A GOP political operative was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Friday for illegally funneling tens of thousands of dollars from a Russian businessman to the Trump campaign in 2016.
Jesse Benton, 45, was convicted in November of six charges related to scheme to connect a Russian businessman with then-GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump. The Russian, millionaire Roman Vasilenko, wanted to take a picture with Trump to post on social media.
“Benton arranged for the Russian national – whose nationality Benton concealed from the campaign and the candidate – to attend a campaign fundraising event and to take a picture with the candidate,” the Department of Justice (DOJ) said in a press release.
Vasilenko paid $100,000 to Benton’s consulting firm with an understanding with Benton and another political operative that they would get the Russian into a fundraising dinner with Trump. Benton took the money under a falsified invoice for consulting services.
“Benton acted as a straw donor and contributed $25,000 of the Russian national’s money to the campaign, falsely identified himself as the contributor, and pocketed the remaining $75,000,” the DOJ said. “Because Benton falsely claimed to have given the contribution himself, the relevant campaign entities unwittingly filed reports with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that inaccurately reported Benton – instead of the Russian national – as the source of the funds.”
Vasilenko attended the fundraiser and later posted a photo of himself with Trump with the caption, “Two Presidents.”
Benton has previously worked as an aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX). Benton is married to Ron Paul’s granddaughter, Rand Paul’s niece.
In 2016, Benton was convicted in a scheme to bribe an Iowa state senator in 2012 to endorse Ron Paul ahead of the state’s Republican caucus. Benton pleaded with the judge for leniency during sentencing, requesting a sentence of home confinement. Benton told the judge that he had reformed and that separation from his family would be hard on them. The judge acquiesced to Benton’s request, according to Mother Jones.
U.S. District Court judge Trevor McFadden on Friday was not as accommodating. Benton pleaded with McFadden for leniency ahead of the sentencing hearing in a letter claiming Benton suffered under federal investigation, that he no longer worked in politics, and drove for DoorDash to provide for his family.
“Sir, I will tell you, frankly, it’s difficult for me to read your letter talking about your integrity and faith with this pattern of deception,” McFadden told Benton in court. “I cannot ignore you were engaging in this incident here while you were facing sentencing in another case for political conspiracy. The judge in that case gave you a real break, it’s shocking to me you would take that break and the mercy you sought from him and only six days later mail in this false contribution.”