Exclusive: Congressional Ethics Probe Adds to Michele Bachmann’s Political Woes
by John Avlon Mar 25, 2013
The Hindenburg. The Titanic. Michele Bachmann.
Eighteen months ago, the Minnesota House member was considered an unlikely but undeniable Republican rising star, winning the Iowa straw poll that unofficially begins the primary season. Today, she is embroiled in a litany of legal proceedings related to her rolling disaster of a presidential campaign—including a Office of Congressional Ethics investigation into campaign improprieties that has not previously been reported.
Michele Bachmann,Republicans Conservatives CPAC 2013
The Daily Beast has learned that federal investigators are now interviewing former Bachmann campaign staffers nationwide about alleged intentional campaign-finance violations. The investigators are working on behalf of the Office of Congressional Ethics, which probes reported improprieties by House members and their staffs and then can refer cases to the House Ethics Committee.
“I have been interviewed by investigators,” says Peter Waldron, a former Bachmann staffer who’s embroiled in his own fight with his former boss, involving his allegations of pay-to-play politics and improper payments by the campaign—making him one of several members of Bachmann’s inner circle who’ve fallen out with the woman they once hoped would become commander in chief. While he was careful to avoid specifics in regard to the investigating body, Waldron said that “investigators came [and] interviewed me and are interviewing other staff members across the country.”
Two other former staffers confirmed the existence of the investigation this weekend, and on Monday Bachmann’s campaign counsel, William McGinley, of the high-powered firm Patton Boggs, confirmed that the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) was looking into the congresswoman’s presidential campaign last year.
“There are no allegations that the Congresswoman engaged in any wrongdoing,” McGinley said. “We are constructively engaged with the OCE and are confident that at the end of their Review the OCE Board will conclude that Congresswoman Bachmann did not do anything inappropriate.”
Former staffers tell The Daily Beast that investigators have allegedly asked about allegations of improper transfer of funds and under-the-table payments actions by Bachmann’s presidential campaign, specifically in relation to the campaign’s national political director, Guy Short, and Bachmann’s onetime Iowa campaign chairman, state Sen. Kent Sorenson. Questions directly about Bachmann, they said, have been primarily focused on what she knew about those men’s actions and when she knew it.
Sorenson and Short did not return separate calls for comment.
The independent, nonpartisan OCE, established in 2008 and chaired by former CIA director Porter Goss, looks into charges of misconduct by House members and their staffs and then decides whether to recommend that the House Ethics Committee investigate the charges—thus relieving the committee members of the political pressure of deciding whether to investigate one of their own. When OCE, which has a limited window of about three months to investigate and decide, does recommend that the committee pursue a case, it publicly releases its report—giving its advice considerable sway. While it lacks enforcement powers, OCE has been widely credited for pressing the committee to probe and then censor New York Democrat Charles Rangel and forcing the resignation from the House of Georgia Republican Nathan Deal (who left, thus removing himself from the authority of the committee, while he was running, successfully, for governor). OCE does not comment on ongoing investigations, but one source with knowledge of the Bachmann case said it was now in its final, 45-day period before OCE makes its determination about whether to recommend that the Ethics Committee pursue the investigation.
The emergence of still another investigation tied to Bachmann’s presidential misadventure is the latest hit in what’s been a slow-motion crash for an unusually irresponsible politician who’d briefly emerged as a national figure with White House ambitions.
Narrowly reelected to what had been a safe House seat after abandoning her presidential run, Bachmann returned to Congress diminished. Her bids to join Republican leadership have been rebuffed, and House colleagues co-exist with her uneasily. The Tea Party caucus she helped found to much fanfare in 2011 is now dormant. And even before her year in Iowa, her staff rarely stayed with her for long—she’s seen a 46 percent annual turnover rate during her time on the Hill, according to The Washington Times—not a vote of confidence from those who know her best.
Michele Bachmann is no stranger to controversial (and sometimes blatantly false) statements.
