Mitch McConnell has more pressing things to worry about: a wealthy tea partier primarying him, a fresh-faced Democrat challenging him—to say nothing of the difficulties of holding his Senate conference together in a time of GOP civil war.
But McConnell might need to add Kent Sorenson, an obscure former Iowa state senator, to his list. Sorenson resigned from office in October after a special investigator in Iowa found probable cause that he broke state law by lying about accepting payment to work on Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign. He's also suspected of taking money from Ron Paul's campaign to switch his support to that candidate—whose operatives are now deeply linked to McConnell's.
Last month, the FBI seized Sorenson's family computers and told his attorney it was looking into his contact with 2012 presidential campaigns. It's not clear what aspect interests them, but if the Iowa investigator's report is any indication, the federal probe could have implications for McConnell's 2014 Senate bid.
The Iowa investigator found that while working on the Bachmann campaign, Sorenson knowingly tried to circumvent the state Senate's ethics rules barring Iowa lawmakers from work for pay on presidential races; he had the money sent to his own firm through the political consulting firm of a Bachmann aide. Just days before the Iowa caucuses, though, Sorenson's wife received a check for $25,000 from Paul's deputy campaign manager, Dimitri Kesari. Then Sorenson left Bachmann's faltering campaign and endorsed Paul.
After Sorenson's desertion, Bachmann claimed publicly that he had told her he'd been paid "a lot of money" to defect to the Paul camp. Sorenson denied it—until a former Paul campaign aide leaked to The Iowa Republican, a website that covers party politics, an audio clip in which a person said to be Sorenson admits receiving the check, written from the jewelry business of Kesari's wife. Sorenson, who never cashed the check, has since turned it over to investigators.
In August, the same Paul aide leaked another recording to The Republican of former Paul campaign Chairman Jesse Benton, who is now managing McConnell's campaign. In it, the aide asks Benton whether he knew about the check. Benton replies, "I don't know anything about that." But on another recording obtained by The Republican, Sorenson suggests that Benton was aware. "I know Jesse knows," Sorenson can be heard saying. The Republican also posted emails between a Sorenson ally and Paul campaign officials in which the ally details the money needed for Sorenson to make the switch. (Kesari and Benton did not respond to messages requesting comment.)
There's more. Last week, Open Secrets, a site that tracks federal campaign contributions, found that McConnell's Federal Election Commission reports cite payments to Hyllus Corp. for consulting. The money was sent to a P.O. box that had previously been used to send checks to Kesari, who cut the original check to Sorenson. McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore tells National Journal that Hyllus "was contracted in early 2013 for a specific project, which was accomplished last spring.
The campaign has had no further dealings with Hyllus or Mr. Kesari since the completion of the project."
While Sorenson didn't cash his $25,000 check, it still might have broken federal campaign finance laws: If the check was written in exchange for something of value, the campaign would have been required to disclose it to the FEC as an in-kind contribution. That didn't happen. Whatever investigators find could be a lot worse for the Bachmann and Paul camps. But questions about Kesari's consulting for McConnell's campaign and what his campaign manager knew at the time are the last thing the Senate minority leader needs.
This article appears in the December 14, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as A Hawkeye Headache.
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