Bachmann's legal troubles rooted in presidential campaign divisions

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 22, 2013 - 9:58 AM

Questions about the use of a home-school list lead to police, federal investigations.

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Michele Bachmann

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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With former aides turning against her, Bachmann’s White House run now is under investigation by police and federal regulators from Iowa to Washington, where she is in the fight of her political life.

It started in the weeks leading up to the all-important Iowa caucuses. Somebody walked into Barb Heki’s office inside the Urbandale headquarters of Bachmann’s 2012 presidential campaign. That person — police still don’t know who — allegedly got on Heki’s personal computer and made off with a copy of a proprietary database of thousands of Iowa home-school families.

If it was an intel coup, it also would soon backfire, widening the cracks in a campaign already wracked by factionalism and bitter infighting.

Divisions at the top had already prompted Bachmann’s New Hampshire staff to resign en masse in October 2011. Legendary GOP strategist Ed Rollins had abruptly quit in mid-September, accelerating the downward trajectory of Bachmann’s summertime straw poll victory to her back-of-the-pack finish in the January 2012 caucuses.

That left the reins in the hands of Washington-based operative Keith Nahigian. He was best known as the advance man who set up the 1992 event where former Vice President Dan Quayle famously misspelled “potato.” Another top adviser was master debate coach Brett O’Donnell. Whatever their talents, Rollins said, neither was a true political strategist.

“I think she outsources decisionmaking,” said Florida evangelist Peter Waldron, a Bachmann campaign field coordinator who has become the public face of the dissidents, many of whom wonder how much the congresswoman really knew about the campaign consultants who were calling the shots day to day. “She defers good judgment to others who don’t have good judgment.”

Bachmann’s finance chairman, Twin Cities businessman James Pollack, issued a statement Friday saying that the campaign had already dealt with the theft accusations by paying for the list. “It is reprehensible and outrageous for Peter Waldron to continue to infer baseless allegations against Congresswoman Bachmann, when she has done no wrong.”

Bachmann, for her part, has denied any wrongdoing, telling reporters earlier this month that after all the questions have been answered, “I’ll be cleared.”

‘We took it’

In an effort to shore up Bachmann’s sliding fortunes in Iowa, the campaign hired Eric Woolson, a respected GOP operative from Des Moines who had helped engineer former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s Iowa win in 2008.

Two weeks after Woolson started as Iowa campaign manager, in early November, an e-mail was sent to home-school families on the list taken from Heki’s computer. It was sent by Campaign Solutions, a D.C.-area firm run by self-described “online political pioneer” Rebecca (“Becki”) Donatelli. The firm now also employs longtime Bachmann fundraiser Guy Short, who helped set up MichelePAC, Bachmann’s independent political organization.

The e-mail, Woolson said in a later affidavit, “was the first … I heard about this situation.”

Woolson, a veteran of Iowa politics, knew trouble when he saw it. He marched down the hall to see Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson, a local Tea Party figure who served as the campaign’s state chairman.

“Do you want to know how it happened? Sorenson allegedly asked. “We took it.” He then added the detail that the conspirators had “stood watch.”

Sorenson has since denied Woolson’s account, which was given in an affidavit in Heki’s subsequent lawsuit against the campaign.

Woolson’s affidavit also said that he took his concerns to Short, who was then serving as the campaign’s national political director. He also talked to Nahigian and Bill McGinley, a prominent GOP attorney in Washington who still represents the campaign.

The Bachmann camp eventually put out a statement describing the use of the list as “inadvertent.” They agreed to pay $2,000 in “rent” to Heki’s home-school organization, to comply with federal election laws.

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