Ex-lawmaker pleads guilty in Iowa caucuses case

DES MOINES, Iowa — A former Iowa state senator has pleaded guilty in federal court to crimes related to accepting payment from a presidential campaign during Iowa’s 2012 presidential caucus campaign.

Kent Sorenson of Milo concealed payments he received from then-Rep. Ron Paul’s presidential campaign and then obstructed the investigation into the incident, the U.S. Department of Justice announced in a release Wednesday.

He pleaded guilty to two counts and now is awaiting sentencing. Sorenson could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 for the first count and 20 years in prison and another $250,000 fine for the second.

The case revolves around Sorenson’s dramatic jump from the presidential campaign of Rep. Michele Bachmann to Paul’s rival campaign in late December, 2011, just days before the caucuses.

According to a statement of facts accompanying Sorenson’s plea agreement, he secretly negotiated with the Paul campaign over a period of months to join the campaign and received $73,000 in a series of payments to do so.

The problem with that was the manner in which the payments were made: A single $25,000 check was paid to Sorenson’s wife by a company owned by a Paul campaign staffer’s wife, and several monthly payments of $8,000 were routed through a film production company and a second company before being received by Sorenson, circumventing the reporting requirements of the Federal Election Commission.

In public statements when he switched campaigns, Sorenson said he was not being paid. He also provided false testimony to an independent investigator about the payments “in part to obstruct investigations that he anticipated by the FBI and FEC,” according to the Department of Justice.

For these crimes, he pleaded guilty to one count of causing a federal campaign committee to falsely report its expenditures to the FEC and one count of obstruction of justice.

“Today, Mr. Sorenson has taken responsibility for his crimes,” said Timothy Gallagher, the acting assistant director in charge of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division. “Exploiting the political process for personal gain will not be tolerated, and we will continue to pursue those who commit such illegal actions.”

Sorenson’s attorney, F. Montgomery Brown, issued a statement on behalf of his client.

“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 said in the statement. “This is a very sad day for Mr. Sorenson, his family and his friends.”

As part of the plea agreement, Sorenson’s wife, Shawnee, will not be charged in the case.

An attempt to reach Sorenson directly was unsuccessful. A woman who answered his cellphone said he was not available. “You won’t be talking to him,” she said.

The guilty plea is the latest turn in a lengthy drama over Sorenson’s role in the Bachmann and Paul campaigns.

Sorenson, a Republican elected to the Iowa Senate in 2010, resigned last October after the release of a damning report by an independent investigator working on behalf of the Senate Ethics Committee.

That report found “probable cause” that Sorenson broke ethics rules by accepting payments from a political action committee associated with Bachmann. The report also said his denials of taking such payment may represent a felony under Iowa law.

The 566-page report focused primarily on Sorenson’s dealings with the Bachmann campaign but is the most authoritative accounting so far of his presidential campaign activities.

In it, Mark E. Weinhardt, the specially appointed independent counsel to the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee, reported that Sorenson was paid by the Bachmann campaign and by a Bachmann-controlled political action committee but filtered the funds through two separate consulting firms.

The report also found that Sorenson received a $25,000 check from a senior official in Paul’s presidential campaign, which he did not cash, and $73,000 in wire transfers that Weinhardt called “deeply suspicious.”

It’s those payments that were the subject of the federal investigation that led to Wednesday’s guilty plea.

The case has raised questions about the campaign finance activities of the Paul campaign, and sparked concerns that the reputation of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses could be damaged.

Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann declined to comment on the matter.