Special investigator will examine ethics complaint against Kent Sorenson

Today the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee voted to appoint a special investigator to look into allegations that Republican State Senator Kent Sorenson broke Senate rules against being paid for political campaign work. It was the least they could do, in light of testimony submitted recently by U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann’s former chief of staff. Even so, two Republicans on the Committee voted against launching an investigation. Jack Whitver claimed the action would encourage “frivolous” ethics charges to be investigated regardless of supporting evidence. Jerry Behn said the complaint was based on “hearsay,” even though e-mail correspondence and an affidavit attested to Sorenson receiving indirect payments.

Republican Senator Sandy Greiner voted with the three Democrats on the Ethics Committee (Wally Horn, Joe Seng, and Dick Dearden) to launch an investigation. O.Kay Henderson posted audio from the committee meeting at Radio Iowa. Horn emphasized the need to protect Iowa’s first in the nation status for the presidential race. Greiner said she hoped the investigator would find Sorenson to be “as pure as the driven snow” but noted, “there’s going to be a cloud over this entire chamber if we don’t attempt to get to the bottom of this.”

Sorenson claims he is an innocent victim of a “witch hunt” and submitted documents in his defense to the Ethics Committee. Iowa Senate Secretary Mike Marshall told journalists that the complaint “still could ultimately be dismissed after the investigation.”

LATE UPDATE: On May 10, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady signed an order naming Des Moines attorney Mark Weinhardt “special counsel” to investigate these allegations. Background on Weinhardt is after the jump.

From a blog post by Des Moines Register reporter William Petroski:

Cady signed an order on Friday appointing Weinhardt as special counsel to determine whether probable cause exists to believe that a violation of the state ethics law has occurred, and if an evidentiary hearing on the complaint should be held.

Weinhardt issued a statement  saying he intends to conduct a “full and fair investigation into the allegations in the complaint filed with the Senate Ethics Committee. I will report my findings to the committee as the statute directs. Beyond that, I do not think it is appropriate for me to comment about this case until my work is done.”

Weinhardt, 52, is a University of Michigan Law School graduate who has practiced law in Des Moines since 1991, specializing  in complex business litigation and white collar criminal cases. From 1988 through 1991, he was a criminal prosecutor in the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s Office in Rockford, Ill. He successfully represented Postville packing plant executive Sholom Rubashkin against 83 counts of violating Iowa’s labor laws, and successfully defended the Iowa Department of Human Services in a $43 million lawsuit brought by a health maintenance organization.

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