The Obscure Iowa Scandal That Reaches All the Way to Mitch McConnell

Did a Michele Bachmann aide get paid to endorse Ron Paul? And did McConnell’s campaign manager know about it?

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters following the weekly policy lunch of the Republican caucus November 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. McConnell spoke on continued problems with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act during his remarks. 
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Marin Cogan
Dec. 17, 2013, midnight

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.

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