- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Three of former presidential hopeful Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign staffers, one of whom also worked for top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell’s 2014 campaign, were charged in an indictment unsealed Wednesday that accuses them of paying off an Iowa state senator to switch allegiance in the last presidential race.

Jesse R. Benton, the Paul and McConnell campaign staffer, as well as John M. Tate and Dimitrios N. Kesari, siphoned $73,125 in payments to then-Sen. Kent Leroy Sorenson, in exchange for him agreeing to drop his support for Michele Bachmann and switch to supporting Mr. Paul, the indictment charges.

Mr. Benton currently heads America’s Liberty Political Action Committee, a super PAC supporting Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential bid. The senator is the son of the former congressman, and Mr. Benton is married to the congressman’s granddaughter, who is also the senator’s niece.

The Sorenson case had tarnished the 2012 Iowa caucuses, with Ms. Bachmann insisting she’d been the victim of hijinks in the run-up to the vote, and Mr. Paul’s campaign vehemently — and, according to prosecutors, fraudulently — denying it.

Mr. Paul, identified as Candidate B in the indictment, was unaware of the deal, according to the charges.

Investigators accused the conspirators of falsifying Federal Election Commission records and their own invoices to cover up the payoffs, and lying to the FBI during a follow-up investigation.

Roscoe C. Howard Jr., Mr. Benton’s lawyer, released a statement saying he was “deeply disappointed” in the indictment, and accused the Justice Department of trying to meddle in Republican presidential politics.

“Jesse Benton, a prominent conservative Republican, has cooperated with the government during its multi-year 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,” he 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,” Mr. Howard said.

Ms. Bachmann, identified in the indictment as Candidate A, had cried foul when Sorenson switched allegiances in December 2011, just days ahead of the 2012 Iowa caucuses, and had accused the Paul campaign of a payoff. The Paul campaign denied that accusation — then delayed the payment to Sorenson to ensure it wouldn’t show up on the campaign finance reports due soon after the start of the new year.

More than a month later, the Paul campaign staffers began to send money from the campaign to a film production company, then had that company pay Sorenson’s grassroots firm in installments over the next six months to make good on their promise, the investigators charge.

After news of an investigation leaked in 2013, Mr. Kesari met with Sorenson — first checking to make sure neither was wearing a recording device — and demanded some of the payments back.

Investigators say Mr. Benton then repeatedly lied to them when they confronted him about the payments, as did Mr. Tate.

The indictment was handed up last week but was only unsealed Wednesday.

Sorenson pleaded guilty last year to obstruction of justice and false campaign report charges. He has not yet been sentenced.

Mr. Benton and Mr. Tate have September court dates, while Mr. Kesari appeared in court Wednesday, prosecutors said.

Seth McLaughlin contributed to this article.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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