DES MOINES, Iowa – An aide to Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign was convicted Thursday of one of five charges he faced related to secret payments to an Iowa lawmaker, and jurors acquitted a second aide of making false statements to the FBI.
The federal jury found Dimitri Kesari guilty of causing the campaign to file false records concerning the payments to former Iowa Sen. Kent Sorenson. He was acquitted of an obstruction of justice charge, and jurors said they could not reach a verdict on counts alleging conspiracy, causing false campaign expenditure reports and a scheme to falsify statements.
Co-defendant Jesse Benton was acquitted of the false statements to the FBI charge, the only one he faced at trial. Benton was the former campaign chairman during the former Texas Republican congressman's run for president and Kesari was a deputy campaign manager.
During the weeklong trial, prosecutors presented emails and other documents they say showed the men knowingly hid payments to Sorenson between 2011 and 2012, at the height of Paul's campaign for the presidency. Prosecutors contended both men wanted Sorenson to jump from the Michele Bachmann campaign to the Paul campaign. He ended up doing so just days before the January 2012 Iowa caucuses, where Paul finished third behind former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and the eventual Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
The emails submitted as evidence included communication between Benton and Kesari that prosecutors said indicated both men knew they were keeping payments to Sorenson under wraps from the public, Paul's campaign and the Federal Election Commission.
Kesari hid the payments to Sorenson, which totaled $73,000 over several months, through invoices for production services from a film company, according to emails presented by attorneys for the Justice Department. The emails presented at trial came from Kesari's personal computer, the Paul campaign and Benton's personal email.
Separate defense teams for the men challenged the authenticity of the emails and questioned the credibility of Sorenson, who entered a plea deal last year with the government on charges of obstruction of justice and causing a campaign to falsely report expenditures. Sorenson testified earlier in the trial.
Roscoe Howard, an attorney for Benton, described Sorenson as a liar who was being pressured by the government to testify as he awaits sentencing.
"He needs to tell them what they want to hear," Howard said during closing arguments Tuesday about Sorenson's motivations for testifying against Benton and Kesari.
Jesse Binnall, an attorney representing Kesari, said his client worked on the political side of the campaign and had nothing to do with federal election filings. He insisted Kesari did not know he was doing anything wrong.
"Ignorance of the law is an absolute excuse," he said during his closing arguments.
Richard Pilger, a DOJ attorney, pushed aside claims by defense attorneys that Benton was a busy person who received hundreds of emails a day while on a campaign trail that took him to dozens of states in a short period. He pointed to a May 2012 email between Kesari and Benton that showed an agreement between the men to pay Sorenson a final time. The email includes a brief passage from Benton: "Yes -- last time."
"Last time tells you he knew about the other times," Pilger said.
The trial included an appearance from Paul, who testified briefly in the courtroom one day after the trial started. He said he didn't know anything about alleged secret payments to Sorenson.
Paul, whose granddaughter is married to Benton, said he was required to testify for prosecutors. He was openly skeptical of the timing of the charges being announced shortly before his son, Rand Paul, was scheduled to appear in a national debate for the Republican presidential nomination.
"I don't consider that a coincidence," Ron Paul told jurors.
Benton originally faced more charges in the case, but they were dismissed before the trial after defense attorneys argued that they stemmed from FBI interviews last year that could not be used. John Tate, a third Paul aide originally accused of wrongdoing in the alleged cover-up, had his charges dismissed over the same argument. The government may refile the dismissed charges separately in the future.