A Russian businessman who once led the financial services of a military unit at the Leningrad Naval base funneled thousands of dollars to a Trump Super PAC and other Republican entities in 2016, Forensic News can reveal.
On Monday, the Department of Justice indicted two veteran GOP operatives, Doug Wead and Jesse Benton, for disguising the true source of funds of donations made in 2016. Now, Forensic News can report that the unnamed “Foreign National 1” in the indictment is Roman Vasilenko, a reserve naval officer whose resume, according to analysts, appears suspicious and suggests a relationship with Russian intelligence.
Forensic News believes in transparency in the journalism process. Go behind-the-scenes to see how this story was created with the Stone video bibliography:
The indictment of Benton and Wead details their months-long conspiracy to have Benton act as a “straw donor” for Vasilenko, who secured photographs with then-candidate Trump due to his covert donations.
Wead, 75, and Benton, 43, are well known in Republican political circles. Wead served as an advisor to numerous GOP candidates including George H.W. Bush, and most recently Rand Paul. Like Wead, Benton has worked with Rand and Ron Paul and acted as Mitch McConnell’s 2014 campaign manager.
According to the DOJ, Wead told “Foreign National 1” that he could meet Trump in exchange for a payment. In the ensuing weeks, Wead and the unnamed foreign national met Trump and took photographs with him at a campaign fundraiser before Benton donated $25,000 of Vasilenko’s money to a Trump Super PAC.
Forensic News identified Vasilenko as “Foreign National 1” after finding mention of Wead on a website for a Russian company called Life is Good, owned by Vasilenko. Research into Vasilenko in Russian media sources revealed the picture of Vasilenko posing with Trump, confirming his role in the indictment.
There is no allegation of wrongdoing on behalf of Vasilenko, Trump, or any other individuals or entities besides Wead and Benton.
In late August 2016, Vasilenko was interviewed by Vladimir Soloviev, a man widely recognized as one of the Kremlin’s top propagandists. He is known for his nightly TV news show in Russia where he spews pro-Kremlin talking points and makes outlandish statements.
The two discussed business, leadership, and their fondness for the Russian military, among other subjects.
Following the sit-down, Vasilenko’s company signed a partnership agreement with Soloviev, demonstrating their expectation of continued cooperation.
Just two weeks after the agreement between the Kremlin mouthpiece Soloviev and Vasilenko, Wead writes in an email to the Republican National Committee (RNC),
“I have a friend who spends most of his time in the Caribbean (must be nice right?), who has caught the [Trump] bug in a big way. [H]e wants to fly in for an event, hopefully near NY or DC, where he can attend a funder (sic.) and get a photo. The photo is important to him. Is there anyway (sic.) you might share a list of events where a photo might be possible? Ideally, he’d like to come between 9/21 and 9/27 if at all possible.” (emphasis added).
Eight days after that email, Vasilenko wired $100,000 to a company controlled by Benton, according to the indictment. Soon thereafter, Vasilenko flew to the United States and attended the Trump fundraising event with Wead and Foreign National 2, who is listed in the indictment as the interpreter.
Some of the trip was documented and video later surfaced showing Vasilenko in Washington D.C. driving with Wead and at the Trump fundraiser, among other scenes.
After delaying payment for weeks, Benton sent $25,000 of Vasilenko’s money to one of Trump’s Super PACs, Trump Victory. Later, Trump Victory transferred most of the funds to the RNC. Prosecutors said that Benton kept the remaining $75,000 of Vasilenko’s cash.
Vasilenko and the Interpreter
While some of his life story, including his military background, is told on his personal website and confirmed in some Russian media reporting, much about Roman Vasilenko remains a mystery. From 1990-1998, he was the head of a military unit located at the Leningrad Naval Base, but in the following 15 years, the only activities he lists are his education and “work in various organizations” that he declines to name.
According to a Russian analyst and a former intelligence official in Washington D.C. who spoke on the condition of anonymity to Forensic News, the military service combined with the opaque descriptions of his activities in the late 1990s and 2000s make Vasilenko’s resume resemble that of an intelligence asset.
“Taking everything into account, the military background, the vague business connections, the lack of insight into his dealings, and his access to people like Soloviev, I would be shocked if he wasn’t at least tangentially operating with the Russian intelligence services,” the former intelligence official said.
In addition to Vasilenko, Forensic News has identified “Foreign National 2” as Olga Kovalova, a Ukrainian-born translator who has appeared at events with both Wead and Vasilenko. Kovalova, who is described by Benton as Vasilenko’s “body gal” in an email to an RNC consultant, also snapped a photo with then-candidate Trump.
Kovalova’s relationship with Wead appears to date back more than a decade, as evidenced by a 2009 YouTube video of Kovalova translating for the American political consultant. Wead was also listed on Kovalova’s translation services website, which has since been deleted.
Like Vasilenko, Kovalova is not charged with any wrongdoing.
Just weeks before his term expired, then-President Trump issued a flurry of pardons, including one to Benton who had previously been indicted in a different campaign finance straw donor scheme. In that case, Benton disguised $70,000 in payment to an Iowa state senator to switch his vote to Ron Paul in the 2012 election and was subsequently convicted of four counts including conspiracy and causing false campaign expenditure reports, two of the same crimes he is accused of in the case of Vasilenko.
In a press release, the Trump White House said that the pardon was supported by Senator Rand Paul and Lee Goodman, former chair of the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
Vasilenko, Wead, and Benton did not respond to requests for comment. Shortly after the indictment was unsealed, Benton deleted his Twitter account.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that Vasilenko donated $50,000 through Benton. That number was incorrect. Vasilenko sent Benton $100,000 but Benton only donated $25,000 of that to the Trump Super PAC, Trump Victory.