“She’s the Republican Dennis Kucinich,” says one longtime Bachmann senior staffer. “Politics is like jumping off a diving board. You rise, you plateau, but at the end of the day everyone comes down. Some people make a splash and some people belly flop. She belly flopped. And you don’t get a second chance at the diving board.”
Embarrassments have become routine whenever she’s tried to forcibly reinsert herself into the national debate, as the sort of wild claims that helped make her reputation in the first place have increasingly been swatted down, even by fellow Republicans. In the last week alone she has been called out by Fox’s Bill O’Reilly for “a trivial pursuit” after dedicating much of her CPAC speech to what she called President Obama’s “lavish” lifestyle (in fact, the costs she cited are primarily related to Secret Service protection, and some of them were simply false). She followed that up with a reality-challenged rant on the House floor, calling for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act “before it literally kills women, kills children, kills senior citizens.”
Bachmann holds the distinction of having a higher percentage of statements analyzed by PolitiFact determined to be outright lies—or “Pants on Fire”—than any other politician, according to a survey by The Daily Beast.
“She doesn’t use the most credible sources,” explains one former staffer, detailing Bachmann’s reliance on stories from the conspiracy-peddling WorldNetDaily to shape her worldview, “and she tends to listen to the last person who talks to her.” Bachmann is also a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
But what critics charge is a persistent truth-telling problem is the least of Bachmann’s worries now. Bills are piling up in an Iowa court case, Heki v. Bachmann, filed by another former Bachmann staffer, Barb Heki. That suit alleges that onetime state campaign chairman and state Senator Sorenson stole from her—and then used with the candidate’s knowledge—an email list of Christian homeschool families in Iowa. Heki’s accusation has been backed by a sworn affidavit by former campaign staffer Eric Woolson, who had also been named in the suit, though charges against him were dropped after he submitted his affidavit.
Sorenson told Politico that the alleged theft “absolutely did not happen,” while Jeff Goodman, a lawyer representing the Bachmann campaign, has said his clients “vigorously deny the substantive allegations and claims against them.”
Separately, the Urbandale Police Department in Iowa has conducted its own investigation into the theft of that list, and the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee had been probing the actions of Sorenson for allegedly taking “under-the-table payments” from her campaign, according to Waldron, the former Bachmann staffer who filed the initial complaint. In a written response to the committee, Sorenson has “vehemently denied any wrongdoing as alleged.” (That investigation has been put on hold until the criminal investigation is complete.) Ironically, when Sorenson defected to Ron Paul’s campaign days before the Iowa caucus, Bachmann herself publically charged that the influential state senator had told her that he’d been “offered a large amount of money” to shift his allegiance.
Waldron, a veteran evangelical outreach operative who worked on the Reagan-Bush and Bush-Cheney campaigns, said the campaign’s behavior had crossed a “bright red line,” adding that “I’m not sorry that I’ve had to file complaints at all.”
Back in Washington, the Federal Election Commission is investigating a separate complaint, also filed by Waldron this January, alleging that Bachmann’s congressional political action committee, MichelePAC, improperly paid the presidential campaign’s political director, Guy Short, through his fundraising company C&M Strategies. Short received lump sums of $20,000 in December 2011 and January 2012, with the second payment deposited on the day of the Iowa caucuses. Short, who did not return a call for comment Sunday, told Politico’s Maggie Haberman last year, when she noticed his name on a FEC filing, that he had “multiple clients and Michele PAC and Mrs. Bachmann’s Presidential campaign are only two of them. I don’t discuss my client’s relationships with the press. The services I perform for each of my clients are separate and distinct—the services I provide for one client doesn’t effect service for another.”
In a statement when the charges were filed in January, McGinley, Bachmann’s campaign counsel, said that “Bachmann for President denies the allegations contained in the complaint filed with the FEC and intends to file an appropriate response. We are confident that this matter will be resolved in the campaign’s favor.”
