Feds Just Let Ron Paul’s Old Campaign Slide on Likely Violations

Andrew Burton
Andrew Burton
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More than 10 years ago, Ron Paul’s presidential campaign got caught up in a bribery scandal that netted felony convictions against three senior staffers.

Five years later, the Federal Election Commission unanimously found that former Rep. Ron Paul’s presidential campaign likely broke the law.

But it wasn’t until last week—another five years later—that the FEC finally disclosed its unanimous vote. It took more than 3,700 days after Paul campaign aides paid an Iowa state senator and he dramatically flipped his presidential endorsement for the FEC to make its final decision. And after all the investigations had concluded, after nearly a decade since the 2012 Iowa caucuses and more than nine years since Ron Paul held office, the FEC decided to just let the whole thing slide.

Ex-Ron Paul Staffer Guilty of Corruption

If you were looking for evidence that the FEC is basically incapable of policing its own jurisdiction—campaign finance law—the Ron Paul case is a master class in the government agency’s ineffectiveness.

Where the Justice Department scored four convictions for campaign finance crimes, it took five additional years for the FEC to dismiss the case. That decision, which broke 3-2 along party lines on Jan. 14 this year, allowed the campaign to slip off the hook, even though all commissioners and the agency’s general counsel agreed in 2016 there was significant reason to believe federal violations took place.

The agency only released the full file last week.

Former FEC commissioner Ann Ravel, a Democrat, participated in the 5-0 vote in 2016 that found “reason to believe” the Paul campaign “knowingly and willfully” broke the law. She told The Daily Beast that there had been “really clear violations,” and called the Republican commissioners’ choice to dismiss the charges “absurd” and an “abdication of duty.”

“There are so many great stories about the FEC’s inaction, and this is one of the worst I’ve seen,” Ravel remarked, comparing the ruling to the agency’s recent determination not to go after Trump for the Stormy Daniels hush payments, citing the fact that his lawyer had already paid the price.

“I cannot believe what happened,” said Ravel, who stepped down in 2017. “It’s one of those cases where they just kept building up more and more evidence of illegal activity, really clear violations of the law—including what came out of the courts, where they found several people guilty. This is the very purpose of the commission. I can’t think of anything more basic.”

Ron Paul: The GOP’s Leading Crank

Former FEC general counsel Larry Noble called the case “just one of too many examples” of the agency’s “dysfunctional” enforcement.

“This was a serious knowing and willful violation of the campaign finance laws by a presidential campaign. There were criminal convictions based on these facts and, yet, the FEC decided it wasn’t worth its time to pursue the matter,” Noble told The Daily Beast.

The plot unfolded in late 2011, when Paul, a Republican Representative from Texas, was making his second bid for president.

As the critical Iowa caucus approached, three of Paul’s top staffers arranged a $73,000 payout to then-Iowa state senator Kent Sorenson. In exchange, Sorenson abruptly quit as state chair for former Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s campaign and joined the Paul operation.

A jury later convicted Paul’s campaign manager and grandson-in-law Jesse Benton for his role in the conspiracy, alongside senior aides John Tate and Demetri Kesari, all on campaign finance charges. Only Kesari served prison time; Benton and Tate got probation. In 2014, Sorenson pleaded guilty to falsifying campaign reports and obstructing justice, and was sentenced to 15 months.

In late 2020, Benton and Tate received pardons from outgoing President Donald Trump. Sorenson and Kesari did not.

But the FEC had taken up a parallel investigation, seeking to determine whether the Paul campaign—which served as a vehicle for the payoff—also bore blame. The probe, which began in early 2014, considered two basic questions.

Revenge of Ron Paul's Army

The first centered around whether the campaign knowingly concealed financial transfers to Sorenson by routing them through a third-party vendor. The FEC general counsel concluded it was “clear” that the campaign did so—purposely, too. The FEC cited documentation, the multiple convictions, and Sorenson’s sworn admissions in court.

Observers have noted that this particular concealment scheme echoes the Trump campaign’s use of its own shell company, American Made Media, which obscured hundreds of millions of dollars in 2020 campaign expenses. In that light, Trump’s pardons for Benton and Tate might appear to send a “very specific message” about disclosure laws.

(Less than a year after receiving his pardon, Benton was indicted once again on campaign finance charges, this time for allegedly funneling Russian money to Trump’s 2016 campaign—while he was under indictment in the Paul case.)

The next question the FEC considered was whether the Paul campaign had knowingly accepted an in-kind corporate contribution, which would be illegal. This revolved around a $25,000 check that Kesari’s company, Designer Goldsmiths Inc., gave Sorenson to secure his support for Paul. Again, the general counsel concluded that, yes, it appears that this illegality happened.

When the commissioners met in 2016 to rule on these findings, they voted unanimously to move forward.

In recalling the case, Ravel remarked it was a rarity for the notoriously deadlocked bipartisan commission.

“It was unique to have that kind of consensus. And that may be because it would have been hard for anyone to ignore the level of fact and detail that we had in this case,” she said.

Then the Paul campaign punted. Over the next several years, the FEC granted a series of requests to delay negotiations through the trials, sentencing, and appeals process.

Ron Paul Flunks History

And with the criminal proceedings out of the way, the commission entered conciliation negotiations with the campaign and Designer Goldsmiths. The whole process was dragged out.

“The FEC granted an enormous amount of due process,” Ravel said.

By June 2021, the office of general counsel had soured on the discussions, calling them “not promising” and an “inefficient” use of resources. The OGC also noted one setback “particularly”—that the FEC had lost its quorum in 2019, which impeded enforcement.

In making its recommendation to dismiss the case, the OGC also ticked off a number of outside factors: Kesari, Benton, and Tate had all been convicted for the crime; the Paul campaign committee had shut down; Ron Paul himself had turned 85—having aged 10 years in the meantime.

“The Commission’s Factual and Legal Analyses will stand on the public record as the Commission’s assessment of Respondents’ liability at the reason to believe stage,” the OGC concluded.

When the commission voted to dismiss, the three Republicans edged out a win. In response, the two Democratic commissioners issued a sharp dissent, arguing that the agency had “overwhelming evidence that a presidential campaign committee purchased an endorsement using corporate resources,” and willfully “concealed that purchase.”

As a result, they noted, the Paul campaign “will never be held accountable” for its role in a public bribery scheme—a scheme which the FEC itself once cited as a “clear” violation of the law.

“If you don’t act on something that’s such a clear violation, and so well within the purpose of the law and commission, I don’t know how you can justify any other action, really,” Ravel said.

Noble, the former general counsel, said that while he understood the timing and resource issues, the GOP commissioners “should not have just dropped the case.”

“As the ’22 midterms and ’24 presidential elections approach, the FEC continues to fail the public and send the message that it is unwilling and incapable of enforcing the campaign finance laws,” Noble said.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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