WASHINGTON – A Republican political operative pardoned by President Donald Trump after his conviction in a 2012 bribery plot has been charged again with campaign-related crimes, this time involving a 2016 illegal campaign contribution scheme and a Russian national.
Jesse Benton, 43, of Louisville, Kentucky, was accused in an indictment unsealed Monday in federal court in Washington.
Trump pardoned Benton in December after his conviction in a case involving false records and campaign reports to the Federal Election Commission. Prosecutors said Benton and two others who were working on the 2012 presidential campaign of Ron Paul tried to hide $73,000 in payments to an Iowa state senator, Kent Sorenson, for his endorsement of Paul.
The most recent case is similar in nature to the 2012 charges. Benton, who was the former chief strategist for the pro-Trump Great America PAC, and Roy Douglas “Doug” Wead, who served as an adviser to multiple presidential campaigns and is a presidential historian and author, were accused of conspiracy to solicit and cause an illegal campaign contribution by a Russian foreign national during the 2016 presidential election.
Both men appeared in court Monday. Benton’s attorney did not immediately return messages seeking comment. Wead attorney Jay Sekulow said Wead pleaded not guilty.
According to court papers, Wead, 75, of Bonita Springs, Florida, told a Russian foreign national that he could meet an unnamed presidential candidate at a political event in exchange for a contribution. It is illegal to solicit campaign contributions from foreigners.
The indictment does not specify which presidential candidate, but at the time of the event noted in the indictment, Sept. 22, 2016, there were only two major party candidates, Republican Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump had a fundraiser in Pittsburgh on Sept. 22.
Benton has long been involved in Republican politics. Wead is a conservative commentator and author who served in the White House of George H.W. Bush and wrote a book, “Inside Trump’s White House: The Real Story of His Presidency," that he described as an authorized history of the president's first years in office.
After the unnamed donor committed to transfer the funds, Benton arranged for the Russian national to attend a political fundraising event and get a photo in exchange for $100,000 in donations to a political consulting firm owned by Benton, the indictment says. The indictment said that the men later disguised the funds by creating a fake invoice.
According to the indictment, Benton then told two political committees affiliated with the candidate that he'd sent the promised contribution, eventually using a personal credit card to make a $25,000 donating and keeping the rest. Unknowingly, the political committees filed reports with the election commission that wrongly stated that Benton was the source of that donation, the indictment read.
Benton and Wead were both charged with conspiracy to solicit and cause an illegal campaign contribution by a foreign national, effect a conduit contribution, and cause false records to be filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.