Bachmann’s Cautionary Tale: Sweat the Small Stuff, or Pay the Price
Posted at 8 p.m. on Sept. 15, 2013
Few members of Congress sustain higher name identification than Michele Bachmann, even though her shooting-star prominence has had almost nothing to do with her work as the representative from the Twin Cities suburbs.
But now, in the self-imposed twilight of her time in the House, she looks to be shaping the end of her career in a way she never intended — a way that could not have been predicted when she burst so bombastically onto the scene six years ago — as the latest cautionary tale about the danger of deciding there’s no need to sweat the details of political life.
Once Bachmann announced in May that she wouldn’t make an assuredly difficult run for a fifth term, the Beltway fact-checkers decided not to put much effort into refuting her conspiratorial histrionics or conservative flights of fancy. House Republican leadership began shifting its view of her from a major management challenge to a tangential irritant. The tea party colleagues she once purported to direct scattered in search of different leadership.
But the watchdogs of congressional behavior, campaign finance regulations and federal criminal law haven’t dropped the Minnesotan from their sights. And, in the past two weeks, they’ve signaled they have found someone who was, at best, inappropriately ignorant about improper activity by the people who ran her boom-to-bust-in-five-months quest for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
An exhaustive 430-page report from the Office of Congressional Ethics portrays a campaign that was not only chaotic but also supervised hardly at all by the candidate. Bachmann suggested to investigators that she ought to be cleared of wrongdoing because she paid so little mind to what her campaign aides and the staff of her political action committee were doing. She was so hands-off, she said, that she never even discussed compensation with Guy Short, the Colorado political consultant central to both operations, because she “just trusted him.”
The office didn’t buy the purposely asleep-at-the-switch defense, instead concluding that there was “substantial reason to believe” Bachmann broke federal law and House rules by:
- either actively or passively permitting Short to be paid for his presidential campaign work with leadership PAC money.
- either directing or allowing her campaign staff to make her national campaign a vehicle for promoting sales of her personal memoir.
- either arranging or permitting her publisher to underwrite a book tour that was a thinly disguised campaign swing.
The report was released last week by the House Ethics Committee, which said the findings were serious enough that an investigation of Bachmann would be left open indefinitely.
Putting its own inquiry in limbo is customary when entities with stronger teeth are interested in an ethics case. The Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice are reportedly ramping up investigations this fall into the Bachmann presidential campaign’s dealings with both Michele PAC and the National Fiscal Conservative PAC. (The Iowa legislature and an investigator hired by the state Supreme Court are looking into whether the Bachmann campaign made secret payments to a Republican state senator in return for his 2012 support, an allegation the congressional ethics panel said should be dismissed because of fuzzy evidence.)
After the House Ethics panel acted last week, Bachmann declared that she’d done nothing wrong and had relied on “experienced staff” after telling them to abide by the law. (Short has denied impropriety as well.) The congresswoman also hired a well-known fixer of GOP fundraising messes to make sure the House campaign and Michele PAC books are totally squared away before she starts her break from elected life at the end of next year.
Even if the bookkeeping is put right, even if the welter of investigations fizzles, one of the most notorious rhetorical warriors in recent political history will be leaving as a silent exemplar of some of the most oft-delivered warnings to members of Congress.
Turning a blind eye to rules that appear picayune could cost you your reputation. So can assuming your political or legislative aides live by the set of ethical and moral standards you espouse. But throwing your staff under the bus is rarely a recipe for long-term survival.
And ignorance of the law will prove an even less successful excuse for a politician than it is for the typical citizen. Fairly or not, the voters will generally conclude that the person whose name is on the ballot should be held accountable for the conduct of a campaign — just as they assume the person whose name is on the congressional door is responsible for all the votes cast.
Morality and electability aside, keep an eye on your campaign account — or risk losing a lot of money in fines or to fraud.
Last fall, veteran California campaign accountant Kinde Durkee was sentenced to eight years in federal prison after confessing to embezzling $10.5 million from six dozen clients over a decade — almost half of it from Sen. Dianne Feinstein and three of her Democratic colleagues in the House. And just last week, the FEC asked Speaker John A. Boehner’s campaign to explain why it kept some apparently overly generous donations from people and PACs back in 2011 — one of dozens of similar inquiries the agency sends out every year.
Most of the time, these fundraising anomalies turn out to be more about lax oversight than malfeasance. But, as Bachmann can attest, even not knowing the difference can be plenty costly.