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Rand Paul’s Super PAC chief was just indicted

Ron Paul (left) and Jesse Benton, during the 2012 presidential campaign.
Ron Paul (left) and Jesse Benton, during the 2012 presidential campaign.
Ethan Miller/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.
  1. Jesse Benton, a longtime aide to Ron and Rand Paul who is currently heading the most prominent pro–Rand Paul Super PAC, was indicted by the Department of Justice Wednesday for campaign law violations, along with two associates.
  2. While working for Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign, Benton and his two colleagues allegedly arranged payments eventually totaling $73,000 to an Iowa state senator so that he'd switch his endorsement from Michele Bachmann to Paul.
  3. The aides then concealed the payments by having them first made to a film production company, which would then steer them to a company controlled by the state senator, the indictment alleges.
  4. The three men were indicted on charges of conspiracy, causing false records, causing false campaign expenditure reports, and scheming to create false statements.
  5. Benton has long been close to the Paul family — indeed, he's married to Ron Paul's granddaughter (Rand's niece). The Super PAC he currently heads, America's Liberty, is independent from Rand's presidential campaign, and not permitted to coordinate with it.

Michele Bachmann accused Ron Paul's campaign of paying the state senator to switch sides back in 2011

Michele Bachmann

(Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Through much of 2011, Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson was the paid chair for Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign in his state. But less than a week before the caucuses, he shockingly switched sides to endorse Ron Paul. "The decision I am making today is one of the most difficult I have made in my life," Sorenson said in a statement. "But given what’s at stake for our country, I have decided I must take this action."

According to Bachmann, though, Sorenson offered a very different rationale behind closed doors. "Kent Sorenson personally told me he was offered a large sum of money to go to work for the Paul campaign," Bachmann said in a statement that same night. "Kent said to me yesterday that ‘everyone sells out in Iowa, why shouldn’t I?’"

Sorenson denied the accusation at the time, but, unsurprisingly, investigators started looking into the matter. And by 2013, an independent investigator had found that Sorenson had accepted a $25,000 check from one of Paul's aides just days before switching his endorsement. He didn't end up cashing that check, but over the next several months, his business got $73,000 in mysterious payments that were eventually traced back to Paul's campaign. In 2014, Sorenson pleaded guilty to concealing those payments, and is awaiting sentencing.

Since then, observers have wondered whether further indictments were imminent. Andy Kroll of Mother Jones called it "the scandal that could blow up Rand Paul's machine," and Russ Choma of OpenSecrets reported that the FBI was focusing on Paul's aides. Yet Benton continued doing work for Rand Paul, maintaining he was in no legal danger, before eventually departing his official operation to set up a Super PAC raising outside money to support Paul's 2016 presidential bid, with Paul's approval.

But now, Benton and two other Ron Paul 2012 aides — John Tate and Dimitrios Kesari — have been indicted. The charges don't relate to bribery, but rather focus on the aides' efforts to conceal that the payments were being made through Paul's official campaign account.

As mentioned, Kesari gave Sorenson that first $25,000 check, which Sorenson didn't end up cashing. But despite Bachmann's public accusation, the aides allegedly kept steering money to Sorenson, and tried to disguise the payments on FEC reports by routing the money through a film production company.

The indictment doesn't affect anyone officially connected to Rand Paul's presidential campaign. But given Benton's leadership of the leading pro-Paul Super PAC and his longtime relationship with the family, it's just the latest bit of bad news for Rand's beleaguered effort.

As for Ron Paul himself, he isn't buying what Justice is selling. "The timing of this indictment is highly suspicious given the fact that the first primary debate is tomorrow," he reportedly said.

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