A close confidant of Sen. Rand Paul was indicted Wednesday for an alleged conspiracy to bribe an Iowa state senator in 2011 to shift allegiances to Paul’s father, Ron, then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
Jesse Benton, a longtime aide to the younger Paul who’s now helming a super PAC supporting the Kentucky Republican’s 2016 presidential bid, faces charges of conspiracy, obstructing an investigation, submitting false campaign finance reports to the Federal Election Commission and making false statements to the FBI. Two other operatives, John Tate and Dimitrios Kesari, also face charges connected to the alleged payoff.
A call to Benton’s cellphone revealed that his voicemail box was full. He did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
After several hours of silence, Paul’s campaign questioned the timing of the charges.
“Senator Rand Paul is disappointed that the Obama justice department chose to release this just prior to the highly anticipated first Republican presidential debate,” said a campaign spokesman, who asked not to be identified. “It certainly appears suspiciously timed and possibly, politically motivated. Additionally, these actions are from 2012 and have nothing to do with our campaign.”
Another Benton client, Kentucky state Rep. Mike Harmon, said Benton called him Wednesday afternoon and told him Paul has his back.
“He said Rand is standing with him and some of his other clients would be standing with him,” Harmon said.
Benton is managing Harmon’s campaign for state auditor, and Harmon said he’s going to take 24 hours to decide whether to keep him on staff. “I’m going to think about it and pray about it,” he said. Harmon said Benton told him he intends to ask for an “expedient review” of the charges against him and potentially dispense with the matter within the next two months.
According to the Justice Department, the three operatives paid more than $70,000 — concealed as legitimate campaign expenditures — to then-state Sen. Kent Sorenson in order to shift his support from Rep. Michele Bachmann to the elder Paul. Sorenson made his switch public on Dec. 28, 2011, in Des Moines. The three operatives also coached Sorenson to lie when asked whether he was offered money for his support, according to the indictment.
“Violating campaign finance laws by concealing payments to an elected official undermines our electoral system and deceives the public,” said Special Agent in Charge David LeValley. “The FBI will aggressively investigate those who corrupt the integrity of our democratic process.”