August 27, 2014

Ex-State Senator admits he took $73,000 ‘under the table’ to work on 2012 presidential campaign

Kent Sorenson (file photo)

Kent Sorenson (file photo)

A state senator who resigned after being accused of taking payments to work on a 2012 presidential campaign has pleaded guilty to taking $73,000 worth of what prosecutors call “under-the-table” money.

The U.S. Department of Justice today announced 42-year-old Kent Sorenson of Milo has pled guilty to one count of obstruction of justice and one count of causing a presidential campaign to falsely report its expenditures to the Federal Election Commission.

Sorenson had been the chairman of Michele Bachmann’s campaign for the Iowa Caucuses, but Sorenson now admits he started secret negotiations in the fall of 2011 to switch to the Ron Paul camp, in exchange for money. Prosecutors say some of the $73,000 paid to Sorenson was concealed by transferring the money to a film production company and then to a second company before it got to Sorenson.

In his plea agreement, Sorenson admits he lied to a lawyer hired by the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee to investigate the allegations that Sorenson was paid to work on a presidential campaign, which is a violation of senate rules. Sorenson will be sentenced later.

Michele Bachman at a 2011 news conference.

Michele Bachman at a 2011 news conference.

Sorenson resigned from the state senate in October soon after the independent counsel hired by the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee released a report concluding it was “manifestly clear” that Sorenson was paid to work on Bachmann’s presidential campaign. Senator Wally Horn of Cedar Rapids leads the Senate Ethics Committee.

“Iowa is squeaky clean, even though once in a while we have a problem,” Horn told Radio Iowa an hour after Sorenson resigned.

Sorenson sent an email to supporters last October saying he “did not do anything illegal” or “immoral.” Sorenson accused his attackers of a “witch hunt” and he argued the investigation had been “rigged” against him because of his public opposition to the Iowa Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling. The first person to publicly accuse Sorenson of taking money to jump ship and join the Ron Paul campaign was Michele Bachmann.

“I had a conversation with Kent Sorenson and…he told me he that was offered money,” Bachmann said. “He was offered a lot of money by the Ron Paul campaign to go associate with the Ron Paul campaign.”

Bachmann made those comments during a news conference on December 29, 2011 — the day after Sorenson attended a Ron Paul rally to announce he was jumping from Bachmann to Paul’s camp.

F. Montgomery Brown, Sorenson’s attorney, released a written statement today, asking for privacy for Sorenson and his family.

“Mr. Sorenson’s pleas are part of the process of taking complete responsibility for the series of compounding errors and omissions he engaged in, aided and abetted, and participated in with others,” Brown wrote. “…This is a very sad day for Mr. Sorenson, his family, and his friends, many of whom were in attendance in court. To the extent others may take glee with his predicament, there is nothing that can be done.”

Sorenson owned and operated a cleaning business in Indianola before his election to the Iowa House in 2008, then he won a seat in the Iowa Senate in 2010. In a September 19, 2013 deposition that was part of the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee’s investigation of the allegations against Sorenson, he was quizzed about why he was being paid by the Ron Paul campaign.

“What was the consulting work that you were doing?” asked Mark Weinhart, the independent counsel investigating the case for the ethics committee.

Sorenson replied: “I don’t think that’s relevant to the investigation…I’m not going to answer the question.”

Weinhart also asked: “What was it that made you so valuable that they would pay, I think, well over $60,000 during the course of 2012?”

Sorenson, in his answer, suggested his value was as a future candidate for federal office.

“I don’t know if you understand how this works, but he had an interest in me possibly running for the U.S. Senate in this election cycle,” Sorenson said in the deposition. “…I would probably be one of the front-runners right now (if not for the ethics investigation). A lot of people believe that.”

(This post was updated at 3:27 p.m. with additional information.)

College student loan issue swirls in Iowa’s U.S. Senate race

Bruce Braley talking with college students at Drake University.

Bruce Braley talking with college students at Drake University.

Government-backed student loans are the new battleground in Iowa’s U.S. Senate race between Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst. Braley has visited four Iowa college campuses this week to hold round-table discussions with students about college debt, to highlight some of his opponent’s statements.

“The choice couldn’t be clearer between the two of us,” Braley said after an event at Drake University. “She says she wants to abolish the Department of Education which oversees the Pell Grant program which distributes $350 million to Iowa college students, the federal student loan program which loans $1 billion to Iowa students — and she wants the federal government out of the student loan business.”

During the Republican primary campaign, Ernst expressed support for privatizing student loans. Yesterday, Ernst was asked about the issue.

