Once-Pardoned GOP Operative Charged With Funneling Russian Cash Into Trump ’16 Campaign

TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump speaks during a Cabinet Meeting at the White House on October 21, 2019 in Washington,DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
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September 21, 2021 12:29 p.m.

Two Republican operatives were charged this month with a scheme to funnel money from a Russian businessman into former President Trump’s 2016 campaign, a document unsealed on Monday reveals.

D.C. federal prosecutors allege that Jesse Benton, who was campaign manager for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)’s 2014 re-election run, conspired on the scheme with Doug Wead, a conservative author who once co-wrote a book with former President George H.W. Bush and who helps manage a multi-level marketing firm in Russia.

The 19-page indictment was filed nearly five years after some of the conduct alleged in the document. The pair are charged with six counts related to the allegations, including conspiracy, false record-keeping, making political contributions by a foreign national, and acting as an illegal straw donor.

The charging document reveals an alleged scheme that, if uncovered in fall 2016 or for the following two years, would likely have shocked the political world, if only because it accused two Republican political operatives of funneling money from a Russian businessman into Trump’s presidential campaign, just as the country was focused on Russian ties to the former president.

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Prosecutors say in the indictment that Benton and Wead “concealed” the alleged scheme from Trump, which involved taking $100,000 from an unnamed Russian businessman in exchange for a photo op with Trump himself.

The photo op, prosecutors say, took place in Philadelphia on Sept 22, 2016.

But Benton and Wead allegedly only siphoned off $25,000 of the Russian’s money into an unnamed political committee. Federal elections records show an Oct. 27, 2016 contribution to Trump Victory by “Jesse Bentor,” a misspelling referenced in the indictment.

Benton allegedly emailed a contact at the committee about the photo op, saying that he has “a friend who spends most of his time in the Caribbean (must be nice right?), who has caught the [Trump] bug in a big way.”

“[H]e wants to fly in for an event, hopefully near NY or DC, where he can attend a funder and get a photo,” the email, quoted by prosecutors in the indictment, reads.

Benton and Wead were presented with three options for a Trump meeting: one cost $100,000, another cost $50,000, and another cost $25,000.

The pair of GOP operatives allegedly chose the $25,000 option, before creating an invoice for $100,000 in “consulting services” that they sent to the Russian businessman.

The full $100,000 was wired from Vienna, Austria on Sept. 21, and the photo op with Trump took place the next day. Trump was campaigning in Philadelphia, visiting a beloved local cheesesteak spot.

Prosecutors say that Trump fundraisers had to spend the next month haranguing Benton to get him and Wead to pay up for the $25,000 photo op. Benton eventually charged the $25,000 to his credit card, before, in the indictment’s words, “retain[ing]” the remaining $75,000.

This isn’t Benton’s first run-in with the law. An experienced Republican operative in Kentucky, Benton has spent years in the orbit of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and his father. Benton is married to Ron Paul’s granddaughter.

Benton was forced to resign from managing McConnell’s re-election campaign in 2014 over allegations around a pay-for-votes scam in 2012 in Iowa. Rand Paul then hired him, before Benton was indicted the next year on charges relating to the Iowa scandal.

The Kentucky operative allegedly worked on the Russian straw donor scheme as he faced sentencing for the Iowa bribery scandal.

President Trump pardoned Benton for those crimes in December 2020.

Wead, who is listed as a partner with Russian multi-level marketing firm Life Is Good, declined to comment to TPM. He has hired two attorneys who have also worked for Trump, Jane Raskin and Jay Sekulow.

“Doug Wead is a respected author and supporter of charitable causes,” Raskin wrote in a statement to TPM. “He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and will continue to respond appropriately in court.”

The 75-year old Florida resident revealed in 2005 that he had secretly taped George W. Bush in the late 1990s and later used those recordings in a book about the then-president. He also claimed in 2019 to have been offered unfettered access to former president Trump for a book project.

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