IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson received a $25,000 check from a high-ranking official in Ron Paul's presidential campaign days before ditching Michele Bachmann to back Paul, and eventually got $73,000 in suspicious payments that may be linked to Paul's campaign, an investigator has found.
Sorenson resigned from office Wednesday after investigator Mark Weinhardt concluded Sorenson likely broke ethics rules in receiving $7,500 in monthly income from Bachmann's political action committee and presidential campaign in exchange for being Bachmann's state chair in 2011.
Weinhardt's 566-page report also suggests Sorenson defected from the Minnesota congresswoman's campaign days before the January 2012 caucuses after receiving promises of compensation from Paul's campaign, raising questions about whether criminal or campaign finance laws were violated.
A federal investigation is underway, Sorenson's attorney said Thursday. In Des Moines, Polk County Attorney John Sarcone said Thursday his office would review the report to determine whether there is a basis to pursue criminal charges.
In response to a subpoena, Sorenson turned over an uncashed $25,000 check he said his wife received from Dimitri Kesari, who was Paul's deputy national campaign manager. The check, from the checkbook of a Virginia jewelry business owned by Kesari's wife, was dated Dec. 26, 2012, two days before Sorenson joined Paul's campaign.
Paul, then a Texas congressman, received publicity from Sorenson's late endorsement before finishing a close third in the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Kesari gave the check to Sorenson's wife during a dinner meeting while Sorenson was in the bathroom, Sorenson's lawyer, Theodore Sporer, said. It was made out to Grassroots Strategy, Inc., a firm owned by Sorenson that was the vehicle for his compensation from Bachmann's committees. The check was never cashed.
Sorenson, elected to the House in 2008 and the Senate in 2010 to represent districts south of Des Moines, was sought after by Republican presidential campaigns because he was seen as a popular social conservative who would soon run for higher office. Bachmann consultant Guy Short told campaign aides in 2011 Sorenson was "the real deal" and should be hired quickly because, "People are getting bought off," emails show.
Sorenson's firm soon started receiving $7,500 monthly from Short's Colorado firm with funds from Bachmann's PAC and later her campaign, the report said. Sorenson was the first state elected official to endorse Bachmann and introduced her at Iowa events.
While working for Bachmann, Sorenson rejected offers of payment from Paul's campaign operatives, Sporer said.
"I don't know if I would call it a bribe. I think they were trying to hire him," Sporer said. "Obviously they wanted to induce him to come change sides."
Sorenson told Fox News before the caucuses that Paul's campaign "never offered a nickel" for his switch, denying Bachmann's claim of a payoff.
"With the Kesari check in hand, Senator Sorenson's statements on national television were simply false," wrote Weinhardt, who was appointed to investigate a Senate ethics complaint filed against Sorenson by a former Bachmann aide.
Kesari's wife, Jolanda, who operates Designer Goldsmiths in Leesburg, Va., said Thursday only her husband could answer questions about the check. He didn't return a message.
Weinhardt's report found Sorenson's business received $73,000 in wire transfers in the following months from ICT, Inc., of Hyattsville, Md. The payments suggest that Sorenson received $25,000 upfront and then $8,000 per month for six months — similar to the compensation Sorenson told colleagues the Paul campaign had offered, the report said.
Weinhardt was unable to connect the payments directly or indirectly to Paul's campaign, but wrote the circumstances create "a strong suspicion" that was the case. He said that ICT is a business associated with documentary filmmaker Noel "Sonny" Izon, who didn't return a message.
Sorenson denied the ICT payments were connected to Paul during a deposition last month, but gave vague answers about their source. He said that he'd been hired by ICT to do "general consulting both on political and business issues" and seek locations for Iowa video shoots.
Sorenson later invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid answering further questions. Sporer said that Sorenson quit talking after receiving a federal subpoena seeking records related to his campaign work.
"Once that happens, I'm sure you can appreciate how quickly the desire to speak is muzzled," he said.