Short helped start and direct MichelePAC, while its treasurer, Barry Arrington, also filed the incorporation papers for Short’s company C&M Strategies with the Colorado secretary of State. These connections appear to have put Short in a position to pay himself, even as other presidential campaign staffers were told that there was no money for their salaries. Short has yet to publicly comment on the allegations, and did not return a call for comment Sunday.
“He’s there telling everyone to suck it up, that we’re not going to get paid—and he’s paying himself?” said one indignant campaign staffer, who recalls Short telling the team he was working as a volunteer.
This alleged stiffing of the staff has led to an unusually large number of disgruntled former employees who have lodged public complaints against the woman they once wanted to be president. And now some of those former staffers are being interviewed by federal investigators.
“She’s always been one of the most difficult members to work for—very high maintenance, almost demeaning to a point,” says another former staffer. “And that was amplified 10 times over due to the presidential campaign. It was like she was a different person. You didn’t recognize her. All I can tell you is that it was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. It was by far the most bizarre campaign I’ve ever been a part of.”
But other staffers blamed the once promising campaign’s derailment on persistent strategic missteps.
“There was a shift in strategy. She needed to always be the outsider,” says Bob Heckman, a veteran of seven presidential campaigns who worked with the Bachmann campaign until the end and stresses that he still believes she is “a big asset to the conservative movement.”
“I felt that we were going on the wrong track the day after the Straw Poll, when I started to hear stories about how we didn’t want her to get off the bus when [Rick] Perry was in the room because she was the front runner,” says Heckman.
There was an abrupt shift in campaign leadership after the Straw Poll, when legendary Republican campaign manager Ed Rollins was replaced by Bachmann’s onetime advance man, Keith Nahigian, while her debate coach Brett O’Donnell rose to a position of high influence despite having what one operative described as “the worst political judgment I have ever seen.” Unforced errors piled up, including misplacing the list of Bachmann’s Straw Poll voters in a Virginia warehouse.
Money was also a persistent problem for the Bachmann campaign. Despite her storied ability to raise millions online by playing the victim, very little of it actually went into the campaign coffers, according to Heckman—a sign of unusually high fundraising overhead. “It did seem to me that we had a remarkably low net cash available,” he says. “By the end, we couldn’t do TV, radio, or even phones with the big guys.”
In October 2011, the troubles in Bachmann Land went public, when her New Hampshire staff quit en masse with a stinging letter that described the campaign’s operation as “rude, unprofessional, dishonest and at times cruel.” “Their assessment was concurrent with our own experience in Iowa,” says Waldron, simply.
The final insult was the abrupt departure of Sorenson, who endorsed Paul in the waning days of the campaign—a decision Heckman describes as a “pretty treacherous act,” while acknowledging that “Kent wasn’t treated with a lot of respect inside the campaign. He’s a volatile guy, and I can’t say I was surprised that he got fed up and decided to jump.”
By the time, the Iowa caucuses occurred, Bachmann was an afterthought. Despite bold and baseless claims of a come-from-behind win, she received roughly the same number of votes statewide as she did four months before in the far smaller Ames Straw Poll. Even in her home county, she collected less than 10 percent of the vote.
In the end, it seems the only people who profited from Bachmann’s face-plant of a presidential campaign were the consultants. The only lasting legacy has been the lawsuits. While junior staffers say they still haven’t been paid, Guy Short’s C&M Strategies received a total of $157,000 from MichelePAC between January 2011 and July 2012, when Bachmann was primarily preoccupied with presidential pursuits, according to FEC filings.
Now the prospect of a House Ethics Committee investigation into Bachmann’s presidential campaign adds an additional indignity to the self-inflicted disasters of her political career. Demagoguery eventually brings dishonor. And her most passionate supporters ought to consider what it means when the people who know Bachmann best respect her the least.
There is a cost to playing fast and loose with the truth, former staffers say—and not just in terms of escalating legal fees and overlapping investigations. “A lot of hearts were broken, a lot of lives were hurt by the behavior of the senior staff of the Bachmann campaign,” says Waldron. “She’s entangled in a cyclone. She can’t get out.”