GOP agent convicted of funneling Russian donations to Trump campaign in 2016


In this Tuesday, September 20, 2016 file photo, Jesse Benton arrives for his hearing at the federal courthouse in Des Moines, Iowa.

David Pitt| AP

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

Jesse Benton was found guilty on Thursday of six charges, including soliciting an illegal foreign contribution, 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 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 to a political event in the fall of 2016 to take a photo with then-candidate Trump.

Benton worked on numerous campaigns, including as a strategist for the Great America PAC, a super Pac that supported Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, as well as the campaigns of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator 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 then posted his photo with Trump on his Instagram page under the caption “Two Presidents.”

When Benton paid the Trump Victory Commission for the ticket, he used his own credit card and pocketed Vasilenko’s remaining $75,000.

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 Benton has been found guilty of a campaign finance crime.

In 2016, a jury convicted Benton and two other defendants of conspiracy to bribe an Iowa state senator to support then-Presidential hopeful Representative Ron Paul in the 2012 Iowa Republican Caucus.

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The senator, Kent Sorenson, later admitted to taking more than $70,000 in bribes to transfer his support from the then-representative. 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 house arrest and two years of probation. Notably, Benton’s verdict in the Ron Paul case was handed down on Sept. 20, 2016, just two days before the Sept. 22 event Benton had arranged for Vasilenko to attend with then-candidate Trump.

In late 2020, Trump granted Benton a full pardon for the 2016 conviction, a move championed by Senator Rand Paul.

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

In 2018, another Republican strategist, Sam Patten, admitted to helping a pro-Russian member of the Ukrainian parliament with a donation to Trump’s inaugural committee. Like campaigns, inaugural committees are prohibited from accepting donations from foreigners.

One of the key questions in Benton’s most 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.

Evidence was presented at the trial that Wead and Vasilenko had talked about trying to get a picture with Oprah Winfrey or Michelle Obama, but chose Trump.

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

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