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Congressional ethics investigators are examining whether top staffers in Rep. Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign played an improper role in the 2011 tour to promote her personal memoir, two former Bachmann aides have told the Star Tribune.
Federal election and House ethics rules generally bar candidates from using campaign funds or resources to sell or promote their own books, which are considered outside business activities. The two former staffers, speaking confidentially because the matter is under investigation, said they have been questioned about the book tour by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which has been looking into separate allegations of campaign finance violations.
The new questions about the promotion of Bachmann’s autobiography, “Core of Conviction,” suggest that the ethics review has widened beyond initial allegations that Bachmann improperly mixed funds between her campaign and her independent political organization, MichelePAC. The investigation also could extend Bachmann’s legal troubles, which began with a lawsuit alleging that one of her top Iowa staffers illegally appropriated an e-mail list of Iowa home school families.
Bachmann’s campaign lawyer, William McGinley, said that book publisher Sentinel/Penguin Group (USA) paid for the tour and its promotional expenses.
“Records show that the campaign was very careful to ensure that protocols were in place to keep the book tour and presidential campaign completely separate and distinct,” said McGinley, a prominent GOP attorney in Washington. “Any fair and objective review of the record will conclude that Congresswoman Bachmann and the campaign followed the FEC [Federal Election Commission] advisory opinions and acted appropriately.”
Bachmann follows a long line of politicians selling books on the campaign trail. Most notable was Newt Gingrich, a prolific author who has been scrutinized for book deals ever since he was speaker of the U.S. House. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty also penned a campaign autobiography, but his book tour came months before he announced his candidacy for president.
Bachmann’s book, which reportedly sold poorly, has not made her any money. Industry estimates place sales at about 3,000 copies. In her most recent personal financial reports to Congress, Bachmann reported no income from the book.
Checking into staff and resources
The question before investigators, however, is how the campaign accounted for staff time and resources involved in organizing, publicizing and accompanying Bachmann at various promotional events such as interviews and book signings.
Among the records ethics investigators have received are schedules, bus manifests and photos taken on the tour, which followed the release of the book in November 2011 — about six weeks before the January 2012 Iowa caucuses.
Detailed book tour schedules obtained by the Star Tribune show that various top campaign staffers accompanied Bachmann to more than two dozen book signings and interviews over a 10-day period, starting at the Mall of America and extending into Iowa and South Carolina.
Among them were national campaign manager Keith Nahigian, press secretary Alice Stewart, and Bachmann’s personal assistant, Tera Dahl, a congressional staffer on loan to the presidential campaign. Also along at different times were debate coach Brett O’Donnell and Will Weisser, a vice president and marketing director for Penguin.
Nahigian did not return calls from the Star Tribune. Stewart declined to comment. Weisser, similarly, said he could not discuss the details of the book’s promotion and budget. Bachmann’s congressional office referred inquiries to McGinley.
Johnny Williams, an Alabama bus company owner who chartered two buses to Bachmann, said the campaign showed great concern about separating election and book costs. “They were very clear about they couldn’t do any campaign events while she was doing her book tour,” Williams said. “It was two totally different buses, and I got checks from two different places.”
Yet, internal e-mails obtained by the newspaper appear to show that top campaign advisers were intimately involved in the promotional details. One, written by campaign fundraiser Guy Short, suggested using Bachmann’s list of Iowa supporters to boost attendance at her book events: “Can we push people to these events through IA (Iowa) emails?” he wrote on Nov. 25 to campaign strategist Rebecca Donatelli.
Another e-mail, written the same day by Iowa campaign manager Eric Woolson, noted that the tour’s first Iowa stop in Mason City was a “disaster.” He urged in all caps, “WE NEED BODIES AT THESE EVENTS TODAY and TOMORROW!”
A ‘significant distraction’
Other aides saw the tour as a waste of time and resources. “The book tour was a significant distraction from the campaign effort in Iowa and South Carolina,” said former campaign worker Peter Waldron, who has filed an FEC complaint alleging financial improprieties involving Short and others in the campaign. “Valuable human resources were diverted from the presidential campaign to what appeared to be a marketing campaign.”
Reporters covering the campaign frequently saw Bachmann’s paid campaign staff at her book events, which were promoted in Bachmann campaign news releases. Her legal team says that campaign staff was there to represent and advise Bachmann as campaign issues arose on the tour, and to prepare for debates. The news releases, they said, simply announced Bachmann’s whereabouts to the media.
But a video taken at a Bachmann book signing in Iowa demonstrates the fine line between campaigning and book promotion. The video, produced by freelancer Dave Davidson, shows Nahigian and Stewart at a table with Bachmann, who is signing books. In one frame, a smiling Nahigian was holding up a large placard for the “Core of Conviction” book, with Bachmann on the cover.
Although biographical volumes have become a mainstay prop of presidential campaigns, federal laws and House ethics rules generally prohibit campaign staff from participating in personal book sales for their candidates.
The FEC also governs election-related book deals, although the law can be complicated. Candidates cannot convert campaign funds to personal use. At the same time, campaign contribution limits require that book publishers steer clear of promoting campaign events.
The legal firewall isn’t always crystal clear. The FEC deadlocked in a 2011 case on whether then-Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown could combine campaign fundraising events with a book tour. Said Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Institute: “The closer you get to commingling purposes in a specific event, the more challenging it is to ferret it out.”