Two top aides to Ron Paul's 2012 presidential bid were sentenced Tuesday to probation and home confinement rather than prison for their roles in a scheme to cover up campaign payments to a former Iowa state senator who agreed to endorse their boss.
Although prosecutors were seeking more than two years in federal prison, campaign chairman Jesse Benton and manager John Tate were instead sentenced to two years' probation and six months of home confinement, along with community service and a $10,000 fine.
They were accused of conspiring to cause false campaign contribution reports to be filed with the Federal Election Commission. Judge John Jarvey called the crimes serious and said the defendants took advantage of the system designed to ensure transparency in how campaigns are financed.
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"There's nothing like prison time to deter white collar activity," Jarvey said at Benton's sentencing, before announcing that he thought the lesser punishment was sufficient.
Prior to the sentencing announcement, Benton told the judge he had endured years of sleepless nights and public humiliation. He said his career is ruined and that he was forced to place his home on the market after going into debt.
"A steep price has been paid," he said.
Tate asked the judge for similar mercy during his sentencing hearing. Benton and Tate declined comment as they left the courthouse.
Paul's deputy campaign manager Dimitri Kesari, who also was convicted, was scheduled to be sentenced on Wednesdsay.
The men have argued they broke no laws when they paid a video production company, which passed on $73,000 to former state Sen. Kent Sorenson. He dropped support for Michele Bachmann and endorsed Paul six days before the 2012 Iowa caucuses.
Prosecutors said it is illegal to cause a campaign to file inaccurate spending documents.
Federal prosecutor Richard Pilger said voters have already lost confidence in the political system believing it's rigged and this case is an example of why they feel that way. The men, he said, took advantage of the system designed to ensure transparency in how campaigns are financed.
The men said they were targeted because of their conservative politics and argued campaigns typically don't identify payments to subcontractors of vendors.
They are expected to appeal their convictions to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If the judges rule against the men, they may choose to seek further review of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The three men faced up to 35 years in prison had the judge handed down maximums to be served consecutively.
Benton, 38, of Louisville, Kentucky, is married to Ron Paul's granddaughter, Valori Pyeatt. He also had managed the successful 2010 U.S. Senate campaign for Paul's son, Rand Paul, in Kentucky and served as campaign manager for Sen. Mitch McConnell's 2014 re-election, but resigned that summer as the investigation intensified in Iowa.
Speaking before the men were sentenced, an Iowa political consultant said the case is a stark reminder to anyone in the early presidential contest states including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that they'll be intensely watched and they should follow the rules carefully.
"What you might get away with doing in a local state legislative campaigns can get you in really deep serious trouble on a presidential campaign if it's exposed," said Craig Robinson, who served on Steve Forbes' presidential campaign in 2000, was state GOP director in 2008 and is publisher of the conservative "The Iowa Republican" blog.