursday night's debate on Fox News, raised $3.4 million, and the super PAC supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush raised $103 million.
Benton and Tate are scheduled to appear in federal court on Sept. 3.