The chairman of Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign is refusing to answer questions about allegations the campaign paid for endorsements before the Iowa caucuses last year. Jesse Benton, a longtime Paul aide who is now campaign manager for Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, has not replied to requests for comment after an audio recording surfaced whereby an Iowa state senator, Kent Sorenson, admitted he had received a $30,000 check from high-level Paul campaign official, accepting the money in exchange for switching his support from Michele Bachmann to Ron Paul. Sorenson also said that Benton was aware of the transaction.
The details of the story come from the Iowa Republican, which obtained a recording of a phone conversation between Dennis Fusaro, a former Ron Paul aide and supporter, and Sorenson days after Sorenson says he received the check:
The recording features Sorenson explaining how the Ron Paul campaign’s Deputy National Campaign Manager, Demitri Kesari, met with Sorenson and his wife at a restaurant where, Sorenson says, his wife was presented and accepted a check while he was in the bathroom.
Fusaro asks Sorenson for the name of the jewelry store that Kesari owns with his wife, Jolanda Pali Kesari. Sorenson says, “I honest to God don’t know. I’ll have to look at the check and tell you. I haven’t even seen it.” That confession indicates that the check given to the Sorensons was from the jewelry store account. The Kesari’s store is called Designer Goldsmiths and is located in Leesburg, Virginia. This account of events in which Sorenson appears to be denying initial knowledge of the payment is at odds with emails previously published by TheIowaRepublican.com, which showed that Sorenson was aware of the payments requested on his behalf from the Paul campaign. However, Sorenson does unambiguously confirm that he had possession of a check from a Ron Paul operative.
Sorenson also confirms that Paul’s National Campaign Chairman, Jesse Benton, was aware of Kesari’s actions. After asking Fusaro if he thought the key players inside the upper echelons of the Ron Paul campaign knew of Kesari’s actions, Fusaro stated that he was confident that Benton knew. Sorenson quickly responds by saying, “Oh, I know Jesse knows. I know Jesse knows.”
An Iowa state ethics committee is currently investigating Sorenson. Republican governor Terry Branstad has said he supports the investigation but declined to comment on whether Sorenson should resign his senate seat.
As revealed last week, Fusaro also recorded a phone conversation with Benton in January in which he asks Benton, now with the McConnell campaign, about the payment. Benton told Fusaro, “I don’t know anything about that.”
“We’re you involved in it?” Fusaro asked.
“Uh, no,” Benton replied.
THE WEEKLY STANDARD contacted the McConnell campaign to ask about the allegations that Benton knew about the under-the-table payment. Did Benton, as Sorenson claims, know about the payment? If not, when did he learn about it? McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore replied via email.
“Our camp is happy to respond to questions involving Sen. McConnell and Kentucky, but we can't respond to races that are not our own,” Moore said. A follow-up email sent to both Moore and Benton himself has not been returned.
In the same January phone conversation with Fusaro, Benton said he was “holding his nose” working for McConnell in anticipation for the potential 2016 presidential campaign of Rand Paul, the other Kentucky senator and son of Ron Paul. The McConnell campaign replied to reports about the conversation last week on Twitter with two photos showingMcConnell and Benton humorously holding their noses.
As well as being a veteran of Paul family campaigns, Benton is married to Ron Paul’s granddaughter.