WASHINGTON – The U.S. House Ethics Committee announced Wednesday that it’s extending its probe into Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s failed presidential campaign. In addition to that announcement, the committee released the full report about Bachmann’s campaign compiled by the Office of Congressional Ethics, a separate and independent organization, along with hundreds of pages of supporting documents.
Many of the revelations in the Wednesday afternoon document dump have already been well-covered by the press thanks to leaks from former campaign operatives. But after going over the entire packet, there are a few conclusions worth drawing.
1. Bachmann is in legal limbo
Lawyers who’ve been on the receiving end of Congressional ethics probes describe the process as “death by a thousand cuts” and that certainly applies in Bachmann’s case. The Ethics Committee could have launched an investigative subcommittee to look into Bachmann, but didn’t. Instead, the committee said it would continue to gather facts on Bachmann’s case and gave no timetable for when that process could end. In fact, that’s a pattern for the House Ethics Committee of late, which made the same decision for three of the four ethics cases it announced Wednesday. Longtime congressional reporter John Bresnehan of Politico noted that, “based on past practice, the members face little chance of sanction by the committee.”
2. Bachmann’s presidential campaign was incredibly ad hoc
This should not come as any surprise to anyone with a passing familiarity with Bachmann’s career. Still, the exhibits attached to the OCE report vividly paint a picture of a chaotic campaign where lines of responsibility were poorly drawn or nonexistent. One sign of the chaos is that many of the key personnel on the presidential campaign were recruited with what appears to be very little notice. For example, an interview memo with former campaign manager Keith Nahigian says one of Bachmann’s consultants approached him “a few weeks prior to the launch of Rep. Bachmann’s campaign to ask if he was working for any presidential campaign in this cycle.”
Guy Short, the political consultant who was allegedly paid for his services via Bachmann’s leadership political action committee , MICHELEPAC, rather than the campaign (which would be a violation of campaign finance laws, if proven true) had very wide latitude across the campaign. An interview memo after congressional investigators spoke with Bachmann describes the relationship in broad terms: “All of his work has been good, so she felt comfortable leaving decisions in his hands.”
Later, Short was promoted to National Political Director, which meant very little, according to Nahigian’s account to investigators: “The witness explained that the change in Mr. Short’s title was primarily motivated by a desire to project an image of an organized, viable campaign.”
3. Political book tours are fraught with risks
It’s become commonplace for presidential candidates to write books and go on a book tour promoting the book, and themselves, prior to launching a campaign. Bachmann jumped into the race with relatively little planning. After a strong performance at the Iowa Straw Poll in August 2011, she got an offer to write a quickie autobiography from Sentinel Press, the conservative imprint of Penguin. The book was scheduled to come out before the Iowa Caucus on the assumption that she was one of the GOP’s top candidates. The decision to write that book, which was a commercial dud, and promote it, has created a score of headaches for Bachmann that future candidates will surely examine closely before signing a book contract.
Congressional ethics rules prohibit members of Congress from using staff and campaign resources to help promote what are seen as commercial ventures that benefit the candidate financially. From the documents released by OCE, Bachmann’s campaign appeared to trod all over those rules. As the report puts it, “Representative Bachmann may have used resources from her presidential campaign to promote her book, and may have used promotional book activities paid for by the publisher to promote her presidential campaign.”
The OCE file includes pictures of Bachmann at book events, surrounded by campaign staffers and stacks of campaign materials. After one book signing event had poor turnout, Bachmann Iowa campaign manager Eric Woolson wrote staffers to say, “AIl — the Mason city event was a disaster. Please get in touch with anyone you know who might tum out for the following events…WE NEED BODIES AT THESE EVENTS TODAY AND TOMORROW!”
4. Almost everyone was trying to cash in
Some of the initial complaints about the Bachmann campaign came from former staffer Peter Waldron, who was upset about consultant Guy Short’s compensation package. In fact, high-priced consultants and others eager to make a quick buck appear to be a constant theme in the documents.
Short wanted a retainer of $20,000 a month from the campaign. The campaign’s first management team balked at that number and agreed to pay him $15,000 a month and, according to former Bachmann chief of staff Andy Parrish, Short then received an additional $5,000 a month from MICHELEPAC even though the political action committee was essentially moribund for the duration of Bachmann’s presidential campaign.
Then there’s the case of Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson, who was prohibited by Iowa Senate rules from receiving payment from a political campaign. The documents released by OCE suggest that Sorenson was paid $7,500 a month for his endorsement of Bachmann and he reportedly told at least one staffer, “I’m being paid to do this.” Sorenson ultimately defected to the campaign of Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul in the final days and allegedly told another Bachmann staffer he was offered more money from the Paul camp.
Waldron, the former staffer turned whistleblower, has also attempted to cash in by writing an e-book released last month with St. Paul lawyer John Gilmore entitled, “Bachmannistan: Behind the Lines” that’s a campaign tell-all.
It wasn’t just the operatives who were trying to milk as much as they could from Bachmann’s campaign. Sentinel, the publisher, wrongly anticipated that Bachmann’s book would be a bestseller. Will Weiser, a Penguin executive, told other executives in an email that he would need additional marketing funds for Bachmann’s book because, “We expect it to add at least 150,000 billing units to the year.” The book’s actual sales were less than one twentieth of that estimate.
5. There’s even more out there
The OCE report released Wednesday is likely to most detailed look the public will get into Bachmann’s presidential campaign, but it’s not the only probe. The Federal Election Commission has also been investigating Short and payment arrangements he may have made for Sorenson. The FBI has interviewed Waldron, Parrish and others. Last week, the New York Times reported that the U.S. Department of Justice has issued subpoenas to Bachmann, her husband Marcus, and a range of other figures to find out whether the campaign may have broken rules around candidates coordinating with super PACs, which are supposed to be independent and arms-length from candidates and their campaigns.
Bachmann, who’s stepping down when her term ends in 2014, denies the allegations and says she’s confident she’ll be exonerated by the Ethics Committee. That may well happen but the legal trouble from the other investigations may well take much longer to resolve.