Jesse Benton found guilty of directing Russian Roman Vasilenko’s money to Trump

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A Republican political strategist has been found guilty of illegally helping a Russian businessman contribute to Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016.

Jesse Benton, 44, was pardoned by Trump in 2020 for another campaign finance crime, months before being charged again with six counts related to facilitating an illegal foreign campaign donation. He was found guilty on Thursday on all six counts.

Elections “reflect the values, priorities, and beliefs of American citizens,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Parikh said in her closing argument this week. “Jesse Benton, by his actions, undermined these principles.”

Evidence at trial showed that Benton purchased a $25,000 ticket to a Republican National Committee (RNC) event in September 2016 on behalf of Roman Vasilenko, a Russian naval officer turned multilevel distributor. (Vasilenko is currently under investigation in Russia for running a pyramid scheme, according to the Kommersant newspaper; he could not be reached for comment.) The donation allowed Vasilenko to take a photo with Trump and to enter into a “business roundtable” with the future president.

Vasilenko came into contact with Benton through Doug Wead, an evangelical Bush family ally who was also involved in multilevel marketing. Vasilenko sent $100,000 to Benton, who worked for a pro-Trump super PAC at the time, supposedly for consulting services. Benton then donated $25,000 to the RNC via credit card.

Witnesses from the RNC and the company hired to organize the event said they were not told Vasilenko was a Russian citizen. Benton said in an email to his RNC contact that Vasilenko was “a friend who spends most of his time in the Caribbean”; he described Vasilenko’s translator as “a body girl”. In reality, according to testimony, Benton and Vasilenko had never met.

Benton argued he took the advice of his former attorney, David Warrington, who also represented Trump. Warrington testified that Benton reached out at the time to ask if he could give a ticket to a political fundraiser to a Russian citizen. Warrington said he told Benton “there is no prohibition for a Russian citizen to receive a ticket for an event” and that “you can give anyone your ticket that you bought for a fundraiser. funds”.

Prosecutors said Benton did not tell Warrington he was being reimbursed by the Russian citizen for the donation. Benton asked for advice only “to cover his tracks,” Parikh said.

Benton also claimed he won the $100,000 as a DC tour guide for Vasilenko, whose interest was not politics but self-promotion.

Wead— who died at 75 last December after being charged with Benton – had previously discussed with Vasilenko the possibility of a photograph with Oprah, Michelle Obama or Steven Seagal before suggesting Trump.

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

Vasilenko posted the photo of himself with Trump on Instagram with a banner that read “Two Presidents” and advertised his own business. He said Benton “delivered what he was asked to do” which was “put him in a picture with a celebrity” so Vasilenko “could brag on Instagram”. For Vasilenko, he said, Trump was not a politician but “the guy who was in ‘The Apprentice'”.

Stolarz pointed out that there was no evidence Vasilenko ever engaged with Trump outside of the one-time event, and no evidence the RNC ever returned the donation.

“He wants to be an influencer,” Stolarz said. “It’s just shameless self-promotion from a guy who can afford to take this picture.”

But prosecutors said once he was offered, Vasilenko saw the value of an introduction to Trump. He was a candidate for Russian parliament at the time, according to the Justice Department, and after Trump was elected he was a guest on Russian television.

“He’s sophisticated,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Wasserman told jurors. “He had access to someone he helped elect.”

Benton’s defense downplayed the $25,000 as “nothing” in an election that cost billions.

“This is not some nefarious scheme to embezzle millions of dollars from Russia,” he said.

Prosecutors argued that every dollar counted in a race where Democrat Hillary Clinton was far ahead in fundraising, and that Benton knew Trump needed the money at the time.

Stolarz said Benton was also paid to host a charity dinner Vasilenko attended on his trip to the United States, which prosecutors said was a cheap meal at a chain restaurant.

“They can try to play it down, but Maggiano’s is good,” Stolarz said.

Benton began his career on the libertarian fringe of the GOP as an aide to former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), whose granddaughter is Benton’s wife. He gained mainstream credibility by helping Paul’s son, Rand Paul (R-Ky.), win a Senate seat in 2010 and was hired by the Minority Leader’s 2014 re-election campaign in Senate, Mitch McConnell.

But Benton resigned before this election amid an investigation into whether an Iowa state senator was bribed to support Ron Paul in the 2012 presidential race. Benton was convicted in May 2016 of conspiracy and involvement in filing false campaign finance reports – shortly before the new scheme began.

“He knew the law,” Wasserman said. “He knew the rules.

Robyn Dixon contributed to this report.


Washington

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