“Before we got rid of any government-backed student loans, I would want to know what we’re replacing it with,” Ernst said during an interview after a campaign event in Indianola. “So it’s not just about doing away with government-backed loans, but making sure we’re finding a solution and, really, what is underlying is the excessive cost of education in the United States, so I think we need to get at that issue also.”

Braley said if federal direct loans for students are eliminated, student debt would skyrocket.

“We heard today from students what a dramatic additional financial burden that would be for them if they’re borrowing money at 12 to 18 percent,” Braley said Tuesday, “which is what many of them are forced to do depending upon their own credit history in the private marketplace.”

Joni Ernst

Joni Ernst

Ernst said finding out why college tuition rates are rising so rapidly should be a goal for policymakers.

“Perhaps all of our students don’t need four-year degrees,” Ernst said. “I just heard from a group yesterday that said we really need those trade skills out there, those people that go to trade schools, not necessarily four-year schools.”

Both Ernst and Braley got undergraduate degrees from Iowa State University and both financed part of that education with government student loans.

Judges tell legislators they were pressured to make pro-business rulings

Current and former judges who rule on contested claims over unemployment benefits for laid-off workers testified Tuesday before the Iowa Senate Oversight Committee. Joe Walsh, the former chief administrative law judge in the Iowa Workforce Development agency, was laid off by the department’s director, who then put herself in charge.

“Which means that you have a partisan political employee in direct management of administrative law judges,” Walsh said.

Walsh said Teresa Wahlert — Governor Branstad’s Iowa Workforce Development director –pressured him to give tips to businesses on how to win cases against laid-off employees. Other judges like Marlon Moorman testified that Wahlert questioned their pro-employee rulings.

“And the pressure was direct. It wasn’t subtle,” Mormon told lawmakers. “It was: ‘You need to change.’”

But one judge who has now been elevated to a management role said she had never been pressured to decide a case one way or another. Wahlert is scheduled to appear before the committee today.

Iowa GOP chair blasts Hatch over killed bill

The chairman of the Iowa Republican Party is accusing Jack Hatch, the Democratic candidate for governor, of killing a bill in the state senate that would have been a hit to Hatch’s bottom line as a real estate developer. Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann says Hatch has been trying to “hide the truth” about his business from Iowans.

“This is just one more example of where his job as state senator has lined his pockets,” Kaufmann says.

In 2013 a Republican in the state senate introduced a bill that would have reduced the fee property developers could claim on tax credits that are issued by the Iowa Finance Authority for low income housing developments. Senator Jake Chapman, a Republican from Adel, says Hatch used his position as chairman of a three-member SUB-committee to kill the bill.

“Hatch, a man who has made millions of dollars from developer fees, killed the bill,” Chapman says. “He stuck it in his desk drawer, never held a (subcommittee) meeting or let it come to a vote because it would have personally cost him millions of dollars if it had passed.”

Chapman says Hatch should have cited a conflict of interest and removed himself from any decision-making on the legislation.

Hatch’s campaign manager accuses Republicans of making a “false attack” against Hatch to divert attention from the two-day hearing a Senate Committee is holding this week to review Branstad Administration management practices. Hatch campaign manager Grant Woodard says it shows Branstad must be “extremely concerned” that Iowans are deciding Hatch is “more competent, honest and informed” than Branstad.

Branstad’s campaign manager sent an email blast to the Branstad supporters, citing the Iowa Republican Party’s allegations and referring to Hatch as a “liberal Des Moines politician” who “owes every Iowan an apology.”

U.S. Chamber of Commerce ‘all in’ for GOP’s Joni Ernst for U.S. Senate (AUDIO)

Rob Engstrom of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with Joni Ernst.

Rob Engstrom of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with Joni Ernst.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has endorsed Republican Joni Ernst in Iowa’s U.S. Senate race. Rob Engstrom, the group’s national political director, said today they’re “all in” for Ernst because her opponent is “actively hostile” toward businesses.

“In any senate race across the country, the choice couldn’t be more clear where you have somebody in Congressman Bruce Braley who is a personal injury lawyer. He’s made a career suing businesses,” Engstrom said. “…He is the face of the problem in Washington, D.C.”

Engstrom spoke during an event at an Indianola hardware store, praising Ernst as an advocate of the free enterprise system, but directing most of his remarks at Braley.

“Whether it’s chasing chickens around his neighbor’s yard and threatening lawsuits, whether it’s pretending to be a farmer, there’s not enough duct tape in aisle three to fix Mr. Braley’s failed record in Washington, D.C.,” Engstrom said, as Ernst laughed.

