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Inside U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s inner circle, her self-described job was to be “the candidate.” It was left to others to run her troubled 2012 presidential campaign.
Asked who was on the campaign team, Bachmann told congressional investigators in April that she could not remember. “It was a big group,” she said.
Newly released congressional records and interviews with Bachmann and her top advisers reveal a candidate who appeared largely uninvolved in the day-to-day decisions of her political organization, such as who was hired and how they were paid.
Many of those decisions are now at the heart of House Ethics Committee and Justice Department probes into potentially improper coordination between Bachmann’s campaign and two outside political groups, including Michele PAC, a political action committee founded in Bachmann’s name.
But as investigators probe her campaign’s financial transactions, Bachmann, a former IRS attorney, has insisted that she had little to do with those transactions and trusted others to do the right thing. She has maintained that defense in the face of the half-dozen separate state and federal investigations involving her campaign, including a recently settled lawsuit in Iowa over a pilfered database of home school supporters.
Several former Bachmann aides, all veterans of GOP presidential campaigns, say it is typical for political candidates to rely on professional managers and consultants to handle details of campaign operations. Bachmann, however, might have been an extreme example.
At the crux of the ethics panel’s inquiry into improper coordination are two $20,000 payments from Michele PAC to Bachmann fundraiser Guy Short, a Colorado-based consultant who, at the time, also served as national political director for Bachmann’s presidential campaign.
Bachmann also is defending herself against allegations that a bus tour she took to promote her book, “Core of Conviction,” frequently crossed into campaign-style events, with aides handing out literature and signing up volunteers. At least one staffer reported being reimbursed for expenses relating to the book tour. Bachmann said she had no knowledge of such details.
‘I trusted Guy’
The key figure in Bachmann’s legal dilemma is Short, a longtime GOP operative who once helped reorganize her congressional office. Short also created and ran Michele PAC, which paid him a $5,000-a-month retainer on top of the $22,500 the presidential campaign paid him monthly as its national political director.
Bachmann has told investigators said she was unaware of the two $20,000 lump-sum payments from Michele PAC to Short, made a month apart in the waning days of the January 2012 presidential caucuses in Iowa. She told investigators they never discussed the payments. “I trusted Guy,” she said.
The two PAC payments came at a propitious time for Short. The campaign was running so low on cash it had asked staffers to do without their paychecks. At the time, Short told colleagues — and later, the press — that he was volunteering his time. Indeed, he stopped invoicing the campaign.
Now the discovery of PAC payments in federal campaign reports has led to questions about whether Short was paid out of Michele PAC funds for his work on the presidential campaign. Such payments would be illegal under federal election law.
Short declined to talk to investigators from the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which last week referred the case to the House Ethics Committee. Chris Delacy, speaking on Short’s behalf told the OCE that the two payments were for a “fundraising and research project” unrelated to Bachmann’s campaign.
Bachmann told investigators that while there may have been such an initiative, she did not remember it. Asked if it would be unusual to mount an unrelated PAC initiative in the heat of the Iowa caucuses, Bachmann said she left timing questions to Short.
In a written response, DeLacy told the OCE that Short “did not discuss this fundraising project with Congresswoman Bachmann.”
While Bachmann expressed complete confidence in Short, others of her top lieutenants were less sure. National campaign manager Keith Nahigian, who had taken over the previous September, said he learned about the payments only from news reports.
His reaction, conveyed to congressional investigators, was “Really? We all worked for nothing, but he [Short] didn’t.”
The OCE got conflicting accounts from various Bachmann staffers about what Short was paid and what work he did for the PAC. None indicated that Bachmann was in the loop.
Twin Cities businessman James Pollack, the campaign’s national finance chairman, told investigators he also learned about the Short payments from press reports. Taking his concerns to Bachmann, Pollock later described her as unhappy and “surprised.”
Asked about her reaction, Bachmann told the OCE, “I don’t like any problems.” Pollack, who has largely taken control of Bachmann’s political affairs amid a cascade of legal woes over the past year, confronted Short. There had been a project, Short told him, but it had been postponed. They then worked out an agreement: The disputed payments would be construed as prepayment for work Short would do for the PAC later.
That remains the Bachmann team’s current legal firewall in the ethics investigation. But it leaves unanswered the question of who approved the payments.
DeLacy says Short “never had check-writing authority or operational control of Michele PAC or Bachmann for President.” But Bachmann, told the OCE she “trusted him to run it.” Short reported directly to Bachmann.
According to Bachmann, Short made the PAC’s hiring decisions and approved its invoices. Former Colorado legislator Barry Arrington, an attorney who worked for Short, was the PAC’s treasurer at the time and the person who nominally signs the checks. Arrington recently was replaced as PAC treasurer.
A hands-off approach
That was not the only time Bachmann’s hands-off approach got her into trouble with the feds.
The OCE determined that Short did not receive his entire $22,500 monthly retainer from the Bachmann campaign. Deputy campaign manager David Polyansky, who negotiated Short’s consulting contract, told investigators Short was paid through his own company, Colorado-based C&M Strategies. That company in turn hired Iowa State Sen. Kent Sorenson to serve as the campaign’s state chairman for $7,500 a month.
The Sorenson payments, which were not reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), now are subject to a special inquiry by the Iowa Supreme Court, which is looking at whether the payments violated rules meant to keep state lawmakers from peddling their influence.
Sorenson has publicly denied getting paid to work for Bachmann, who maintains she does not know how he became involved in her campaign. Polyansky confirmed the payments to Sorenson and told the OCE that campaign lawyers had signed off on the arrangement.
Bachmann said she knew of no deal to pay Sorenson and told OCE investigators she was not involved in decisions on anyone’s compensation. That contradicts an earlier affidavit from former Bachmann chief of staff Andy Parrish, who said Bachmann “knew of and approved” the payments to Sorenson, believing them to be legal.
Campaign lawyers say Sorenson, though one of Bachmann’s key Iowa supporters, technically was a subcontractor for Short, meaning there was no obligation to disclose his pay. Vendors are not required to disclose subcontractor payments. The OCE disagreed, but ultimately decided that although the FEC reports were false, there was no way to prove that Bachmann knew it.
Follow Kevin Diaz on Twitter @StribDiaz.