The Department Justice is charging the current head of Sen. Rand Paul's political action committee and two others for falsifying records and campaign reports, as well as conspiracy, for allegedly paying for an Iowa state senator's supporting during Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign.
The indictment, which was unsealed Wednesday, alleges that Jesse Benton, John Tate, and Dimitrios Kesari concealed monthly payments that totaled over $70,000 to Iowa State Senator Kent Sorenson in order to buy his support away from Ron Paul's opponent, former Rep. Michele Bachmann.
"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."
The indictment alleges that Benton, who managed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's re-election last year and now heads the main pro-Rand Paul super PAC America's Liberty PAC, and Tate, who is the president of Campaign for Liberty and who founded the super PAC, were central to the effort to bribe Sorenson for his endorsement.
In a statement, Ron Paul said he was "extremely disappointed in the government's decision" and called into question the timing of the indictment.
"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," Paul said in a statement.
According to the indictment, Benton allegedly set the plan in motion by emailing Kent Sorenson and a representative and offering to continue to pay the equivalent of Sorenson's salary from the Bachmann campaign if he endorsed Paul instead of Bachmann in December 2011. Kesari then corresponded with Sorenson finalizing the deal. Benton, Tate, and Kesari allegedly worked together to arrange the payments to Sorenson and to disguise them in FEC reports.
According to the indictment, the three Ron Paul 2012 staffers concealed the payments as campaign-related audio-visual expenditures which were paid to a film production company and then transmitted to a second company Sorenson controlled.
Benton also allegedly lied to the FBI last year, telling them that the campaign had not been paying Sorenson, according to the indictment. In a proffer session with the FBI, Benton told them "I am not splitting hairs: Sorenson was not getting paid."
The defendants are also alleged to have arranged for Sorenson to deny publicly that he was paid for his endorsement, telling him that the campaign's FEC filing would conceal payments to him.
The charges don't directly touch Rand Paul's presidential campaign, but Tate and Benton are considered important allies.
"Violating campaign finance laws by concealing payments to an elected official undermines our electoral system and deceives the public," FBI Special Agent in Charge David LeValley said in a statement. "The FBI will aggressively investigate those who corrupt the integrity of our democratic process."
Kesari, who is also charged with obstruction of justice, appeared in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa Wednesday. Benton and Tate are scheduled to appear on Thursday, Sept. 3.
Benton's lawyer Roscoe Howard said in a statement on Wednesday that they believe the charges are politically motivated.
"We are deeply disappointed to learn of today's indictment by the Department of Justice," Howard said in the statement. "Jesse Benton, a prominent conservative Republican, has cooperated with the government during its multi-year investigation. 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. 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."