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Ethics Committee sets aside Bachmann investigation

Though the Ethics Committee can later take further action, it usually doesn’t.

REUTERS/Jason Reed
Rep. Michele Bachmann

WASHINGTON — The House Ethics Committee announced Wednesday that it wouldn’t pursue a full-scale investigation into complaints against Rep. Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign at this time, though it will keep the case open.

The Ethics Committee said it would continue to gather facts about the Bachmann case but wouldn’t impanel an investigative subcommittee to look into it. Though the Ethics Committee could take further action later on, it usually doesn’t.

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) had referred a handful of complaints against Bachmann to the Ethics Committee over the summer, including those relating to potential payments to a campaign consultant through an outside political group and whether her campaign unduly promoted a book tour for her “Core of Conviction” memoir, or vice versa. The Ethics Committee did not comment on the allegations except to say it would “gather additional information to complete its review.”

Procedurally, Bachmann’s OCE file went public today, giving a glimpse into one of the several government investigations into Bachmann’s presidential campaign. Many of the investigations were spawned by a former staffer, Peter Waldron, who filed a complaint with the FEC last winter detailing what he called potentially unethical or illegal practices by the Bachmann campaign (Waldron has since co-authored a book about the campaign).

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Elections Commission, the OCE, law enforcement agencies in Iowa and, as revealed in the New York Times last week, the Justice Department have opened inquires into the campaign (the Justice Department is interested in potential coordination between the Bachmann campaign and a super PAC; the ethics inquiry did not consider that charge).

OCE investigation summary

The OCE investigated three main allegations against Bachmann, and the congresswoman and several high-level staffers for her campaign gave testimony on them. (The OCE report and Bachmann’s response can be found here.) 

•First, OCE recommended the Ethics Committee investigate whether a consultant named Guy Short was paid for work he did on the Bachmann presidential campaign through her leadership PAC, Michele PAC, which he ran. According to the report, Short, a campaign employee, ostensibly volunteered his time to the Bachmann campaign after October 2011, when funds were running low. But in the meantime, he received more than $40,000 from Michele PAC (which he ran) for fundraising activities that didn’t pan out.

Bachmann told investigators she didn’t have any control over the fundraising or compensation schedules for Michele PAC, and her lawyers, in a separate OCE filing, said “there is no allegation that Congresswoman Bachmann was personally involved in, or knew about, the PAC’s payments” to Short’s company. But the OCE said there is “substantial reason to believe” Bachmann “authorized, permitted or failed to prevent” such payments to Short, and that they could violate federal law or House rules. Short did not testify before the OCE board but his lawyers have said he’s done nothing wrong.

•Secondly, OCE looked into whether the campaign failed to disclose payments made to Iowa campaign chairman Kent Sorenson, a state senator, for his work on the campaign, which former officials have said were routed through Short’s company (the blow-by-blow of this arrangement is here). Even if these payments were made (and in an Iowa Senate Ethics case, Sorenson has said they were not) and improperly disclosed, OCE found no proof Bachmann knew about it, and recommended the Ethics Committee not investigate further.

That said, the OCE board said its evidence “suggests” some of the campaign’s payments to Short’s company may have gone to Sorenson, and thus, the campaign’s FEC reports about their recipient were false. The board voted to send its information to FEC for further investigation. Bachmann’s former chief of staff, Andy Parrish, testified Bachmann “knew of and approved” a $7,500 a month salary for Sorenson, though she told the OCE she was unaware of it and “that she was not involved in decisions regarding anyone’s compensation.”

•Thirdly, the board considered whether Bachmann’s campaign improperly promoted the book tour for her “Core of Conviction” memoir, and, conversely, whether the book tour improperly promoted the campaign. OCE said Bachmann for President higher-ups might have broken rules by asking campaign staffers to promote the book tour and by sending emails to supporters about it. At one point, a campaign staffer sent an email to other staffers saying, “WE NEED BODIES AT THESE EVENTS TODAY AND TOMRROW!”

The book tour may also have improperly benefited Bachmann’s campaign. OCE said there is evidence campaign staffers handed out campaign literature and signed up volunteers during the Iowa and South Carolina portions of the book tour. OCE said “there is substantial reason to believe that she used promotional book activities paid for by the publisher to promote her presidential campaign,” which could count as an improper in-kind contribution.

Bachmann and her lawyers say her publisher, Penguin-Sentinel, paid for and promoted her book tour and that campaign staffers only traveled along to advise her on campaign matters unrelated to the tour. They said the campaign coordinated the book tour with the Ethics Committee to keep from running afoul of ethical rules.

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Committee dismissed one, to review three others

OCE transmitted its report to the Ethics Committee over the summer, and the panel, led by Reps. Michael Conway (R-Tex.) and Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) said Wednesday it would not conduct a full-tilt investigation right now, though it also didn’t dismiss the case outright, as it did for a complaint against U.S. Rep. John Tierney. The committee put cases involving two other lawmakers under reviews similar to Bachmann’s.

The Ethics Committee conducts these types of reviews frequently, though it generally doesn’t return to the cases in question. The last time a review like this one yielded an investigative subcommittee was August 2012; the last time the Ethics Committee ruled on a case after such a review was February 2012. The committee has considered about a dozen OCE referrals in that time.

“During my presidential campaign, I complied with all applicable laws and regulations, including House Ethics Rules,” Bachmann said a statement Wednesday. “My campaign included experienced staff and advisers who, among other things, administered and managed the financial dealings of the campaign. My directive to them was clear and unequivocal: to be sure that the campaign complied with all relevant laws. The report released today makes no finding that I or anyone on my campaign staff did anything to the contrary; it simply has referred certain matters to the committee responsible for reviewing these issues.”

Devin Henry can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry