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WASHINGTON – The House Ethics Committee announced Wednesday that it will extend its investigation of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s 2012 presidential campaign, continuing the Minnesota Republican’s legal woes 20 months after she ended her White House bid.
The decision came with the release of 430 pages of investigative materials by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which found “substantial reason” to believe Bachmann’s campaign violated campaign finance laws and rules that barred the use of campaign staff members to promote her book, “Core of Conviction.”
The completed OCE report is the first by any of the half-dozen federal and state agencies investigating Bachmann’s campaign, pulling back the curtain on the details of the campaign’s topsy-turvy run for the GOP nomination, which she led for a short time.
While deciding to investigate Bachmann further, the bipartisan Ethics Committee left the four-term congresswoman in ethical limbo: The committee chose not to dismiss the case against her, nor did it immediately impanel a subcommittee to conduct hearings, which would fast-track her case.
“Basically, they’re punting for further investigation,” said Bill Allison, of the Sunlight Foundation, a government-transparency watchdog group that has long been critical of the committee. “It’s a big ‘To be continued.’ ”
Bachmann, who earlier this year announced she would not seek re-election, issued a statement saying she did nothing wrong. Rather, she said, she had relied on “experienced staff” who were directed to comply with all relevant election laws.
“The report released today makes no finding that I or anyone on my campaign staff did anything to the contrary,” Bachmann said in the statement. “It simply has referred certain matters to the committee responsible for reviewing these issues.”
In the statement and in a 43-page response to the OCE, Bachmann argued that the referral to the House Ethics Committee was unwarranted. She also noted that the committee’s decision to keep the investigation alive does not itself mean that any rules were broken.
Facing other inquiries
John Gilmore, a St. Paul attorney who wrote with campaign whistleblower Peter Waldron an insider book critical of Bachmann’s travails, said the committee’s action “validates the allegations” brought forward by Waldron and several other former aides.
The panel’s decision comes less than a week after revelations of a federal grand jury probe of top Bachmann campaign operatives, including Bachmann’s husband, Marcus. Among the records being subpoenaed by the U.S. Justice Department are financial registers of the National Fiscal Conservative (NFC) Political Action Committee, which allegedly agreed to help raise funds for a campaign mailer ahead of the Iowa caucuses.
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) also has been brought allegations of illegal coordination between the Bachmann campaign and the NFC PAC, as well as with Bachmann’s own political action committee, MichelePAC.
Waldron’s original complaint to the OCE, obtained by the Star Tribune, alleges commingling of Bachmann’s presidential and MichelePAC funds to conceal payments to Iowa campaign chairman Kent Sorenson, a state senator who the campaign believed was forbidden by Iowa ethics rules from receiving direct payments.
The OCE dismissed allegations that Bachmann knew of any false FEC reports regarding the Sorenson payments. Still, the board referred the matter to the FEC.
The Iowa Supreme Court also has appointed a special investigator to look into the alleged Sorenson payments, which according to Waldron were funneled through a company run by Bachmann fundraiser Guy Short.
Waldron also accused Short of receiving payments from Bachmann’s PAC while working full time for the campaign. That is among a set of allegations being examined by the FEC.
The OCE unanimously found “substantial reason” to believe that Bachmann allowed or did not prevent her leadership PAC from being used to compensate Short for campaign work.
Waldron said the Ethics Committee is pursuing the case because it “could not ignore the evidence.”
Differences in cooperation
The OCE report indicates that while Bachmann cooperated with investigators, Short and Sorenson did not. The OCE board recommended that they be subpoenaed. The two have publicly denied any wrongdoing.
Short’s attorney, Chris DeLacy, said that as a private citizen, Short does not fall within the OCE’s jurisdiction.
“It is unconscionable that the OCE has insinuated in its report that Mr. Short engaged in inappropriate behavior merely because he chose not to fully participate in their investigation,” DeLacy said. “Mr. Short has done nothing improper or illegal.”
Two other allegations now before the Ethics Committee involve accusations that Bachmann used campaign staffers to help promote her autobiography, “Core of Conviction.”
Like the campaign-finance allegations, the questions surrounding her book will likely leave an ethical cloud over Bachmann until she leaves office next year. “One would hope it’s over before she leaves Congress,” Allison said. “But I’ve seen these things go on for a long time.”
Bachmann’s decision not to seek a fifth term could have been a factor in the panel’s decision to extend the inquiry without empaneling an investigative subcommittee, Allison said. Another could be the continuing Justice Department investigation.
But because of the secretive nature of the Ethics Committee, Allison said, “if you’re a member of the public, you have no idea what’s going on.”
The OCE was set up in 2008 in response to criticism that members of Congress did a poor job of policing themselves. Among the OCE’s eight-member board of directors is former U.S. Rep. Bill Frenzel, a Minnesota Republican.
Ultimately, the Ethics Committee does not sanction lawmakers but makes recommendations to the whole House on what actions to take.
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