In this Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016, file photo, Jesse Benton arrives for his sentencing hearing at the federal courthouse in Des Moines, Iowa.
David Pitt | AP
WASHINGTON — A Republican political operative 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 contribution, attempting to cover it up and submitting false information about the source of the money.
The money for the donation originally came from Roman Vasilenko, a former Russian naval officer turned multilevel 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 into a political event to take a photo with then-candidate Trump in the fall of 2016.
Benton worked numerous campaigns, including as a strategist on the Great America PAC, a super Pac supporting Donald Trump’s 2016 win, as well as the campaigns of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul, both Republicans from Kentucky, and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
Benton then bought a $25,000 ticket to a Trump event in Philadelphia on Sept. 22 and “gave” the ticket to Vasilenko, who went on to post his photo 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, pocketing the remaining $75,000 from Vasilenko.
Benton was originally prosecuted along with the late Republican pundit Roy Douglas “Doug” Wead, who died in late 2021.
Thursday’s conviction marks the second time that 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 endorse then-presidential hopeful Rep. Ron Paul in the 2012 Iowa Republican Caucus.
The senator, Kent Sorenson, later admitted to accepting more than $70,000 in bribes to switch his support 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. Notably, Benton’s sentence in the Ron Paul case was handed down on Sept. 20, 2016, just two days before the Sept. 22 event that Benton had arranged for Vasilenko to attend with then-candidate Trump.
In late 2020, Trump issued Benton a full pardon for the 2016 conviction, a move that was championed by Sen. Rand Paul.
Benton is not the only person who has been convicted of helping foreign nationals contribute to Trump’s political career.
In 2018, another Republican strategist, Sam Patten, admitted to helping a pro-Russian member of Ukraine’s parliament make a donation to Trump’s Inaugural Committee. Like campaigns, inaugural committees are prohibited from accepting donations from foreigners.
One of the chief questions at issue in Benton’s most recent trial was whether Vasilenko’s motive for seeking a photo with Trump was political in nature, or whether he was just looking for a photo with a famous person.
Evidence was presented at trial that Wead and Vasilenko had discussed trying to get a photo with Oprah Winfrey or Michelle Obama, but settled on Trump.
“If Oprah was available, we wouldn’t even be here,” defense attorney Brian Stolarz reportedly said in his closing argument.