Rand Paul super PAC officials indicted on federal charges

Story highlights

Three men were indicted Wednesday for allegedly trying to buy endorsements for Ron Paul's 2012 campaign

Two of the men are employed by the super PAC supporting Rand Paul's 2016 campaign

Washington CNN —  

Senior officials for the super PAC supporting Rand Paul’s presidential bid were indicted on federal charges of conspiracy and falsifying campaign records, the Justice Department said Wednesday.

Jesse Benton and John Tate, two top strategists to Paul’s father’s presidential campaigns, allegedly steered $73,000 to an Iowa state senator to convince him to endorse Ron Paul in the lead-up to the 2012 Iowa caucuses, prosecutors say. That senator, Kent Sorenson, had previously backed Michele Bachmann, a Paul opponent.

Benton, who served as Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager early in 2014, and Tate now head America’s Liberty PAC, a super PAC that raised $3.1 million to push Paul on television and online.

The long-simmering charges – which had been investigated by the Federal Elections Commission – now threaten to cast clouds over the campaign of his son on the eve of the first Republican presidential debate. Rand Paul has publicly backed Benton, who is married to his niece and has long been a top strategist to the Paul family, predicting he would “help us” in 2016.

“I think Jesse [Benton] is honest, he’s good at politics and I don’t think he’s done anything wrong,” Paul told a Kentucky ABC affiliate last December.

Prosecutors also indicted a third aide to Ron Paul’s campaign, Dimitrios Kesari.

Aides to both Pauls and to Benton are all charging that the indictment may be landing Wednesday in order to unsettle Rand Paul’s campaign ahead of Thursday’s debate. The indictment was unsealed Wednesday as Keseri appeared in U.S. District Court in Iowa (Benton and Tate will appear at district court in Washington next month.).

A Rand Paul spokesman looked to distance the official campaign from the possible imbroglio, noting that none of the indicted operatives work for the Kentucky senator’s campaign. Yet the spokesman still said it was “suspiciously timed” that the “Obama Justice Department chose to release this just prior to the highly anticipated first Republican presidential debate.”

Ron Paul similarly said in a statement the timing’s indictment is “highly suspicious.” And Benton’s attorney, Roscoe Howard, in his own statement called the indictment “character assassination for political gain.”

“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,” Howard said.

The trio are all charged with one count of conspiracy, one count of causing false records, one count of causing false campaign expenditure reports, and one count of a false statements scheme. Benton faces a fifth charge of an additional false statement, and Kesari’s fifth alleges he obstructed justice.

Prosecutors charge that the three Ron Paul aides conspired with Sorensen at Christmastime 2012 to distribute successive payments to Sorensen, Bachmann’s Iowa campaign chair, through political committees to conceal the cash flow. Sorensen and Paul aides continually denied that he had been paid to endorse the Texas congressman, a charge level by a spurned Bachmann in the lead-up to the first-in-the-nation contest.

“This is the last payment for kent Sorenson,” Kesari wrote to Tate in an email obtained by prosecutors. “The deal jesse agreed to with kent.”

News leaked of FBI and Federal Election Commission officials’ investigations in June 2013, according to the indictment. That September, prosecutors say Kesari flew to Nebraska to ask Sorensen to return the cash, which Sorensen refused to do.

Through 2014, Benton and Tate repeatedly told authorities that they had not paid Sorensen for the endorsement, a cover up reflected in false records submitted to the FEC.

But in August 2014, Sorensen pleaded guilty to charges related to the affair.