Normally, it’s an outrageous statement or a stunning disregard for the facts that puts an unflattering national spotlight on Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann.
Bachmann’s typical response is to ignore the negative publicity and the questions about her judgment and act like nothing happened. That strategy has served the charismatic conservative firebrand and four-term U.S. House representative fairly well — up to this point.
Her core supporters usually shrug off bad press as media bias. The media, particularly in this age of nonstop news coverage, gives up and speeds off to the next political gaffe or miniscandal of the day.
But Bachmann’s just-ignore-it approach is completely unacceptable for the high-profile political imbroglio she’s in now. Her Sixth District constituents — who have watched Bachmann campaign for years on her character and values — in particular deserve better than the brushoff she’s given to questions about the disturbing series of legal problems still ensnaring her 2012 presidential campaign.
According to an April 21 Star Tribune story by Kevin Diaz, Bachmann’s presidential campaign is “under investigation by police and federal regulators from Iowa to Washington.’’ There are troubling allegations of campaign-finance violations, including questions about under-the-table payments to a high-ranking Iowa campaign staffer, improper use of political action committee funds to pay the campaign’s national political director and improper use of campaign staff to help market Bachmann’s autobiography.
In addition, the alleged theft of an valuable e-mail voter list from one former Iowa staff member’s laptop by another member of Bachmann’s campaign is the subject of a criminal investigation in Iowa, as well as the basis of a civil lawsuit claiming there was a campaign cover-up of the theft.
The quantity and complexity of campaign-finance laws — in the controlled chaos of a campaign, lines can easily get crossed and often do — make it challenging to understand how serious these alleged improprieties may be.
But inquiries by the Office of Congressional Ethics and the Federal Election Commission suggest that potential irregularities went beyond forgetting to fill out a form or other understandable mistakes.
The number of allegations — and the fact that former staffers are making them — also raises red flags. So does the list theft allegation.
Other than a generic “I’ll be cleared” statement at a Minnesota news conference that aides hustled her out of a few weeks ago, Bachmann has yet to address these issues directly. This week, her office said she was “unavailable” and referred an editorial writer to William McGinley, an attorney with the Patton Boggs firm.
McGinley said in a statement Friday that “a fundamental element of our engagement with these agencies is that we are unable to publicly discuss the facts in this matter … while the review is pending.”
McGinley’s caution is understandable. But public officials such as Bachmann, while they have a right to protect themselves legally, also have a higher obligation to constituents to not take the political equivalent of the Fifth Amendment.
Public trust demands that when elected officials’ integrity is questioned, they explain their actions. In this situation, Minnesotans deserve to know how Bachmann reacted and how she held people accountable when questionable situations arose in her organization.
Bachmann’s prolific fundraising is another reason for her to be forthcoming. The allegations raise money management questions. Bachmann was one of the top four U.S. House recipients of campaign donations in early 2013. The legions writing checks to her deserve assurance the funds will be properly handled.
The Office of Congressional Ethics is limited to referring the case to the House Ethics Committee, with a report. But “if there’s enough there, it becomes at a minimum a huge embarrassment for Bachmann and potentially something more, which could range all the way up to formal censure on the floor,” said Norm Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute scholar. “We’re a long ways from that, but this is nothing frivolous.’’