Anyone who has followed Iowa politics during the past decade must read Tim Alberta’s profile of former State Senator Kent Sorenson in the latest edition of Politico Magazine. “Kent Sorenson Was a Tea Party Hero. Then He Lost Everything” is fascinating from beginning to end, so I strongly encourage clicking through to read the whole piece.
Having covered Sorenson’s legislative career and intensely disagreed with nearly everything he stood for, I was genuinely moved to learn how his outlook has changed over the past few years. Some passages that caught my eye are after the jump.
“YOUR PREVIOUS COUNSEL WAS INCOMPETENT … YOU LIED UNDER OATH”
After pleading guilty to “causing false reports of federal campaign expenditures” and “falsifying records in contemplation and relation to a federal investigation intending to obstruct justice,” Sorenson received a 15-month prison sentence. Federal prosecutors had recommended probation, due to information Sorenson provided about political operatives associated with Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt determined that probation would not “reflect the seriousness” of his offenses, nor would it “deter others from engaging in similar criminal conduct.”
When a corrupt office holder receives too lenient a sentence, the public understandably loses confidence in the integrity of its system of government. And it sends a signal to other elected officials and public servants that they can have one free bite at the apple when it comes to accepting money for political favors. […] Sentencing corrupt office holders to a colloquial “slap on the wrist” may over time exacerbate an endemic cycle of corruption.
Alberta notes that Sorenson’s “implosion began in earnest” in September 2013, when he lied under oath while being deposed by special investigator Mark Weinhardt. His attorney, Ted Sporer, had advised him to say he wasn’t being paid by a presidential campaign or political action committee. Sporer “felt it was legally defensible because the money had been routed through the audio-visual company to Sorenson’s LLC, not directly to the senator himself,” Alberta writes.
Sorenson fired Sporer and hired [Montgomery “Monty”] Brown, a highly respected Iowa defense attorney. He wasted no time in their first meeting. “Kent, your previous counsel was incompetent,” Brown said. “You lied under oath. And you’re in deep shit.”
Sporer had repeatedly lied to the media about Sorenson, saying his client never received money directly or indirectly from the Ron Paul campaign. Last year, the Iowa Supreme Court suspended his law license for six months after finding that Sporer made “false statements to a tribunal” and engaged in “misrepresentation or deceit,” as well as conduct “prejudicial to the administration of justice,” in an unrelated case.
“HIS PLACEMENT AT THAT CHICAGO FACILITY WAS RIDICULOUS”
Although Sorenson was not charged with violent crimes, he was ordered to serve at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Chicago, a maximum-security prison.
The long sentence, which was upheld by the 8th Circuit Court, was shocking enough. Then came the notification from the Bureau of Prisons: Sorenson was to self-report to the MCC. Everyone—Sorenson, Brown, even Pratt—was floored. “His placement at that Chicago facility was ridiculous,” Brown says. “I would imagine that his domestic abuse case, even though it got changed to a disorderly conduct, somehow suggested violence. That’s the only thing I can think of. He should have gone to a work camp in South Dakota.” Pratt adds, “I was surprised he went to a maximum facility, because he was allowed the privilege of self-reporting. I’d say 85 to 90 percent of the people we sentence don’t get the privilege of self-reporting.”
Less than halfway through his sentence, Sorenson was taken to a minimum-security federal prison in Thomson, Illinois, across the border from Clinton, Iowa. Alberta’s reporting indicates the transfer happened because prison officials were “annoyed” Sorenson was helping fellow inmates fill out paperwork and “grew wary” of how he described conditions at the MCC in e-mails to his wife. Shawnee Sorenson sought Senator Chuck Grassley’s assistance in getting her husband moved.
“I THOUGHT IT WAS ALL A BUNCH OF MEDIA HYPE”
His experience with incarceration has turned Sorenson into an advocate for prison and sentencing reform. Getting to know fellow inmates, he learned more about the obstacles they had faced. His eyes were opened further when the head of Special Investigative Services in the Thomson facility told him prison staff used racial animus to their advantage.
Sorenson was blindsided by the remark. Quizzing Hanson further, he discovered that the officer wasn’t just describing efforts to head off a physical confrontation with inmates, but also efforts to preemptively undermine any coordinated push for better conditions and better treatment. The biggest concern for prison officials, Sorenson began to realize, wasn’t riots or violence; it was the airing of dirty laundry, tales of neglect and suppression that could make their way to the public. What Hanson was saying, Sorenson recalls, is that by obsessing over petty beefs and turf wars, the prison’s warring racial tribes could not make a coherent, organized case for reform. […]
Hanson’s words had shaken Sorenson. The racial callousness aside, he questioned why a prison official would confide so casually in an inmate. And then it occurred to him. “He thought I was a good old boy, a white Republican politician who would laugh along with him,” Sorenson says. In fact, he once might have. Sorenson freely admits that before entering the penal system, he had no time for the discussion of racial imbalances in America—the disparities in convictions and sentencing, the socioeconomic handicaps, the cyclical, cross-generational devastation of incarceration. “I thought it was all a bunch of media hype,” he says. “I don’t think I was racist—” he stops himself. “OK, maybe I was a little racist.”
