DES MOINES — Three figures in the "liberty movement" built by former representative Ron Paul of Texas will finally go on trial today, nearly four years after an alleged scheme to bribe an Iowa state senator into switching his presidential campaign endorsement.
According to the federal indictment, which a grand jury handed down shortly before the first 2016 Republican presidential debate, three figures at the heights of Paul's campaign approached then-State Sen. Kent Sorenson about leaving the campaign of then-Rep. Michele Bachmann. One defendant, Jesse Benton, had to step away from the super PAC of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in the wake of the indictment. A second defendant, Dimitri Kesari, is simultaneously a suspect in a 2014 burglary at the home of a deceased Ron Paul campaign worker.
Even that scandal can be traced back to the alleged bribery of Sorenson. In October 2011, according to the indictment, Benton emailed Sorenson with an offer to pay the salary he was making as Bachmann's state campaign chair, if only he switched sides. (In 2012, Benton had been Ron Paul's spokesman, John Tate his campaign manager and Kesari his deputy. Tate, previously charged in the case, got the charges dropped.) The negotiations continued as Bachmann tumbled in the polls and Paul seemed to have a shot at winning the Iowa caucuses. Paul's staffers, who had cut their teeth on a network of grass-roots groups, listened as one of them started to facilitate a deal that would give Sorenson a salary and seed his new PAC, the Iowa Conservatives Fund.
"KS needs to match his current salary of $8,000 a month...[and] would need a donation of $100,000 into this PAC prior to this action," wrote Aaron Dorr, executive director of Iowa Gun Owners, in an Oct. 29, 2011, memo. "This PAC will boost the KS name about 5x as big as it is today. Between this PAC, Iowa Gun Owners, and Iowa Pro-Life Action, we will continue to build a major state-based movement that will involve far more people into a future Rand Paul presidential run."
That memo was leaked by Dennis Fusaro, a Paul strategist who left the operation on bad terms and began leaking documents and conversations to the media in 2013. (Fusaro is no longer doing interviews.) Prosecutors in Iowa and Washington followed up, and after Sorenson resigned they found more evidence that the Paul campaign bought his endorsement. On Dec. 26, Sorenson met Kesari at a steakhouse, where the operative produced a $25,000 check. The plan, according to prosecutors, had been to give the money to Sorenson's wife and keep it off the books for as long as possible. In a Dec. 29 e-mail, Kesari told Benton and Tate that the payment was "holding til after the filing," i.e. after it would show up in campaign finance reports. In another e-mail, Tate's idea of how to treat the Sorenson payment was to temporarily "wipe it off the books."
At the time, Bachmann insisted that Sorenson had been bribed, and Ron Paul's campaign denied it. Both have since retired from Congress; Bachmann will not comment on the trial, while Paul has said nothing since an August statement that "the timing of this indictment is highly suspicious." Lawyers for the defendants have also remained hush, citing a gag order, but some pre-trial developments offered hints about their possible strategy. A week after the initial indictment, the government asked for some trial documents to be withheld from the defendants out of fear that they would be leaked.
"While the defendants were negotiating for the endorsement of Senator Sorenson in the fall of 2011, the defendants made plans to leak their communications with the Sorenson camp about the endorsement if their efforts to obtain Sorenson’s endorsement were unsuccessful," wrote federal prosecutors. "Those communications show that the defendants, who are career political operatives, were willing to leak sensitive documents regarding Sorenson to the press to suit their own ends."
Benton's attorney, Roscoe Howard, said at the time that the "leak" threat was an "emotional response," never acted upon. Similarly, at the end of last week, the Paul teams' lawyers succeeded in getting four of the six charges against them dropped, arguing that they were based on statements that Benton et al made while cooperating with Sorenson's corruption investigation. In this telling, Paul's allies were exploited by a bribe-demanding politician, and have tried to come clean.
Rand Paul, who is campaigning throughout Iowa this week, also called the initial timing of the indictment suspicious. Otherwise, he has described the case as a ball of a confusion that has nothing to do with his own race. Benton and Tate have stepped away from his super PAC, and Paul did not employ Dimitri Kesari in his 2016 campaign or his 2010 Senate bid.
"I think we have proceedings all the time about compliance with complicated campaign financial regulations," Paul told The Washington Post before heading to Iowa. "It's difficult for someone who understands even a little bit of this to understand some of these finance things. I don't think it'll detract from our message."