DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — An Iowa Senate ethics panel voted Wednesday to seek a special investigator to review charges that a state senator was indirectly paid for working on Republican Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign, an arrangement that could violate Senate rules.
In a 4-2 vote, the committee agreed to ask the chief justice of the state Supreme Court to appoint an investigator to review a complaint against Republican Sen. Kent Sorenson, of Milo.
Two former staffers for Bachmann's 2012 presidential campaign have said that Sorenson was indirectly paid for campaign work for the Minnesota congresswoman. Andy Parrish, who was Bachmann's chief of staff and later served on her Iowa campaign, gave the ethics committee an affidavit accusing Sorenson of seeking compensation and agreeing to a deal to have a Bachmann supporter-run company pay him $7,500 a month.
Iowa Senate ethics rules bar paid employment with political campaigns.
Sorenson says he was never paid directly or indirectly. He offered a series of affidavits backing his position Wednesday, including one from an attorney who audited his bank statements from a checking account and said there is no evidence of the alleged payments.
The committee will review the payment allegations, as well as a charge that Sorenson stole an email list from a Bachmann supporter. Sorenson has denied that claim as well and offered an affidavit from another Bachmann staffer supporting his position. Police are investigating the email list claim, too.
After the committee made its decision about a special investigator, Sorenson said he still stands by his statement that he was not paid.
"Nothing changes. It's a political witch hunt and I'm happy to combat this," Sorenson said.
Sen. Wally Horn, the committee's chairman, said he didn't know how long the inquiry would take, but he doubted it would move quickly. He said it was important for the state to hold elected officials to high ethical standards, given the state's status as the site of the first presidential caucuses.
"We're first in the nation and we want Iowa politics as clean as it can possibly be," said Horn, D-Cedar Rapids.
He did not know the last time the ethics panel had sought such an investigation. Once the investigator concludes the review, the committee can schedule a public hearing or dismiss the complaint. Ultimately, the committee can recommend a punishment up to expulsion from the Senate.
Two of the Republicans on the committee argued that the evidence was inconclusive and questioned moving forward with an investigation. But Sen. Sandra Greiner, R-Washington, said committee members have a responsibility to seek further information.
"There is going to be a cloud over this entire chamber if we don't attempt to get to the bottom of this," Greiner said. "By golly, we've got the reputation of this chamber for many years to come at risk, and I think the only conscientious thing to do is to allow a special investigator to take a look at it. I hope to God they come back and say they found nothing."
The conservative Bachmann entered the presidential race in June 2011 as a favorite of the tea party, and went on to win the Iowa GOP presidential straw poll two months later. But within weeks, staff and senior leadership were abandoning the campaign and key supporters were complaining about its disarray. Bachmann went on to finish a distant sixth-place in the January 2012 caucuses and quit the race the next day.