Former Iowa state senator pleads guilty in Ron Paul endorsement-for-pay scheme

A former Iowa state senator pleaded guilty Wednesday to concealing campaign expenditures and obstructing justice as part of an endorsement-for-pay scheme that roiled the Iowa Republican caucuses in 2012.

Kent Sorenson, of Milo, Iowa, admitted in federal district court that former Rep. Ron Paul’s presidential campaign secretly paid him $73,000 after he dramatically dropped his backing of Rep. Michele Bachmann in late 2011 and endorsed Paul’s White House bid, saying at the time that Bachmann was no longer a viable candidate.

A furious Bachmann charged then that Sorenson was being paid to flip his support to Paul -- an accusation that Sorenson, Paul and his campaign officials all denied.

But in court papers filed Wednesday, Sorenson acknowledged that he had been paid by both presidential campaigns.

An attorney for Sorenson, F. Montgomery Brown, said in a statement that his guilty plea was part of his process “of taking complete responsibility for the series of compounding errors and omissions he engaged in.”

“This is a very sad day for Mr. Sorenson, his family, and his friends, many of whom were in attendance in court,” Brown added. “To the extent others may take glee with his predicament, there is nothing that can be done.”

David A. Warrington, who served as general counsel to Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, did not return requests for comment.

For most of 2011, the state senator received between $7,000 and $7,500 a month from Bachmann’s campaign and her PAC, according to court documents. Then in December 2011, after two months of secret negotiations with Paul’s campaign, he met with a Paul political operative at a restaurant in Altoona, Iowa, and agreed to change his allegiance. The operative gave the state senator’s wife a check for $25,000 to secure Sorenson’s support. (The check was apparently never cashed.)

The court filings did not identify the Paul operative, but in a recording of a phone call posted last year by TheIowaRepublican.com, Sorenson identified him as Dimitri Kesari, then Paul’s deputy national campaign manager. TheIowaRepublican.com and OpenSecrets.org, the Web site of the nonpartisan research group Center for Responsive Politics, also reported last year on emails in which representatives of Paul and Sorenson allegedly discussed his demands for payment.

Paul’s campaign chairman at the time was Jesse Benton, who is now running the re-election bid of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Benton did not respond to requests for comment. Jesse R. Binnall, an attorney representing Kesari, declined to comment.

After Sorenson publicly switched his endorsement, Paul’s campaign routed the state senator a total of $73,000 in 2012, transferring the payments through a film production company and another company to conceal the intended recipient, according to court filings. Sorenson wanted the payments kept secret because of Iowa Senate ethics rules that prohibit sitting senators from accepting payments from a political campaign, according to court papers.

Last year, when a state independent counsel was investigating allegations that Sorenson switched his endorsement for money, the state senator lied under oath that he had been paid by either campaign, the court filings said.

On Wednesday, 42-year-old Sorenson pleaded guilty to one count of causing a federal campaign committee to falsely report its expenditures and one count of obstruction of justice. He faces up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for the first count and up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for the second count, but prosecutors plan to recommend he receive a reduced sentence for accepting responsibility, according to court filings.

“Campaign finance reports should be accurate and transparent, not tools for concealing campaign expenditures,” Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division said in a statement. “Lying by public officials – whether intended to obstruct the FEC or federal investigators – violates the public trust and the law, and the Department of Justice does not tolerate it.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Matea Gold covers money in politics for The Washington Post.
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