2 ex-staffers were contacted; agency’s interest is not clear.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. chair of the Tea Party Caucus speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 16, 2013, during a news conference with Tea Party leaders to discuss the IRS targeting Tea Party groups.
The FBI has contacted two former staffers of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign, adding to the swirl of federal and state investigations looking into alleged financial improprieties by top officials in the campaign.
The former campaign aides with direct knowledge of the investigation have confirmed the FBI inquiries. Both spoke to the Star Tribune on condition of anonymity.
St. Paul attorney John Gilmore, who represents former Bachmann chief of staff Andy Parrish, also confirmed that his client is among those being interviewed by the FBI as a witness. “Andy Parrish has been contacted by the FBI for purposes of an interview,” Gilmore said. “That has been set up for next week and Mr. Parrish will cooperate fully.”
Veteran election lawyers say an FBI inquiry would be unusual in a typical campaign finance case. But the controversies surrounding the Bachmann campaign have been anything but typical, with ex-staffers turning on one another and providing dueling affidavits on a range of legal and ethical questions.
One source familiar with the FBI inquiry said an agent from the bureau’s public integrity section expressed interest in campaign finance allegations contained in a Federal Election Commission (FEC) complaint brought by whistleblower Peter Waldron, a Florida pastor who worked on the Bachmann presidential campaign in Iowa.
The allegations in Waldron’s FEC complaint in January focus on Bachmann’s top lieutenants, rather than on Bachmann herself.
One allegation suggests secret payments to Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson, a Milo Republican who served as Bachmann’s campaign chairman before the 2012 Iowa caucuses. Another is an allegation of improper payments from Bachmann’s independent political organization, MichelePAC, to longtime Bachmann aide Guy Short, then serving as the campaign’s national political director.
Short’s Washington attorney, Chris DeLacy, said that the FBI has not contacted him and that his client has done nothing wrong. “The individuals who are pushing these allegations appear to be motivated by some sort of political vendetta,” DeLacy said.
An attorney for Sorenson had no comment. Bachmann campaign attorney William McGinley released a statement expressing skepticism about the FBI’s interest.
“We have not been contacted by the FBI and have no reason to believe that they are conducting an investigation,” he said. “As we have stated from the beginning, none of the allegations involve Representative Bachmann.”
An FBI spokeswoman in the bureau’s Washington Field Office said she could not confirm or deny any agency role in an investigation of the Bachmann campaign.
The FBI would be the third federal agency to look into the Bachmann campaign allegations, following on that of the FEC and a separate investigation by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).
The revelation also comes amid settlement talks in a lawsuit filed by another former Bachmann staffer who accused Sorenson of taking a proprietary database from her personal computer. That incident also is being investigated by police in Urbandale, Iowa, where Bachmann’s headquarters were located.
Meanwhile, the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee is pursuing a special investigation into the alleged Sorenson payments, which could violate rules that bar lawmakers from being paid to work in the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.
“Whatever there is, it’s of interest to a number of investigative agencies,” said Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group that advocates for greater transparency in politics and elections.
The initial FBI inquiries began more than a month ago, according to the two campaign sources. But it remains unclear whether agents are merely sniffing out the potential for criminal wrongdoing or are actively pursuing a case.
Some GOP attorneys who have looked at the FEC complaint see no violations of criminal law. They warn that campaign finance laws can be complex and that technical violations are commonplace.
“My reading of the complaint tells me it is not a serious matter,” said Cleta Mitchell, a campaign lawyer with the political law practice of Foley & Lardner in Washington, D.C. “But I also know that it is hard, if not impossible, to avoid breaking some of these laws every day in a campaign. We can only hope the OCE and the FBI aren’t interjecting themselves where they have no business going.”
The original FEC allegations center on the suggestion that Short and others arranged to pay Sorenson $7,500 a month from Short’s company, C&M Strategies, for Sorenson’s work on the Iowa Bachmann campaign.
In an affidavit to the Iowa Senate earlier this month, Sorenson denied being paid directly or indirectly by any “Bachmann entities.” That contradicts an earlier affidavit from Parrish describing an “arrangement” to pay Sorenson through Short’s company. Parrish’s affidavit said Bachmann was aware of the arrangement, but thought it was legal.
Bachmann has maintained a public silence on the matter.
Another allegation suggests that Short’s company received $40,000 from Bachmann’s PAC in the final two months of the Iowa caucus contest, a time when he was working full time on her presidential campaign. That could be a potential violation of campaign finance laws that bar federal candidates from using their PACs to coordinate with or subsidize their campaigns.
Some analysts say that to spark the FBI’s interest, there would have to be an element of embezzlement or fraud. Mitchell noted that the transactions were duly reported to the FEC. “Embezzlers don’t disclose their payments usually,” she said.
Waldron and other former Bachmann campaign insiders argue that Short would have been misrepresenting the PAC expenditures to the FEC if he were, in fact, being compensated to work for the campaign. They also question how the payments to Short were authorized at a time when they and others on the campaign were being asked to work without pay.
DeLacy, disputing any wrongdoing, said the payments were for work he did for the PAC, not the Bachmann campaign.
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