As a state lawmaker, Sorenson sought to bring capital punishment back to Iowa, but he opposes the death penalty now. “After going through what I went through, I’m fearful of putting anyone’s life in the hands of a judge,” he told Alberta. “I just don’t believe in the justice system like I used to.”
“I WOULD DO ANOTHER 20 YEARS IF I COULD GET HIM BACK FOR ONE MORE DAY”
Sorenson’s family experienced a devastating setback this year when his son, Kent Jr., took his own life at the age of 24.
“We used to be such a happy family,” he said. We talked a bit, and he asked for more time before I visited to complete the interview. I agreed. “You know, it’s weird,” Sorenson said, more to himself than to me. “This put into perspective how easy prison was. I would do another 20 years if I could get him back for one more day.”
Alberta reports that Judge Pratt said “weighing the impact on family is the toughest part of sentencing,” adding that the judge’s “face went white” when he learned of Kent Jr.’s death.
The loss of a child is one of the most difficult bereavements to overcome, as is losing any loved one to suicide. I cannot imagine the heartbreak Kent and Shawnee Sorenson have suffered and hope their family will find comfort and healing in the years to come.
“I TRUST THE GUYS IN PRISON MORE THAN I TRUST THE GUYS IN THE LEGISLATURE”
Sorenson quickly learned how to get by in prison and explained some of the “rules and regulations and bylaws” governing inmates’ lives. While he grew to respect some men from the big house, he doesn’t have fond memories about contemporaries from the statehouse.
“You know, I trust the guys in prison more than I trust the guys in the legislature,” he says. “I watched a senator steal oxycontin from an older senator who was suffering from breast cancer and later died. I had a Montblanc pen stolen off my desk in the chamber. But I never locked my locker in prison. If I gave someone a scoop of coffee, on commissary day, there was a scoop of coffee waiting for me.”
I am not aware of a senator Sorenson served with who has died of breast cancer. He hadn’t been elected to the legislature yet when Republican Senator Mary Lundby retired while battling cervical cancer. CORRECTION: I forgot Sorenson served with State Senator Pat Ward, who passed away in 2012.
Sorenson told Alberta that few former legislators reached out following his son’s suicide. “Yet a few weeks after Kent Jr. passed, without any idea of how the word could have gotten to USP Thomson, Sorenson received a sympathy card in the mail with handwritten notes from dozens of his former inmates.”
“I SPENT SO MUCH TIME OPPOSING SAME-SEX MARRIAGE, AND NOW, LOOKING BACK, IT’S LIKE, WHY?”
Alberta writes that Sorenson’s political activism began after his wife pressured him to join her at a statehouse rally against same-sex marriage. In the legislature, he was among the Republicans most obsessed with ousting Supreme Court justices who had struck down the state’s Defense of Marriage Act in 2009. He was also open to impeaching the justices who were not up for retention in 2010. He tried unsuccessfully to bring a constitutional amendment overturning marriage equality to the Iowa Senate floor.
With hindsight, he regrets the effort.
“Politics was a waste of my life,” he says, shaking his head. The greater irony, he adds, is that same-sex marriage is now the law of the land—and it doesn’t bother him one bit. “If we’re secure in our faith as Christians, why should we care? It’s not like my kids are going to start wearing rainbow flags,” he says. “You can’t legislate morality. I spent so much time opposing same-sex marriage, and now, looking back, it’s like, why?”
“THE CAUCUSES ARE A CURSE ON OUR STATE”
Detractors of Iowa’s place in the presidential nominating calendar will find plenty of fodder in Sorenson’s account. He told Alberta that all the Republicans seeking the nomination in 2011 “suggested payment in return for his endorsement and his services.” Sorenson may have been particularly corrupt in the way he negotiated a fee for switching his support to Ron Paul less than a week before the 2012 caucuses, but many operatives have in effect sold themselves to presidential candidates.
“The caucuses are a curse on our state. It’s a corrupt fiasco that perverts the policy and the politics here. … It’s an environment that cultivates shady dealings. I got campaign contributions from every presidential candidate you can think of when I was in the legislature. They all send that money to Iowa legislators for a reason. It’s an honor to vote first in the nation. But our state would be better off without it.”
Final note: Alberta revealed that until legal troubles derailed his career, Sorenson was laying the groundwork to run for U.S. Senate in 2014. Even before his criminal conduct drew scrutiny, I question whether Sorenson would ever have been a strong nominee for a statewide election. Right-wing audiences may have found him inspiring, but he didn’t have anything like Joni Ernst’s charisma or potential appeal to moderates.