Close allies of Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential campaign have been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of hiding payments to an Iowa state senator in return for the lawmaker’s endorsement of Paul’s father, Ron Paul, during the latter’s 2012 run for the White House.
Jesse Benton, who is heading the America’s Liberty Super PAC supporting Rand Paul’s 2016 campaign for president, is among three men indicted on federal charges of conspiracy and falsifying campaign reports.
Benton, who is also charged with lying to the FBI, has been a key adviser and confidante for Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky. Benton ran Rand Paul’s successful 2010 Senate campaign and is married to Paul’s niece.
Also indicted is John Tate, listed as founder of the super PAC backing Rand Paul, and Dimitrios Kesari. The three men worked together on Ron Paul’s presidential campaign in 2012.
It’s the latest blow for Rand Paul’s presidential campaign, which has been stalled in the polls and struggling to raise money. He hopes to pick up momentum Thursday at the first Republican presidential debate.
His campaign issued a statement that questioned the timing of the indictment on the eve of the first Republican presidential debate: “It certainly appears suspiciously timed and possibly politically motivated. Additionally, these actions are from 2012 and have nothing to do with our campaign."
Federal campaign finance laws are intended to ensure the integrity and transparency of the federal election process. 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
Rand Paul in the past has defended Benton, even as his name was tied to the investigation of Kent Sorenson, an Iowa state lawmaker at the time, who pleaded guilty in 2014 for his role in the scheme.
Rand Paul told a Kentucky television station last year that he did not believe Benton did anything wrong.
“You know, I think one of the considerations when you look at any of this is that we are with an administration where there has been a lot of politically motivated investigations,” Paul told the station. “And I think that has to be one consideration.”
The indictment released on Wednesday alleges that Benton, who was political director of Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, and the two other operatives arranged $73,000 in payments to Sorenson to win his support in the Iowa Republican caucuses that year.
They concealed payments as audio-visual expenses for a film production company and submitted false campaign finance reports to the Federal Election Commission, the indictment alleges.
Sorenson first endorsed Michele Bachmann’s 2012 presidential bid but later switched his allegiance to Ron Paul.
Benton also managed the re-election campaign of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, last year. He resigned that post after Sorenson pleaded guilty but maintained his innocence.
Benton is currently managing the Kentucky state auditor campaign of Republican Mike Harmon.
Benton’s lawyer, Roscoe Howard of Washington, said in an email that his client is eager to get before a judge and jury and believes the indictment is “character assassination for political gain.”
“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.