The U.S. Chambers of Commerce spent over $35 million supporting Republican candidates in 2012 and the group this year has already spent more than half a million on behalf of just one incumbent Republican senator from Mississippi. Ernst will now benefit from U.S. Chambers of Commerce campaign ads run on her behalf in Iowa.

“I do truly hope to have the opportunity to fight the good fight for good, solid, pro-growth economic policies for Iowans — both employees and employers — in the United States Senate,” Ernst said at the event inside McCoy Hardware.

AUDIO of U.S. Chamber of Commerce event in Indianola, 16:00

Braley, her opponent, told reporters an hour later that Ernst will find the endorsement from the U.S. Chambers of Commerce to be a “liability.”

“They are strongly opposed to increasing the minimum wage, which would give 300,000 a pay raise — 20 percent of the workforce,” Braley said after a campaign stop in Des Moines. “And the fact that they’re another organization that is financed by the Koch brothers should be no surprise to Iowans as to why they chose to endorse my opponent.”

The Koch brothers are billionaires who are expected to spend $300 million this election cycle to back conservative candidates and causes.

Grassley: government making sure ‘ice bucket challenge’ money used properly for research

As tens of millions of dollars stream into the ALS Association thanks to the viral popularity of a recent fundraiser, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley warns that charity and all others that the government is “still watching” to make sure the money goes to research, as promised.

Grassley, a Republican, says he launched an investigation into several nonprofit groups in 2003. “We heard reports initially involving philanthropic organizations set up for the 9-11 disaster in New York,” Grassley says. “The money wasn’t being used. People were raising questions about what it went to.”

The probes were broadened to include several groups that took in donations that were considered tax deductible, as it was potential federal tax dollars that were being diverted to various causes and not into government coffers. In 2013, the National Institutes of Health financed 237 areas of disease research, spending more than 30-billion dollars on medical research.

Grassley says the taxpayers deserve to know every tax dollar assigned to medical research is spent prudently, not funded and forgotten. “We changed laws for the Red Cross, as an example, because they’re chartered by the United States,” Grassley says. “We’ve had the conservation organizations that were self-dealing within their board of directors on land that was donated.” The ALS Association has taken in nearly $80 million in recent weeks through the Ice Bucket Challenge, where people dump a bucket of ice water on their heads, make a donation and challenge others, by name, to do the same thing.

Millions of videos have appeared on Facebook since July to raise money for research into ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Grassley says the ALS Association is not being singled out for an investigation and nothing is pending involving that organization. “I think the nonprofits are on top of things pretty well,” Grassley says, “but I just want every organization to know that we’re still watching.”

The senator was asked if he’s been challenged to dump a bucket of ice water on his own head. “I had an inquiry from somebody, the answer is yes, but I thought that the best thing to do would be to use my position as a United States Senator, not to be mellow dramatic, but to promote research, not just for ALS but for all diseases.”

Grassley calls the Ice Bucket Challenge a “social media sensation.” He says it’s good to see more people becoming engaged and educated about diseases that cause pain and suffering for so many. In a statement, he says: “For the families, caregivers, patients and victims of this and other incurable diseases, the increased attention and awareness are welcome signs. It means more people are empathizing with the heartbreak and hardship that comes with a medical diagnosis that so far has no cure.”

Branstad calls state fuel tax ‘old fashioned’, considering sales tax on fuel instead

Governor Terry Branstad says he’s open to continued discussions about how to find new funding sources for road and bridge construction in Iowa, including the idea of imposing the state sales tax on fuel.

“That kind of an approach is an approach that has been used now recently by a number of other states and its one that would be more of a permanent solution,” Branstad says.

Charging the six-percent state sales tax on fuel sales would add far more to the cost of filling up the tank than just raising the state gas tax by 10 cents a gallon. For example, someone buying 10 gallons of gas would pay $1 more if the state gas tax went up a dime. But, if the state sales tax were charged on that transaction, the consumer would pay $2 more.

“Anything you do, obviously, the users are going to have to pay for it,” Branstad says.

The state fuel tax hasn’t been hiked since 1989, when gas was selling for less than $2 a gallon. The average price today in Iowa is $3.37 a gallon. Branstad says charging the state sales tax on fuel purchases would keep up with inflation.

“Going away from the old-fashioned gas and diesel fuel tax, to me, makes sense,” Branstad says.

But the governor is not calling on legislators to pass a bill that would make the change. Branstad has repeatedly said he’s waiting for a “bipartisan consensus” to develop in the legislature. According to Iowa DOT estimates released a couple of years ago, the state is at least $215 million short of what’s needed to maintain and expand the state’s transportation network.

Branstad made his latest comments on the subject yesterday, during his weekly news conference. Find the audio here.