WASHINGTON – Michele Bachmann's 2012 presidential campaign was looking for a boost in the crowded Iowa caucus field when she fixed on Kent Sorenson, a populist Tea Party firebrand.

Bald, burly and born again, the newly elected Iowa state senator from Milo was seen by Bachmann advisers as a natural link to the anti-establishment, Christian right wing of the Republican Party. As early as March 2011, Bachmann fundraiser Guy Short called Sorenson "the real deal."

Now Sorenson is at the center of a political maelstrom involving alleged under-the-table payments that are the subject of a congressional ethics inquiry and a Federal Election Commission complaint.

On Wednesday, the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee will determine whether to appoint an investigator to look into alleged payments to Sorenson. Iowa's ethics rules prohibit lawmakers from being paid for their work on presidential campaigns. That inquiry has given rise to questions about whether Bachmann's campaign broke federal campaign finance laws by failing to disclose an estimated $52,500 in compensation for Sorenson, her highest-profile supporter in Iowa.

Bachmann, speaking through attorneys, is maintaining a public silence on Sorenson's alleged pay arrangements, which are not detailed in campaign finance reports. She has said only that she will be "cleared."

Sorenson, a 41-year-old, home-school father of six, denies he was paid to support Bachmann.

But Andy Parrish, Bachmann's former congressional chief of staff and a longtime Minnesota Republican operative, has said that Sorenson was paid. In an affidavit being reviewed by the Iowa committee, Parrish said Bachmann signed off on an "arrangement" in which Sorenson would be paid not by the campaign, but by an outside, private company owned by Short. At the time, Short was serving as the campaign's national political director and as Bachmann's main fundraiser.

According to Parrish, who says he helped negotiate the terms with Sorenson, Bachmann was assured by Sorenson that the pay arrangement "did not run afoul of any Iowa Senate ethics rules."

Contradictions about pay

Bachmann's Patton Boggs legal team, led by Washington attorney Bill McGinley, has said in a statement that Sorenson's ethics case is a dispute "between the Iowa Senate and an Iowa senator," and does not involve Bachmann or her political committees."

McGinley contends that the Parrish affidavit shows Bachmann "followed all applicable laws and ethical rules and instructed those working for her to do the same."

But McGinley also has been careful to use the word "alleged" to describe the arrangement and has stopped well short of confirming the Sorenson payments. Pressed for details, McGinley said in another statement that the facts in the matter, including specifics about communications and interactions, could not be discussed while the review was pending.

This has left Bachmann in the precarious political position of asserting the payments broke no federal laws while declining to acknowledge the payments were made.

The campaign also argues that in any case, Iowa's ethics rules did not bar Sorenson from getting paid for his work on the campaign. But in October 2011, more than five months after Sorenson had joined the Bachmann campaign full time, campaign officials sent out a press release specifically noting that Iowa Senate rules "preclude lawmakers from being paid by the campaign."

Parrish's affidavit notes that he and Sorenson understood at the time that "Iowa Senate ethics prevented any presidential campaign from paying a senator for his or her efforts on a candidate's behalf." The affidavit includes an e-mail string between Parrish and Short discussing other ways to pay Sorenson.

Campaign finance experts say the FEC's interest in the case could turn on whether the alleged payments to Sorenson were properly reported.

FEC records show the campaign paid Short's company, C&M Strategies, at least $104,580 between July 2011 and December 2011 — the period during which Sorenson served as Bachmann's Iowa campaign chairman. Sorenson's name shows up in just $1,548 of incidental expenses.

If the rest of the alleged Sorenson payments are proven, sources close to the campaign suggest they could account for them as unitemized "subvendor" costs incurred by C&M. That would have kept them out of public view. But it also would contradict the campaign's public statement indicating that Sorenson was not being paid from campaign funds.

It also is legally questionable. "The idea of paying a major employee through a subvendor, so you don't see the salary, is a problem," said former FEC general counsel Larry Noble, who now heads the watchdog group Americans for Campaign Reform. "This is someone who was working directly for the campaign."

If Short used C&M to pay Sorenson on his own, without money from the campaign, some analysts say, that would be an impermissible campaign contribution, far in excess of the FEC's $2,500 individual contribution limit.

A dual role

Florida evangelist Peter Waldron, the campaign whistleblower who brought the FEC complaint in January, alleges that Sorenson actually was paid through MichelePAC, Bachmann's independent political organization.

FEC records show that MichelePAC paid C&M Strategies about $160,000 in the year leading up to the Jan. 3, 2012, Iowa caucuses.

In the complaint, Waldron alleges that Short did about $40,000 worth of campaign work on the PAC's dime. Counting the alleged payments to Sorenson and other campaign aides reportedly on the PAC payroll, that could bring MichelePAC's total Bachmann presidential campaign contributions to more than $100,000. Federal election law limits PAC contributions to $5,000.

Attorneys for Bachmann and Short contend that his work for MichelePAC was totally separate from his campaign work, though they have not provided details.

Sorenson also is implicated in a separate police investigation and lawsuit Bachmann faces. He is alleged to have stolen an e-mail list from the computer of another campaign staffer and used it to solicit thousands of home-school families in Iowa.

In the end, Sorenson did not provide Bachmann much of a boost in his state. Days before the Iowa caucuses, he jumped ship to the presidential campaign of a Bachmann rival, then-U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @StribDiaz