GOP operative convicted of funneling Russian donations to Trump’s 2016 campaign

This Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016, file photo, Jesse Benton appears before his sentencing hearing in federal court in Des Moines, Iowa.

David Pitt | AP

WASHINGTON — A Republican politician and former campaign aide was convicted in federal court this week of funneling $25,000 from a Russian businessman to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Jesse Benton was found guilty Thursday of six counts that included soliciting an illegal foreign donation, attempting to cover it up and providing false information about the source of the money.

The money for the donation originally came from Roman Vasilenko, a former Russian naval officer turned multi-level marketer and CEO of the “Life is Good International Business Academy”.

According to prosecutors, Vasilenko paid Benton’s consulting firm $100,000 to get him to a political event to take a photo with then-candidate Trump in the fall of 2016.

Benton worked on numerous campaigns, including as a strategist at Great America PAC, the super PAC that supported Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, as well as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s and Senate campaigns. Rand Paul, both Republicans from Kentucky, and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.

Benton then bought $25,000 in tickets to a Trump event in Philadelphia in September. 22 and “gave” the ticket to Vasilenko, who posted a photo of himself with Trump on his Instagram page under the caption “Two Presidents.”

When Benton paid the Trump Victory Committee for the ticket, he used his own credit card and wired $75,000 from Vasilenko.

Benton was originally indicted along with the late Republican pundit Roy Douglas “Doug” Wead, who died in late 2021.

Thursday’s conviction is the second time Benton has been found guilty of a campaign finance crime.

In 2016, a jury convicted Benton and two other defendants of conspiring to bribe an Iowa state senator to support then-Rep. Ron Paul in the Republican Party of Iowa in 2012.

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Sen. Kent Sorenson later admitted to accepting more than $70,000 in bribes to switch his endorsement from then-Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., to Ron Paul, whose campaign Benton also worked on. Sorenson was sentenced to more than a year behind bars for the crime.

Benton received six months of home confinement and two years of probation. In particular, Benton’s judgment in the Ron Paul case was handed down on Sept. 20, 2016, just two days before Sept. 22 events that Benton had arranged for Vasilenko to attend along with then-candidate Trump.

In late 2020, Trump granted Benton a full pardon for the 2016 conviction, a move the senator championed. Rand Páll.

Benton is not the only person convicted of helping foreign nationals contribute to Trump’s political career.

In 2018, another Republican strategist, Sam Patten, admitted to helping a Russian congressman in Ukraine donate to Trump’s inaugural committee. Like campaigns, constituencies are prohibited from accepting contributions from foreigners.

One of the main issues at issue in Benton’s recent trial was whether Vasilenko’s motive for seeking a picture with Trump was political in nature or whether he was simply looking for a picture with a famous person.

During the trial, evidence emerged that Wead and Vasilenko had discussed trying to get a photo with Oprah Winfrey or Michelle Obama, but settled for Trump.

“If Oprah was available, we wouldn’t even be here,” defense attorney Brian Stolarz reportedly said in his closing argument.

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