After Iowa lawmaker admits to ethics lapse, legislative leaders stand by current rules

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Legislative leaders in Iowa have no immediate plans to change ethics rules governing political work after a former state senator admitted to lying about receiving payments to switch his support from one Republican presidential candidate to another.

Former state Sen. Kent Sorenson pleaded guilty last week to receiving thousands of dollars in "under the table payments" from a 2012 presidential campaign and lying about the money, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The payments came before he switched loyalties from U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, whose state campaign he headed in Iowa, to then-U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, though federal prosecutors did not detail which campaign paid him.

The plea came after a lengthy review of Sorenson's actions by the state Senate ethics committee last year. Sorenson, 42, resigned from the Senate in October after an independent investigator appointed by the Senate released a report saying it was "manifestly clear" Sorenson negotiated payments in 2011 in exchange for his work as Bachman's Iowa campaign chair. State Senate rules forbid any sitting lawmaker from being paid by a campaign while in office.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, a Democrat from Council Bluffs, said he thinks that in Sorenson's case, the Senate oversight process worked.

"We have demonstrated that if you do wrong, you attempt to sell your vote, you will be caught. You will eventually be convicted. It's a very good warning," Gronstal said.

Sorenson chaired Bachmann's Iowa campaign before switching his support to Paul shortly before the 2012 Iowa caucuses. The formal statement of facts in the case makes clear that Sorenson received monthly payments of roughly $8,000 from October to December 2011 in exchange for switching his support to an unnamed candidate.

He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and causing a campaign to falsely report expenditures. Sorenson could face up to 20 years in prison for obstruction of justice, and as many as five years on the second charge.

The rules for members of the Iowa House differ from the Senate. In that chamber, members can accept paid political work but must disclose the income. House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, a Republican from Hiawatha, said House leaders feel transparency is the best method and don't plan to change the rules.

"We concluded that disclosure and making sure Iowans have the opportunity to be informed is the right pathway to take," Paulsen said. "We've had House members who have worked for presidential campaigns in the past."

It is unclear if the Sorenson case is a black mark for Iowa's leadoff presidential caucuses or if there could be any shadow cast over Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — Ron Paul's son — should he enter the Republican presidential race for 2016. Paulsen said he thought one bad actor should not affect the integrity of the caucuses.

"It reflected badly on all of us, but I think one person making inappropriate decisions is just that, one person making inappropriate decisions," Paulsen said.

Rand Paul has visited Iowa many times as he ponders a presidential bid in 2016. Brent Siegrist, a Republican from Council Bluffs who once served as speaker in the state House, said Iowans have a low tolerance for political misdeeds and that the controversy could hurt Rand Paul.

"This type of situation that gets national press, certainly doesn't help the first in the nation (status)," said Siegrist. But he added that caucus voters always make up their own minds. "I'm sure they'll hear everybody out."

A spokesman for Rand Paul's political action committee declined comment.

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