IOWA CITY (AP) — Iowa State Sen. Kent Sorenson received a $25,000 check from a high-ranking official in Ron Paul's presidential campaign days before ditching Michele Bachmann to back Paul, and eventually got $73,000 in suspicious payments that may be linked to Paul's campaign, an investigator has found.
Sorenson resigned from office Wednesday, after investigator Mark Weinhardt concluded that Sorenson probably broke ethics rules in receiving $7,500 in monthly income from Bachmann's political action committee and presidential campaign in exchange for being Bachmann's state chairman in 2011.
Weinhardt was appointed to investigate an Iowa Senate ethics complaint filed against Sorenson by a former Bachmann aide. Weinhardt's 566-page report also suggests that Sorenson defected from the Minnesota congresswoman's campaign just days before the Iowa caucuses in January 2012, after receiving promises of compensation from Paul's campaign, which raised questions about whether criminal or campaign finance laws were violated.
Sorenson said Wednesday that he had already decided not to run for re-election and that his resignation was best for his family. He said his decision was “absolutely not” an admission of wrongdoing.
“I've spent money fighting this that I shouldn't have,” he said in a telephone interview. “I'm just not going to do that to my family anymore.”
A federal investigation is underway, Sorenson's attorney said Thursday. In Des Moines, Polk County Attorney John Sarcone said Thursday that his office would review the report to determine whether there was a basis to pursue criminal charges.
In response to a subpoena, Sorenson turned over an uncashed $25,000 check that he said his wife received from Dimitri Kesari, who was Paul's deputy national campaign manager. The check, from the checkbook of a Virginia jewelry business owned by Kesari's wife, was dated Dec. 26, 2012, two days before Sorenson joined Paul's campaign.
Paul, then a Texas congressman, received publicity from Sorenson's late endorsement before finishing a close third in the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Kesari gave the check to Sorenson's wife during a dinner meeting while Sorenson was in the restroom, said Sorenson's lawyer, Theodore Sporer. The check was made out to Grassroots Strategy Inc., a firm owned by Sorenson that was the vehicle for his compensation from Bachmann's committees.
Sorenson, elected to the Iowa House in 2008 and the Iowa Senate in 2010 to represent districts south of Des Moines, was sought after by Republican presidential campaigns because he was seen as a popular social conservative who would soon run for higher office. Bachmann consultant Guy Short told campaign aides in 2011 that Sorenson was “the real deal” and should be hired quickly because “people are getting bought off,” emails show.
Sorenson's firm soon started receiving $7,500 monthly from Short's Colorado firm, with the funds coming from Bachmann's PAC and later her campaign, the report said. Sorenson was the first elected state official to endorse Bachmann, and he introduced her at Iowa events.
While working for Bachmann, Sorenson rejected offers of payment from Paul's campaign operatives, Sporer said.
“I don't know if I would call it a bribe. I think they were trying to hire him,” Sporer said. “Obviously they wanted to induce him to come change sides.”
Sorenson told Fox News before the caucuses that Paul's campaign “never offered a nickel” for his switch, denying Bachmann's claim of a payoff.
“With the Kesari check in hand, Sen. Sorenson's statements on national television were simply false,” Weinhardt wrote.
Kesari's wife, Jolanda, who operates Designer Goldsmiths in Leesburg, Va., said Thursday that only her husband could answer questions about the check. He didn't respond to a message seeking comment.
In his report, Weinhardt says Sorenson's business received $73,000 in wire transfers in the following months from ICT Inc. of Hyattsville, Md. The payments suggest that Sorenson received $25,000 upfront and then $8,000 per month for six months, similar to the compensation that Sorenson told colleagues the Paul campaign had offered, the report says.
Weinhardt was unable to connect the payments directly or indirectly to Paul's campaign, but wrote that the circumstances create “a strong suspicion” that was the case. He said ICT is a business associated with documentary filmmaker Noel “Sonny” Izon, who didn't return a message.
In a deposition last month, Sorenson denied that the ICT payments were connected to Paul but gave vague answers about their source. Sorenson said he had been hired by ICT to do “general consulting both on political and business issues” and to seek locations for Iowa video shoots.
Sorenson later invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid answering further questions.
Sorenson quit talking after receiving a federal subpoena seeking records related to his campaign work, Sporer said. “Once that happens, I'm sure you can appreciate how quickly the desire to speak is muzzled.”
Before announcing his resignation Wednesday, Sorenson said he disagreed with the report's conclusions that he had made false statements or had accepted compensation from Bachmann's camp.
“I was never employed by Michele Bachmann. I was never employed by Bachmann for President. I was never employed by the PAC,” he said. “I had a corporation that worked for a corporation that worked for Michele Bachmann.”
Washington-based lawyer William McGinley, who is representing Bachmann's campaign, did not immediately return phone and email messages.
Peter Waldron, the former Bachmann aide who filed the complaint against Sorenson, said the case cried out for stronger ethics rules barring direct and indirect payments to state lawmakers from presidential candidates.
“I am pleased to be vindicated but naturally regret that the Iowa first-in-the-nation caucus position has been soiled by the events uncovered by the Special Counsel,” Waldron said in a statement.
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