DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A federal appeals court on Friday upheld the convictions of three top staffers on Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign who were found guilty of arranging for money to be funneled through a vendor to an influential Iowa state senator who dropped his support for another Republican candidate in favor of Paul.
Campaign chairman Jesse Benton, campaign manager John Tate and deputy campaign manager Dimitri Kesari were convicted in 2016 of causing false records to be filed, causing false campaign expenditure reports, engaging in a false statements scheme and conspiring to commit the offenses. Kesari was sentenced to three months in prison while the other two got probation. They have completed their sentences but are seeking to clear the felony convictions from their records.
The three argued that they broke no laws when they paid a video production company, which passed on $73,000 to then-Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson, who withdrew his support from Michele Bachmann and backed Paul six days before the 2012 Iowa caucuses. Sorenson also was convicted in the scheme and sentenced to 15 months in prison. He was released in April.
Benton, Tate and Kesari contend that campaigns pay vendors who pass money on to subcontractors all the time and there's nothing illegal about it. Prosecutors said it was illegal to cause the campaign to file inaccurate documents to try to hide that Sorensen was paid for a campaign endorsement.
A three-member panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis on Friday upheld the rulings and conclusions of Judge John Jarvey, finding no reversible errors and that there is ample evidence to uphold their convictions.
The men argued that Jarvey erred in denying their motions to dismiss the charges and for a new trial. They also challenged the judge's rulings on jury instructions and certain evidence.
Among the things they challenged was whether prosecutors could apply a federal financial fraud false reporting statute to campaign expenditure reports and whether that violation falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Election Commission.
The appeals court concluded that "the production of false financial records by a political campaign falls within that framework." The judges also concluded that the FEC does have jurisdiction over campaign expenditures and the authority to establish penalties for false reporting.
"I think there's a danger this opinion criminalizes some very normal activity on political campaigns," said Kesari's attorney, Jesse Ryan Binnall. "And now people on campaigns have a very real concern that if for whatever reason somebody in the Department of Justice doesn't like them, that they could pursue criminal charges against them."
Binnall said Kesari is considering whether to appeal Friday's ruling.
"We continue to believe that Mr. Kesari did nothing illegal," he said.
Attorneys for Benton and Tate didn't immediately reply to messages seeking comment.
Sorenson, 46, was convicted of willfully causing false expenditure reports to the FEC and falsifying records in contemplation of or relation to a federal investigation intending to obstruct justice.
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