State Sen. Kent Sorenson’s fall was big news in Iowa this past week, and I think that’s a good sign for Iowa’s political health.
Special ethics investigator Mark Weinhardt’s 566-page report on charges that Sorenson, R-Milo, took money from two presidential campaigns hit like a ton of bricks in a state where a fair percentage of political shenanigans still involve swiped yard signs.
In case you’re just tuning in, Weinhardt’s tome details substantial evidence that Sorenson was paid by Michele Bachmann’s campaign and an affiliated PAC. Then, when he abruptly switched from Bachmann to Ron Paul just before the 2012 caucuses, the report contends he received a $25,000 check. All the while denying that he switched for bucks.
He never cashed that check, but Weinhardt also points to $73,000 in “deeply suspicious” wire transfers to Sorenson that may or may not be connected to Paul’s effort. There’s a painful deposition in the report during which Sorenson seems to claim that he’s not sure why he got all that money from something called ICT Inc.
Bottom line, the payments appear to violate Senate ethics rules. And the report concludes that Sorenson’s dishonest denials could add up to misconduct in office, a felony.
Sorenson resigned, while still claiming his innocence. A criminal investigation could be next.
CAUCUS DAMAGE MINIMAL
There was a time when it looked like the Sorenson affair might hurt Iowa’s leadoff presidential caucuses. That was back when it was still uncertain whether this would end in real punishment or a wrist slap.
But I think the thoroughness of the investigation and the high temperature of the hot water Sorenson sits in now shows that Iowans take this sort of thing seriously. I think the caucus damage has been controlled.
Sorenson says this is a partisan witch hunt. But it doesn’t seem like many Republicans are rushing to his defense. Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix, R-Waverly, asked for Sorenson’s resignation within hours of the report’s release. Several other Republicans, including Gov. Terry Branstad, concurred with that call. Much of the top-notch reporting on this scandal was done by Craig Robinson, publisher of TheIowaRepublican.com, which is basically the online ministry of information for Iowa’s conservative GOP establishment.
So nobody in the state’s political circles is shrugging this off as small potatoes.
Maybe that’s not true among the rest of us, who think politics already is a big money game and that paying a lawmaker for his endorsement and assistance is no biggie.
But it’s important to make a distinction between politics and personal enrichment. There’s a critical difference between Bachmann or Paul holding a fundraiser to help fill Sorenson’s campaign account, and writing him a check intended to end up in his personal checking account.
One is to help Sorenson further his political career and promote his message. The other looks and smells more like a bribe, especially when so many measures are taken to keep the payments at arm’s length.
Iowa law makes these distinctions. Political campaign money isn’t personal money. When a candidate loses, if she has campaign money left over, she doesn’t get to pour it into her savings account and walk away. It’s not her money.
We have these laws and ethics rules because we generally believe there’s something wrong with using an elected political position to personally cash-in, to sell shares of the public’s trust granted by voters to the highest bidder. In the highly personal, grass-roots world of the Iowa caucuses, influential endorsements are supposed to mean something more to party activists than simply which elected leaders are getting the fattest paychecks.
But it’s also clear from this mess that laws and ethics rules need clarifying and strengthening.
It’s important both for the future of the caucuses and the integrity of Iowa politics. It should be a bipartisan effort.
Speaking of bipartisan, the Senate likely is better off without Sorenson, a hyper-partisan grandstander who arrived in the chamber loudly vowing to declare war on his opponents. But in the end, it appears that he was his own worst enemy.