20, 2016, file photo, Jesse Benton arrives for his sentencing hearing in federal court in Des Moines, Iowa.
David Pete | AP
A Republican political activist and former campaign aide was convicted in federal court this week of funneling $25,000 from a Russian businessman to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Jesse Benton was found guilty Thursday of six counts that included soliciting an illegal foreign contribution, attempting to cover it up and providing false information about the source of funds.
The donation money originally came from Roman Vasilenko, a former Russian Navy officer turned multi-level marketer and CEO of Life is Good International Business Academy.
According to prosecutors, Vasilenko paid the Benton Consulting Firm $100,000 to include him in a political event to pose for a photo with then-candidate Trump in the fall of 2016.
Benton has worked on several campaigns, including being a strategist for the Great America PAC, the Super Pac that supported Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, as well as the campaigns of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Rand Paul, both R-Ky, and Rep. Ron Paul , R TX.
Benton then bought a $25,000 ticket to Trump’s event in Philadelphia on Sept. 22 and “gave” the ticket to Vasilenko, who posted his photo with Trump on his Instagram page under the heading “Two Presidents.”
When Benton paid the Trump Victory Committee for the ticket, he used his credit card, and got the remaining $75,000 from Vasilenko.
Benton was originally on trial with the late Republican critic Roy Douglas “Doug” Wade, who died in late 2021.
Thursday’s conviction marks the second time Benton has been found guilty of the campaign finance offense.
In 2016, a jury convicted Benton and two co-defendants of conspiring to bribe an Iowa senator to endorse then-Rep. Ron Paul at the 2012 Iowa Republican Convention.
Senator Kent Sorenson later admitted to accepting more than $70,000 in bribes to divert his support from the then Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, to Ron Paul, on whose campaign Benton also worked. Sorenson was sentenced to more than a year in prison for the crime.
Benton received six months of home confinement and two years of probation. Notably, Benton’s ruling in the Ron Paul case was delivered on September 20, 2016, just two days before the September 22 event that Benton had arranged for Vasilenko to attend with then-candidate Trump.
In late 2020, Trump pardoned Benton for the 2016 conviction, a move championed by Senator Rand Paul.
Benton is not the only person convicted of helping foreign nationals contribute to Trump’s political career.
In 2018, another Republican strategist, Sam Patten, admitted to helping a pro-Russian member of the Ukrainian Parliament make a donation to Trump’s inaugural committee. Like campaigns, inaugural committees are prohibited from accepting donations from foreigners.
One of the main questions posed in Benton’s latest trial was whether Vasilenko’s motive for a photo with Trump was political in nature, or whether he was just looking for a photo with a famous person.
Evidence was presented at trial that Wade and Vasilenko discussed trying to get a photo with Oprah Winfrey or Michelle Obama, but settled on Trump.
“If Oprah had been available, we wouldn’t even be here,” defense attorney Brian Stollars reportedly said in his closing argument.