Sorenson Case Doesn’t Close with his Resignation
By Rod Boshart, Reporter
DES MOINES – Iowa policymakers Thursday turned their attention to damage control and shoring up prohibitions on elected officials getting paid by presidential campaigns after a state senator resigned over allegations he improperly received money and made false statements that may prompt criminal charges.
Gov. Terry Branstad told reporters Sen. Kent Sorenson, R-Milo, “did the right thing” by resigning soon after a special investigator’s report was released Wednesday suggesting there was probable cause that he was paid for his work on Michele Bachmann’s 2012 presidential campaign in Iowa.
“Considering the gravity of the accusations, I think it was appropriate that he do so and I’m glad he made that decision,” said Branstad, “and I will be making the decision on setting the special election date in the very near future.” He said he wanted the election concluded in time for Sorenson’s successor to be in place for the start of the 2014 session in January.
Independent investigator Mark Weinhardt, who was appointed to probe ethics complaints brought against Sorenson, said in his lengthy report that it was “manifestly clear” that Sorenson received indirect compensation for his work during the 2012 presidential caucus season in Iowa. He said there also was sufficient evidence to charge Sorenson with felonious misconduct in office for allegedly lying about the money.
Senate Ethics Committee members indicated they likely would meet, possibly next week, to consider the independent counsel’s findings, and Mike Marshall, secretary of the Iowa Senate, said any alleged criminal matters contained in Weinhardt’s report would have to be dealt with by the Polk County attorney or the Iowa Attorney General’s office.
“If people think this is over because Sen. Sorenson has resigned, I think that would be naïve,” said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, chairman of the Senate State Government Committee, who advised fellow senators to “reserve judgment” given that they still may have be asked to consider sanctions in the case.
Danielson, whose committee has responsibility for election and campaign policy, expressed concern that the Sorenson probe exposed weakness in Senate ethics rules that forbid senators from receiving money “directly or indirectly” for work on presidential campaigns. He said he hoped to come with legislation next session to close any loopholes and to strengthen the prohibitions by putting them in state law and allowing the Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board to probe alleged violations and offer opinions.
“To me, that’s a much stronger process than our own internal ethics rules, which handled the situation very well but there is some ambiguity in the interpretation,” he said.
“I don’t think the ethics rules are strong enough and I also think they are subordinate to the state law itself,” Danielson added. “I think the best way to address the situation is to ensure 100 percent transparency 100 percent of the time for any political entity in Iowa that is spending or raising money and couple that with an expressed prohibition on elected officials either directly or indirectly receiving compensation.”
However, Branstad was resistant to Danielson’s proposal. As a separate branch of government, the governor said it was up to legislators to police themselves and he opposed the idea of a law that would involve an executive branch board in reviewing ethics complaints against legislators.
“It appears to me that this is something the Senate, which has the responsibility to oversee the ethics of its members, can and should address,” Branstad said. “I think there would be some senators who would object to somebody in the executive branch of government making decisions over members of their own bodies.”
Branstad said he did not think the Sorenson probe tarnished Iowa’s image as a state with clean politics or threatened its status as the lead-off state in the presidential selection process.
“If it had been ignored, I think it could have,” he said, “but the fact that the Senate chose to do a very detailed, thorough investigation and now the member has resigned at the request of his leader, I think it says that we are committed to clean, honest, open government and the appropriate thing has happened.”
Danielson said “this is not our finest hour when it comes to clean Iowa politics” and “gives fuel to the critics” via a perception created that during the 2012 caucus process that there was money exchanged for support. “I think that has already damaged our reputation, which is why it is very important that in the next session we take some of those lessons learned and strengthen our laws to protect the integrity of Iowa’s politics,” he said.
Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball produced by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said the circumstances surrounding Sorenson’s resignation have drawn interest but it is far enough away from the 2016 caucus season that “to a certain extent I think it’s going to fly under the radar.”
Skelley said a bigger danger to the caucuses was the muddled outcome of the 2012 GOP race where state party leaders initially declared Mitt Romney the winner but later issued certified results that showed Rick Santorum was the top vote getter.
“I think probably the administrative difficulties last time were probably a bigger problem, but obviously this doesn’t help,” he said. At the same time, he noted, “money talks and in this day and age I don’t think there’s any state in the country that can fully avoid this anymore. People are people and they can be swayed. I don’t think any place can avoid having these problems.”
Scott Brennan, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, said what transpired was “a black mark” that it occurred, but it also showed that violations are addressed when they come to light and that the rules are vigorously enforced.
AG spokesman Geoff Greenwood said the Attorney General’s office had not received a copy of Weinhardt’s report so he could not comment on whether a criminal investigation would ensue or if it would be conducted at the county or state level.
For his part, Sorenson insisted in an email message to his constituents that he did nothing illegal or immoral, but could not afford the legal costs to defend himself against an ethics probe that was “rigged” against him. He also made references indicating he might seek elected office in the future.
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