Six prominent Republicans charged with crimes in recent weeks


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Kentucky swamp

A District Columbia federal grand jury indicted two long-time Republican aides with soliciting and hiding an illegal contribution to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Jesse Benton, 43, and Douglas Wead, 75, are charged with six felony charges including facilitating a campaign contribution by a foreign national, acting as a straw donor, and causing the filing of false campaign finance reports. In return for $75,000, Benton and Wead allegedly arranged for Roman Vasilenko—a Russian reserve naval officer with potential intelligence ties—to make a $25,000 donation to Trump’s campaign. The donation allowed Vasilenko to attend a fundraising event and have his picture taken with Trump.

Wead and Foreign National 1 [Vasilenko] attended the political fundraising event for Political Candidate 1 [Trump] on Sept. 22, 2016. Foreign National 2, who worked as a Russian/English translator for Wead, also attended. All three individuals had photographs taken at the event with Political Candidate 1. Benton ultimately filled out a contributor form, indicated that he was the contributor, and used a personal credit card to make a $25,000 contribution. Benton retained the remaining $75,000 of Foreign National 1’s money.

If convicted, Benton and Wead face a range of maximum penalties from five to 20 years in prison, per count.

Doug Wead served as special assistant to President George H. W. Bush and was close with George W. Bush. Jesse Benton worked as a campaign manager for Ron Paul (former Republican Texas Representative), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY). In 2015, he was indicted by a grand jury for using Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign money to bribe an Iowa state senator to endorse the congressman for president. Trump granted Benton a pardon during his last month in office.

Minnesota child sex trafficking

A federal grand jury indicted a prominent Minnesota Republican operative in August on child sex trafficking charges. Anton Lazzaro, 30, allegedly gave girls between the ages of 15- and 17-years old cash and gifts in exchange for sex, luring them with the help of Gisela Castro Medina, a 19-year old female university student. Lazarro was charged with five counts of sex trafficking of minors, one count of attempted sex trafficking of a minor, one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of minors, and three counts of obstruction. His request for bail was denied.

Brandon Brugger, a Minneapolis police officer who serves on a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension task force, testified that the investigation began with a tip from a teenage girl and her family… U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino said Lazzaro had tried to get one of his alleged victims to sign a non-disparagement agreement in exchange for $1,000 on the day the victim and their family went to the police.

The victim, a 16-year old minor, sued Lazarro seeking unspecified damages. According to her account (PDF), “Lazzaro agreed to a criminal sex trafficking enterprise of minor children, including Minor Doe, through the use of coercion and threats to their physical and social wellbeing… As part of the attempted negotiation to enter into the nondisclosure agreement, Lazzaro, through his attorneys, threatened Minor Doe and her family with specious legal actions, including defamation for admittedly true statements. Lazzaro attempted to coerce Minor Doe and her family into silence, which would allow Lazzaro to continue his criminal enterprise and avoid exposure of his criminal enterprise.”

Following the indictment, Minnesota Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan—a close associate of Lazarro—resigned from her post. She is also accused of creating a toxic work environment and hiding sexual harassment allegations.

Pennsylvania sexual assault

A Republican prosecutor in Pennsylvania was arrested and charged with allegedly raping a woman he knew professionally last month. Somerset County District Attorney Jeffrey Lynn Thomas, 36, faces rape, indecent assault, simple assault, strangulation, and criminal trespass charges after an investigation by the Pennsylvania State Police.

The criminal complaint’s police affidavit said the woman told investigators that Thomas had repeatedly contacted her for several years to seek a sexual relationship and would “routinely” drive around her house.

At about 11 p.m. Saturday, he sent her an Snapchat message saying he would be at her home in minutes, to which she responded he was not welcome and to stay away. Shortly afterward, he walked uninvited into her home with several beer cans and handed her one, police said.

She repeatedly told him to leave and slapped him, police said. He then struck her face, causing her nose to bleed, then pulled down her top and undressed himself, according to the affidavit.

“During the assault, Thomas grabbed her by the neck making it hard to breath(e),” investigators alleged.

When she demanded he leave, he grabbed her by the hair and asked if she planned to contact police. He left when she said she would not, police said.

Reminder: Earlier this year, a different Pennsylvania prosecutor—Bradford County District Attorney Chad Michael Salsman—pleaded guilty to felony promoting prostitution, misdemeanor intimidation, and misdemeanor obstruction of justice. He is in prison for at least 1.5 years and up to 5 years.

Idaho sexual assault

Former Idaho state House Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger (R) was released from jail last week, just hours after being booked on felony charges of rape and forcible sexual penetration. Von Ehlinger resigned after an ethics committee heard evidence that he allegedly raped a 19-year-old staffer and sexually harassed numerous others. He was arrested in Georgia, though his attorney claims von Ehlinger was not attempting to evade the warrant.

A House staffer testified Wednesday von Ehlinger asked her on a date in January, despite taking two rounds of respectful workplace training. A lobbyist went to House Caucus Chair Megan Blanksma (R-Hammett) earlier this year, telling her she felt uncomfortable around von Ehlinger after two encounters with him.

[Rep. Brent] Crane said the committee also learned for the first time Wednesday that a brief relationship with a security guard at the capitol was sexual. When asked if the sex was consensual, the woman testified “uncomfortably, I guess.”

Crane said the similarities between that encounter and the alleged rape “were almost identical.”

Fundraising off prosecution

U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) sparked rumors that he is under FBI investigation related to illegal foreign campaign donations after he opened a legal defense fund on Aug. 27. Earlier this year, the DOJ reached a settlement with Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury for facilitating illegal contributions to political campaigns of four U.S. representatives, including Fortenberry. The fundraising request was online until media took notice:

On a fundraising page for a new legal expense fund — which was later taken off-line — Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) wrote: “[President] Biden’s FBI is using its unlimited power to prosecute me on a bogus charge.”

Neither Fortenberry nor the FBI responded immediately to requests for comments, but a Fortenberry spokesperson later said the congressman “never saw or approved that language.”

…Fortenberry’s present-tense appeal was made after his campaign committee paid a new law firm over the summer, according to Federal Election Commission records….Until Axios posted a story Monday morning, Fortenberry’s legal expense fund was soliciting contributions of up to $5,000 per donor per year.