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DES MOINES, Iowa - DES MOINES – In a whirlwind of Statehouse activity Wednesday, Sen. Kent Sorenson resigned just hours after a special prosecutor found probable cause that he violated Senate rules and may have committed the offense of felonious misconduct in office by "knowingly" making false statements to the Senate's ethics panel.
"Today, I called for Senator Sorenson's resignation, and he agreed to do so effective immediately," Senate Republican Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, said in a statement.
Sorenson could not be reached for comment, but Gov. Terry Branstad's spokesman said the governor received notification that Sorenson was resigning his Senate District 13 seat that represents parts of Madison and Warren Counties.
"Dear Gov. Branstad: I resign my seat, SD13, effective immediately. Sincerely, Kent Sorenson" was the message in an email sent by Sorenson to Brenna Findley, Branstad's acting chief of staff. Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said it had not been determined when the governor would schedule a special election to fill the vacancy.
In his lengthy report, independent counsel Mark Weinhardt determined there was probable cause that the Milo Republican violated Senate rules by "accepting compensation" from entities associated with former GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann's campaign "in exchange for his service" during the past caucus season.
Weinhardt concluded there was probable cause that Sorenson violated Rule 6 of the Senate Code of Ethics in being paid by MichelePAC in his role as the Bachmann campaign's state chairman. He also alleged probable cause was present to believe Sorenson violated Senate rules by accepting compensation from Bachmann for President in exchange for his service and work as state campaign chair if the committee determines Senate rules prohibit a senator from being paid by a presidential campaign committee.
The special prosecutor also determined there was probable cause to believe Sorenson violated a Senate rule "in that he committed the offense of felonious misconduct in office in violation of (the Iowa Code) when he knowingly made false statements to the Senate Ethics Committee in his initial response and his supplemental response to the complaint."
"In his two written responses to the complaint that he submitted to the committee, Senator Sorenson categorically denied being compensated for his role in the Bachmann campaign," Weinhardt stated in his report. "We find probable cause to believe that those statements were false, and that Senator Sorenson knew they were false when he made them."
Because Sorenson was a public employee at the time and the statements are contained in public records, "we find there is probable cause to believe that Senator Sorenson's statements constitute the crime of felonious misconduct in office in violation of Iowa Code," Weinhardt wrote.
The independent prosecutor concluded in his lengthy report that Sorenson was not directly involved in taking a politically valuable electronic database of homeschooler names and contact information from the computer of a fellow campaign worker, Barbara Heki, in late 2011. However, he alleged there is evidence "that suggests that Senator Sorenson was involved in a criminal conspiracy with one or more other persons concerning the list" to use it for the Bachmann campaign's and Sorenson's personal advantage.
"Evidence suggesting a conclusion, however, does not prove that conclusion," Weinhardt wrote. "Here it does not meet the leve of 'clear and convincing' evidence required for a finding of probable cause that Senator Sorenson committed a crime in connection with the Heki list."
Sorenson repeatedly denied the allegations made by Andy Parrish, Bachmann's former chief of staff, in a sworn affidavit that Sorenson asked to be "paid for his efforts" when he was recruited to be Bachmann's Iowa campaign chairman. Sorenson worked for the Bachmann campaign in 2011 but quit and endorsed GOP rival Ron Paul shortly before Iowa's precinct caucuses.
Last month, Florida resident Peter Waldron, who worked with Sorenson on Bachmann 's 2012 presidential campaign in Iowa, filed separate ethics charges alleging the Milo Republican conspired to "personally profit" from proceeds tied to a mailing list of home-school families.
Waldron's complaint also included telephone conversation transcripts regarding alleged negotiations and payments, and a "Sorenson sales pitch" memo regarding the GOP senator's defection from the Bachmann camp to rival Republican Ron Paul's presidential campaign prior to Iowa's first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses in January 2012. The documents and transcripts suggest Sorenson's wife received but never cashed a check from a Paul campaign official.
In his report Wednesday, Weinhardt stated "it is manifestly clear that in early 2011, Senator Sorenson negotiated for and obtained compensation – that ultimately reached $7,500 per month – from Bachmann campaign entities in exchange for his support of Representative Bachmann and service as the campaign's Iowa State Chair.
"Senator Sorenson and others structured the compensation through a cicuitious route," he added, noting that MichelePAC and later Bachmann For President, paid money to Colorado-based C&M Strategies Inc. that had contracted to provide services for the PAC and the campaign.
"C&M in turn paid the money to a corporation wholly owned by Senator Sorenson, Grassroots Strategy, Inc. (GSI)," according to Weinhardt's report. "Senator Sorenson took the bulk of the money that C&M paid to GSI as income for himself."
The special prosecutor said Sorenson made statement "to various people acknowledging that he was receiving compensation in exchange for his support for and work for" Bachmann, and the state senator made statements "showing that he believe that Senate Ethics Rules in fact prohibited him from receiving such compensation."
Weinhardt's report also indicated that before Sorenson defected to the Ron Paul campaign a few days before the 2012 Iowa caucuses, he received a $25,000 check payable to GSI from a senior official with the Ron Paul campaign.
"He did not cash it," according to the report. "After the caucuses, however, GSI received a series of wire transfers from an entity in Maryland called ICT, Inc. totaling $73,000, an amount that would equal $25,000 plus $8,000 per month for six months. We have not been able to connect those transfers directly to the Ron Paul campaign, but the circumstances surrounding them are deeply suspicious."
Sen. Jack Hatch, a Des Moines Democrat who is a 2014 candidate for governor, said the evidence provided by the special prosecutor was "overwhelming," adding that Sorenson's actions "have damaged the reputation of the Iowa caucuses and the spirit of clean play that it represents."
Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids, chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, indicated the bipartisan, six-member panel was expected to meet next week to consider the independent counsel's findings but it was unclear whether that would be necessary in the wake of Wednesday's developments.
Mike Marshall, secretary of the Iowa Senate, said the special prosecutor's findings were part of an ethics proceeding, and any alleged criminal matters contained in Weinhardt's report would be dealt with by the Polk County attorney or the Iowa Attorney General's office.
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