Jesse Benton's Relationship with Ron Paul Has Proven to be Very Profitable
Ron Paul's political career may have ended, but his legacy survives. Devoted followers carry on in his name, and his son, a U.S. senator, is mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential candidate.
And one individual in the Paul orbit has moved into the GOP mainstream after his association with the family. Jesse Benton has been part of Paul's political network since 2007, when he joined the candidate's presidential campaign as a spokesman. Before long, the connection became familial as well: He married Paul's granddaughter, Valori Pyeatt, in 2008.
Over the next few campaign cycles, Benton worked for two of Ron Paul's congressional campaigns, another of his presidential bids, his leadership PAC (Liberty PAC) and Campaign for Liberty, Paul's 501(c)(4) nonprofit. In the middle of all that, he was also the campaign chairman for Rand Paul's successful 2010 Senate race, replacing the previous person in that slot after a flap over remarks the candidate made about the Civil Rights Act.
So it was no small thing when Benton jumped horses last fall, leaving the Paul organizations in order to run Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) 2014 Senate campaign.
Benton leaves behind him a trail of controversy, with Paul's hardest-core tea party and libertarian acolytes freely critiquing how he ran Paul's campaigns. He was accused of not raising sufficient rabble, being overly concerned about positioning himself for his next career move and drawing too much money from the Paul network for himself.
We can't settle most of those questions. But we can make an accounting of how much Benton has earned from all the Paul organizations, now that year-end and other campaign finance and tax reports have been filed. We found that over the last three election cycles, Benton has been paid about $1.1 million by the various Paul entities -- although more than $450,000 of it was described as reimbursement for expenses he incurred, most of them unidentified.
Here's how it breaks out: In the 2008 cycle, he received more than $78,000 in salary and expense reimbursement working for Ron Paul's presidential and congressional campaign committees. Toward the end of that year his wife came on the payroll, too, bringing the total for the pair to more than $86,000.
Benton's compensation increased in 2010. Rand Paul's campaign gave him north of $142,000 for political consulting and salary. He also brought in nearly $22,000 in consulting fees and salary from Liberty PAC, and received nearly $28,000 from Ron Paul's congressional campaign, along with close to $22,000 in reimbursement for mileage and other unidentified expenses. Benton's wife made more than $30,000 working for her dad's campaign, along with another $1,500 in reimbursements.
But Benton's most lucrative cycle was the one that just ended. From January 2011 through the end of 2012 he received more than $682,000 from Ron Paul's presidential and congressional campaign committees and Liberty PAC. In fairness, just $226,000 was described as "salary" or "consulting." Close to $456,000 of it was described as reimbursement.
What accounts for the huge reimbursement figure? "Charter airlines was the big bulk of it," Benton told OpenSecrets.org. "I put charter airlines for the campaign onto my personal AmEx and got reimbursed for it. That practice stopped as soon as we got a proper line of credit."
In addition, Benton's consulting firm was paid another $2,000 from Rand Paul's leadership PAC, Reinventing a New Direction.
And in 2008, 2010 and 2011, Benton brought in a combined $102,000 as a director of Campaign for Liberty. The nonprofit's tax filings for those years show that Benton was putting in 55 hours per week, seemingly a physical impossibility given all his other sources of employment in the Paul network during those years. But John Tate, Campaign for Liberty's president, said that in 2010 and 2011, Benton was on leave of absence for parts of the year; he worked 55 hours during the weeks he was on the payroll. According to Tate, Benton's duties included communications and social media.
Tate said Benton worked for the group in 2009 as well, but the copy viewed by OpenSecrets.org of Campaign for Liberty's tax form covering that year was blank in the section where key employees and their salaries are supposed to be identified.
McConnell's hiring of Benton has been touted by some as a smart move that could help head off any primary challenge from a tea party candidate. Rand Paul, after all, beat McConnell's hand-picked GOP establishment candidate in the race for Kentucky's other Senate seat in 2010. Now Paul and the minority leader are making nice.
Benton hasn't stopped attracting controversy even with his move to a new boss, though it's of a different sort: The Washington's Post Fact Checker last week reported that Benton falsely claimed, in an email to McConnell supporters, that President Obama's proposal for universal background checks on gun sales is "a thinly-veiled national gun registration scheme...to ensure federal government minders gain every bureaucratic tool they need for full-scale confiscation...It is almost hard to believe the sheer breadth and brazenness of this attempt to gut our Constitution."
The truth is, it's almost impossible for the feds to set up any sort of gun registry -- thanks largely to a law that McConnell himself had a lot to do with passing.
The Post gave Benton four Pinnochios, its worst rating.