CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa | You could argue that, like a lot of people, it was three little words that got Sen. Kent Sorenson in trouble.
No, not “I love you,” but “in this state.”
Those three words are the difference between the House and Senate ethics rules governing members’ employment by campaigns and political action committees. Senate ethics rules forbid senators from receiving money “directly or indirectly” for work on presidential campaigns.
The House rule adds the words “in this state.” So if only Sorenson had remained in the Iowa House where he served two terms, he might not have wound up in an ethics investigation that remains open despite his resignation from the Senate.
Sorenson was hit with an ethics complaint after he was accused of being paid by Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign. He may face a felony misconduct charge if it is determined he lied about receiving money from the presidential campaign.
The Senate rule is intended to protect the integrity of the Senate and senators, and to prevent senators from “selling” or using their title for personal gain, according to a pair of long-time senators who have served on the chamber’s Ethics Committee.
The rule doesn’t prevent senators from getting involved in campaigns, added Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids, who pointed out he is an honorary chairman of former lawmaker Swati Dandekar’s congressional campaign. “There’s no money involved.”
Whatever the genesis of the rule barring senators from being paid by campaigns and political action committees, the concern today seems to be protecting Iowa’s first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses.
“We’re first-in-the-nation so we don’t want anything to go wrong,” Horn said. “We want to keep it above board. We want to be squeaky clean.”
House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, didn’t want to question “the Senate in its infinite wisdom,” but said whether lawmakers are volunteering or being paid isn’t the issue.
“Transparency is the issue,” she said. Just because a legislator is volunteering on a campaign doesn’t mean they don’t expect a reward in the end. More than one Iowa lawmaker has received a federal appointment after a presidential election.
“I don’t object to lawmakers working for campaigns,” said Upmeyer, who backed Newt Gingrich in the 2012 Iowa caucuses.
“At the end of day, transparency is the key in my mind because as long as we always let the public know what we are doing, if they object, they will let me know,” said Upmeyer, first elected in 2002.
Having the title “House Majority Leader” in front of her name may have made Upmeyer a bigger “get” for the Gingrich campaign. However, she came to know the former U.S. House speaker years ago as a nurse practitioner participating in policy issue discussions with Gingrich.
“So I think he would have approached me regardless of my title,” she said.
She also noted two recent examples of lawmakers working for candidates that defy the suggestion that they were trading on the power and influence of their offices.
She said she believes former Quad Cities Rep. Elesha Gayman was “genuinely engaged” in Barack Obama’s 2008 caucus campaign. Her passion and knowledge of the caucus process was probably more valuable than whatever gravitas and following possessed by a first-term House member, Upmeyer said.
Likewise, she said, former Rep. Erik Helland’s contribution to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s caucus campaign probably had less to do with the second-term Grimes Republican’s office than with his experience on other campaigns.
“Because of what we do, we know how to participate in campaigns,” Upmeyer said about legislators.