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GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016

Two GOP political operatives - one of whom previously worked for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) - have been indicted for their involvement in a scheme to solicit an illegal campaign contribution from a Russian national in 2016 to support then-candidate Donald Trump's White House run.

Jesse R. Benton, 43, and Roy Douglas "Doug" Wead, 75, were both charged with counts related to illegal campaign contributions by a foreign national and filing false records to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), according to the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The indictment against Benton, who is from Kentucky, and Wead, who is from Florida, was unsealed in federal court in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

Benton previously served as the chief strategist of the pro-Trump Great America PAC and worked on McConnell's 2014 campaign, Paul's campaign in 2010 and the 2012 presidential bid of Paul's father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

Benton is also the husband of Rand Paul's niece, according to Axios.

Wead was previously an adviser to a number of presidential campaigns and served in the George H.W. Bush White House. He also worked with Benton on Ron Paul's 2012 bid for the White House and served on Rand Paul's Senate reelection campaign in 2016, according to CNN.

Trump pardoned Benton in December after Benton was convicted of paying an Iowa state senator to change his endorsement before the state's 2012 GOP caucuses to Ron Paul, according to the Des Moines Register.

If convicted, the defendants face between five and 20 years in prison, per count. They made their first court appearance on Monday.

Jay Sekulow, who is representing Wead and was previously the lead counsel during Trump's first impeachment trial, said his client pleaded not guilty, according to The Associated Press and The Washington Post.

"Doug Wead is a respected author and supporter of charitable causes," Sekulow told the Post in an email Monday night. "He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and will continue to respond appropriately in court."

According to court documents, the two GOP operatives allegedly conspired to receive a campaign contribution from a Russian foreign national.

The indictment says that Wead told the foreign national that he could meet a 2016 presidential candidate - who was not named by the DOJ - if he paid a sum of money. The Russian national, according to the Post, was described as a business associate of Wead's.

After the foreign national agreed to transfer funds, Benton allegedly contacted individuals at an unidentified political committee. 

Benton allegedly arranged for the foreign national to attend a political fundraising event and take a photograph with the candidate in exchange for a contribution to another political committee that was involved in joint fundraising.

The contribution, according to CNN, was made to the Trump Victory Committee. While the indictment did not identify Trump or the committee, CNN reported that the details in the court documents are in line with Trump's travel schedule, and FEC records corroborate Benton's contribution.

The Post also reported that the indictment matches a $25,000 contribution Benton made in the fall of 2016 to a committee that was raising funds for the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, according to campaign finance records.

The foreign national eventually wired $100,000 to a political consulting firm that Benton owned. The payment, according to the DOJ, was through a fake invoice for "consulting services" to hide the purpose of the contribution. They also allegedly created a cover story.

Wead and the foreign national ultimately attended the candidate's political fundraising event on Sept. 22, 2016. According to the AP, Trump held a fundraiser in Pittsburgh on that day.

After the event, Benton told a consultant working for political action committees that he already sent the agreed-upon amount of money for the event. According to the DOJ, however, he was delayed in sending the money.

Benton eventually filled out a contributor form, which said he was the contributor, and used his own credit card to pay $25,000, according to the DOJ.

He allegedly held on to the remaining $75,000 of the foreign national's contribution.

Updated at 10:34 a.m.

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