Jesse Benton, a political operative in the White House bids of both Sen. Rand Paul and his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, was indicted Wednesday on charges that he schemed to pay off a top supporter of another candidate in an effort to win the 2012 Iowa caucuses for Ron Paul.
The government alleges in an indictment released Wednesday that Benton, along with two other operatives, “conspired” to “knowingly defraud the United States,” obstruct justice, falsify records and “conceal,” “cover up,” “trick” and “scheme.”
In this cycle, Benton has been running America’s Liberty superPAC, which is boosting Rand Paul, one of the 10 Republicans to make it onto the prime-time Fox News debate stage Thursday night.
Benton managed Rand Paul’s winning Senate run in Kentucky. He also managed Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s 2014 re-election bid before resigning in August of last year.
Benton played a prominent role in Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign. What’s more, he is married to Ron Paul’s granddaughter, who is a niece of Rand Paul.
Also indicted were John Tate, the founder of America’s Liberty and manager of the 2012 campaign, and a 2012 campaign staffer named Dimitrios Kesari.
A fourth figure in the scandal, former Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson, pleaded guilty in federal court last August.
In 2011, Sorenson was the salaried state campaign chairman for then-Rep. Michele Bachmann. He was one of the early Bachmann backers helping lay the groundwork for the Minnesota congresswoman, who was looking to make a splash.
But that December, shortly before the Iowa caucuses, Sorenson defected and endorsed Ron Paul. In Sorenson’s guilty plea, he charged that Paul campaign officials paid him $73,000 to make the flip.
The new indictment alleges that in October 2011, Benton began negotiations with Sorenson, offering to match Bachmann’s salary. By December, the four politicos — Sorenson, Benton, Kesari and Tate — were writing and editing a press release for Sorenson to announce his switch. They then had to draft a second release, to deny rumors of a payoff. The three Paul staffers began moving the money just before Christmas, according to the indictment.
The payments were allegedly run through Sorenson’s consulting firm and a film production company to hide them from public disclosure. The indictment says Benton, Tate and Kasari all tried to cover up the scheme.
It quotes Benton as telling FBI agents, “I am not splitting hairs: Sorenson was not getting paid.”
For its part, Rand Paul’s presidential campaign pointed fingers at the Justice Department, questioning the timing of its release before the first debate.
“Senator Rand Paul is disappointed that the Obama Justice Department chose to release this just prior to the highly anticipated first Republican presidential debate,” the campaign said in a statement to NPR. “It certainly appears suspiciously timed and possibly, politically motivated. Additionally, these actions are from 2012 and have nothing to do with our campaign.”