A former senior aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. and Sen. Rand Paul R-Ky., was convicted Thursday of illegally helping a Russian businessman contribute to former President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign.
Jesse Benton "was convicted of conspiring to solicit and cause an illegal campaign contribution by a foreign national, effecting a conduit contribution, and causing false records to be filed with the FEC", per the Justice Department. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
Elections "reflect the values and the priorities and the beliefs of American citizens," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Parikh said in her closing argument this week, The Washington Post reported. "Jesse Benton by his actions did damage to those principles."
Benton, the husband of Paul's niece, was pardoned by Trump in 2020 for a different campaign finance crime, which involved attempting to buy an endorsement for former Rep. Ron Paul's, R-Texas, 2012 presidential bid.
This time, Benton bought a $25,000 ticket to a 2016 Republican National Committee event on behalf of a Russian naval officer Roman Vasilenko to help him get a picture with Trump, according to prosecutors.
Vasilenko wired $100,000 to Benton's political consulting firm to make an illegal foreign contribution, which Benton used to donate $25,000 to the RNC by credit card to cover the ticket. He pocketed the remaining $75,000, according to the DOJ.
He said that he followed the advice of his previous counsel, David Warrington, who testified that Benton contacted him to ask if he could give a political fundraiser ticket to a Russian citizen.
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Warrington said he told Benton "there is no prohibition on a Russian citizen receiving a ticket to an event" and that "you can give your ticket that you purchased to a fundraiser to anybody," The Post reported.
But Benton left out the detail that he was getting reimbursed by the Russian citizen for the donation, prosecutors said. Benton asked for the advice only "to cover his tracks," Parikh said.
Benton claimed he earned the $100,000 for serving as Vasilenko's tour guide in Washington and that the naval officer turned multilevel marketer's interest was self-promotion and not politics, according to The Post.
Vasilenko posted the photograph with Trump on Instagram with a banner that said "Two Presidents" and advertised his own company.
"He wants to be an influencer," defense attorney Brian Stolarz said. "This is just shameless self-promotion from a guy who can afford to take this picture."
But prosecutors said that once the opportunity came, Vasilenko, who was running for parliament in Russia at the time, saw the value of being introduced to Trump. After Trump's election, he was invited on Russian television, according to the Justice Department.
Benton was previously convicted in 2016, when a former Iowa state senator admitted to taking $73,000 in payments from Ron Paul's presidential campaign in exchange for switching his endorsement to Paul. He was sentenced to two years of probation and a $10,000 fine.
When the scandal broke in 2014, Benton was serving as campaign manager for McConnell's 2014 re-election bid. He resigned after the illegal 2012 payments were reported and went on to serve as chief strategist for the pro-Trump Great America super PAC. He resigned once again in 2016 after he was charged.
Trump issued a presidential pardon to Benton in December 2020 before leaving office at the urging of Rand Paul.