It's been a rough couple of weeks for 6th District Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Earlier this month in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Bachmann made claims that were shredded by fact checkers. Then this week, the Daily Beast reported that congressional ethics investigators are looking into the activities of her failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
At the center of these allegations is a man named Peter Waldron who worked on Bachmann's presidential campaign. All of the complaints against Bachmann that investigators are reportedly examining come from Waldron.
By Waldron's own admission, he is not a neutral bystander. He and other campaign staffers were never paid after Bachmann's poor showing in the Iowa caucuses in January 2012.
Waldron attempted to negotiate with Bachmann and former campaign officials for back pay throughout 2012 and says he waited to go public until after Bachmann was re-elected in November.
'WHO WAS PETER WALDRON?'
Waldron also has a colorful past, which he has attempted to turn into a film. There is currently a low-budget trailer posted online detailing episodes from Waldron's life when he lived in Uganda in the mid-2000s.
"Was he a spy? Was he a missionary? A businessman? A mercenary? A bounty hunter? Who was Peter Waldron?" the trailer begins.
Waldron is a preacher and sometimes Republican political operative. He was also arrested and jailed on terrorism charges in Uganda in 2006 for possessing assault rifles.
Waldron was released after spending more than month in jail. He said President George W. Bush intervened to free him, although that story has not been confirmed.
Waldron also founded a Florida charity in the 1990s that received more than $600,000 in state and local funds. The charity later collapsed amid charges of mismanagement and reports that Waldron was paying himself from those funds.
Bachmann's presidential campaign hired him to do outreach among the evangelical community in mid-2011.
PAYMENTS TO CONSULTANTS QUESTIONED
As the caucuses approached, the campaign was short on cash. As is often the case in struggling campaigns, the staff were asked to go without pay.
But combing through Federal Election Commission reports, Waldron said he noticed that a political action committee separate from the campaign but still controlled by Bachmann, known as MICHELEPAC, was making payments to a Colorado company, C&M Strategies. The campaign had also made payments to the same company.
C&M Strategies is owned by Guy Short, a consultant who was serving as the Bachmann campaign's political director. Waldron was concerned that staffers were being asked to forgo pay while Short was still getting checks.
"I find that kind of behavior reprehensible," Waldron said in an interview. "It's when I made that discovery that I felt a duty to report it to the FEC."
This is the first serious charge of Waldron's leveled against Bachmann -- that Short was paid from MICHELEPAC, a pot of money that was unrelated to the presidential race and should not have been used for campaign-related expenses.
Funds like MICHELEPAC are known in the political vernacular as leadership PACs. They are supposed to be used in fundraising efforts for other candidates or for political expenses that don't have to do with elections, such as traveling out of town to attend a fundraiser.
Paul Ryan, a senior lawyer at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C. calls these types of accounts "political slush funds."
Ryan says if Waldron is right -- if Short was getting paid for his campaign work from MICHELEPAC - that is a serious violation of FEC rules.
"It's not among the more common violations because the rule's pretty simple: You pay for your campaign expenses out of your principal campaign account. You pay for other non-campaign-related items out of your slush fund," Ryan said.
But there is a possible second interpretation to Waldron's claim.
Short has had a professional relationship with Bachmann dating back to at least 2009. He helped establish MICHELEPAC in 2010 and FEC reports show that he had been receiving payments from the fund for at least a year before the events Waldron describes.
It is relatively common for consultants such as Short to receive payment from both a campaign committee and a leadership PAC so long as the consultant performs different kinds of political work for each entity, said election lawyer Kenneth Gross of the law firm Skadden, Arps.
"You really need to look under the hood to make sure the division of labor for this individual was divided properly between the two entities," Gross said.
Waldron filed a complaint to the FEC about this issue and congressional ethics investigators are reportedly also asking questions about it. Short's payments could turn out to be a significant violation of campaign finance rules or it could be perfectly legal.
ALLEGATIONS OF THEFT
"I'm of the opinion that if you believe you are the witness to a crime, then it's your duty to report it."
Waldron's second charge is that Bachmann's Iowa campaign co-chair, a state senator named Kent Sorenson, stole the email list of a Christian home-school group from another Bachmann staffer, Barbara Heki, and used it for campaign mailings. The list was not supposed to be used for political purposes.
Waldron filed an ethics complaint against Sorenson in the Iowa Senate. Heki has filed lawsuit against Bachmann. The Urbandale, Iowa police, where Bachmann's campaign offices were located, are also investigating Waldron's allegations.
"I'm of the opinion that if you believe you are the witness to a crime, then it's your duty to report it," Waldron said.
Waldron did not actually witness the alleged crime, though he is close to Heki, who had the lists.
As the investigations and lawsuit proceed, Sorenson denies he did anything wrong. The Iowa Senate Ethics Committee voted last month to take no immediate action on Waldron's charge, saying it did not want to get involved in an issue already under police investigation.
As far as Bachmann is concerned, the issue is whether she knew about and approved of the alleged theft.
When asked for evidence that Waldron claims to have of the theft, Waldron said he could not share it.
"I don't think it would be appropriate for me to expose the evidence or the witnesses to the allegations contained in [Heki's] lawsuit," Waldron said.
UNDER THE TABLE PAYMENTS CLAIM DISMISSED
Waldron's third charge is also about Sorenson: that he took under-the-table payments from Bachmann's campaign funneled through Short's company, C&M Strategies, in violation of Iowa Senate rules.
Walrdon also filed a complaint on that matter with the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee, which voted 5-1 to dismiss that charge in February.
"What we had in that packet was a bunch of fuzzy stuff and very few facts," said Iowa state Sen. Sandra Greiner (R), according to an Associated Press report.
Bachmann is not talking about any of the allegations.
In a statement, Bachmann's lawyer Bill McGinley said there are no allegations that Bachmann had engaged in wrongdoing and that he is confident that the investigators will conclude she did nothing wrong.
BREACH OF CONFIDENTIALITY
The very existence of an investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics is supposed to be confidential under congressional rules for a good reason, University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson said.
"Many investigations that the Office of Congressional Ethics takes up don't necessarily go to the full House Ethics Committee," Pearson said.
In other words, if the office investigates but does not turn up anything, it then recommends that no further action be taken. The confidentiality of investigations is supposed to protect members' reputations in case they were unfairly accused.
Pearson thinks it may take a while to determine if any of Waldron's allegations hold water and before it will be possible to judge the impact of this episode on Bachmann's career.
Pearson said Bachmann has had high staff turnover in the past and other staffers have also gone public with their complaints about her. While this story is different, Pearson said it could feed a narrative about Bachmann inspiring disloyalty among former staffers.
"Certainly the repeated element of this story is causing larger problems to Congresswoman Bachmann's reputation," Pearson said.
What happens next is unclear. If the ethics investigation finds no wrongdoing, there will not be any public announcement.
So in one sense, the cloud that Waldron has raised around Bachmann could linger for some time.
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