The FBI has charged three members of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign with conspiracy, including Jesse Benton, who now runs the pro-Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulCongress's goal in December: Avoid shutdown and default Cotton swipes at Fauci: 'These bureaucrats think that they are the science' Paul, Cruz fire back after Fauci says criticism of him is 'dangerous' MORE super-PAC America’s Liberty.
According to the indictment, Benton, Paul’s former Campaign Manager John Tate, and former Deputy Campaign Manager Dimitrios Kesari arranged payments of more than $70,000 to former Iowa Sen. Kent Sorenson to switch his endorsement from former Rep. Michele Bachmann, who was also running for president at the time.
The three have been charged with conspiracy, submitting false campaign expenditure reports and submitting false records to obstruct an investigation. Benton has also been charged with making false statements to the FBI.
Benton’s lawyer, Roscoe Howard, said his client has fully cooperated with the government during its multi-year investigation. He said the timing of the FBI’s announcement on the eve of the first Republican debate was evidence the investigation is politically motivated.
“That this indictment is now suddenly announced on the eve of the first Republican Presidential debate strongly supports our belief that this is a politically motivated prosecution designed to serve a political agenda, not to achieve justice,” Howard said in an email to The Hill.
“Mr. Benton is eager to get before an impartial judge and jury who will quickly recognize this for what he believes it is: Character assassination for political gain,” he added.
Ron Paul echoed that sentiment.
“I am extremely disappointed in the government’s decision,” he said in a statement to MSNBC. “I think the timing of this indictment is highly suspicious given the fact that the first primary debate is tomorrow. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those involved. I will not be commenting further on this matter at this time.”
“Federal campaign finance laws are intended to ensure the integrity and transparency of the federal election process,” Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said in a statement. “When political operatives make under-the-table payments to buy an elected official’s political support, it undermines public confidence in our entire political system.”
According to the indictment, the three men allegedly transferred payments to Sorenson by recording the expenses in Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings as audiovisual-related purchases that first passed through a production company before getting transferred to an account controlled by Sorenson.
Sorenson pleaded guilty to contributing to false FEC reports and obstruction of justice in 2014.
When the allegations first surfaced last year, Benton resigned from Sen. Mitch McConnell’s reelection campaign.
Benton is married to Rand Paul’s niece, and the GOP presidential candidate said late last year he’d be happy to bring Benton on to his campaign team.
“I think Jesse [Benton] is honest, he's good at politics and I don't think he's done anything wrong," Paul said in December.
Benton went on to lead the America’s Liberty PAC supporting Rand Paul’s presidential bid. The group has pulled in more than $3 million so far this year.
- Updated at 4:32 p.m.