Jesse Benton, a former top aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), was convicted Thursday of helping a Russian citizen illegally funnel a political donation to former President Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. Benton, 44, purchased a $25,000 ticket to a September 2016 Republican National Committee event for Trump and gave the ticket to Russian multilevel marketer Roman Vasilenko. Vasilenko then gave Benton $100,000.
Elections "reflect the values and the priorities and the beliefs of American citizens," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Parikh said at Benton's trial this week. "Jesse Benton by his actions did damage to those principles."
This is Benton's second conviction for campaign finance violations. In May 2016, he was found guilty of illegally facilitating the transfer of $73,000 to an Iowa state senator in exchange for endorsing Ron Paul during his 2012 presidential bid. Trump pardoned Benton in December 2020, soon before leaving office.
Prosecutors indicted Benton and Doug Wead, a conservative evangelical pundit involved in multilevel marketing, in September 2021. Wead, who died later that year at age 75, was accused of connecting Vasilenko to Benton.
Benton's lawyer, Brian Stolarz, argued during the trial that Vasilenko was just a self-promoter willing to pay to get photos of himself with celebrities, and he and Wead settled on Trump after looking into photo ops with Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, and Stephen Seagal, The Washington Post reports. "If Oprah was available," he said in his closing argument, "we wouldn't even be here." Stolarz said Vasilenko was interested in a photo with "the guy who used to be on The Apprentice," not a future president, and Trump appeared only briefly at the fundraiser and "just talked about polls."
Prosecutors disputed the idea that Vasilenko wasn't interested in Trump's political cachet, noting he was running for a seat in Russia's parliament at the time, and his photo with Trump helped get him on Russian television. And Benton, they said, clearly should have known he was violating federal campaign finance laws after his 2016 conviction.