Alex Wong / Getty Images, file
Michele Bachmann speaks to reporters after a news conference on Capitol Hill on May 16.
The Bachmann campaign may be over, but the investigations are not.
On Wednesday, firebrand Congresswoman Michele Bachmann declared that she would not seek a fifth term, an announcement made in the face of a difficult re-election landscape, as well as some high-profile investigations connected to the finances of her 2012 presidential campaign. Bachmann expressly denies any wrongdoing related to those probes by the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) and the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), among other entities.
Bachmann, a leader of the House Tea Party Caucus, became a national voice for a strident brand of conservatism that endangered her support back in her suburban Twin Cities district, and she faced the probability of a difficult re-election in 2014. And the ongoing probes into the finances of her presidential campaign foreshadowed months of attention on the allegations going forward.
Bachmann faces investigations on several fronts, stemming from allegations that her presidential campaign sought to curry favor with an influential state senator ahead of the Iowa caucuses.
Susan Walsh / AP
The office sign for Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 29, 2013.
According to Peter Waldron, who filed the FEC complaint, the allegations in that filing concerned campaign staffers, not Bachmann. But two sources familiar with the OCE query told NBC News on Wednesday that investigators asked staffers directly whether Bachmann was aware of any alleged improprieties.
The OCE is an independent watchdog established by the House of Representatives to investigate allegations of misconduct by members of the House and their staffers; the commission then issues its preliminary findings to the House Ethics Committee.
The Iowa state Senate’s ethics committee is also investigating the allegations. The controversy began initially with that complaint to the Iowa committee and a separate filing with the FEC.
In a video statement announcing her decision, Bachmann insisted her decision was unconnected to her re-election prospects, adding, “And rest assured, this decision was not impacted in any way by the recent inquiries into the activities of my former presidential campaign or my former presidential staff.” (Bachmann also included a denial of wrongdoing by her campaign.)
“She's a very shrewd politician and a very bright person, and she should never be underestimated. She would have won this race if she had run,” said Maureen Shaver, a Minnesota GOP strategist, of Bachmann’s chances in 2014. She pointed to Bachmann’s ability to survive in 2012, even as Democrats swarmed the polls in a presidential election. But, Shaver cautioned: “If investigations had uncovered serious ethical issues, it would have been difficult for her to win, there's no question."
The congresswoman’s former chief of staff wrote in a sworn affidavit to the Iowa state Senate ethics committee, made public last month, that Bachmann "knew of and approved" a scheme to funnel money to state senator Kent Sorenson to help win his support in the caucuses. Andy Parrish, Bachmann's former top congressional aide, said the congresswoman approved payments totaling $7,500 per month to Sorenson, which Parrish said was funneled to the senator through a consulting contract with a firm run by a top Bachmann fundraiser.
Parrish wrote that Sorenson "indicated to [him] that he would like to be paid for his efforts supporting" Bachmann, and that Guy Short, the fundraiser, "worked out an arrangement" in which Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson was paid $7,500 per month until he defected to support Texas Rep. Ron Paul's candidacy.
Moreover, Parrish said that Bachmann "knew of and approved this arrangement," though Sorenson assured the campaign that it was legal under state ethics rules, which prohibit lawmakers from receiving payments from presidential campaigns.
Michele Bachmann, who has become one of the best-known conservative voices in America, announced she will not seek a fifth congressional term amid controversy over the use of campaign funds. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.
Parrish wrote that he didn't intend his affidavit as a "rebuke to or betrayal of" Bachmann, whom he called an "outstanding public servant." He said he came forward, rather, to clear the record about the campaign's relationship with Sorenson.
In February, Sorenson formally responded to the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee complaint. “I vehemently deny any wrong doing as alleged,” he said. “The false allegations are on their face absurd, and not really meritorious of response.” In July, Sorenson told NBC News “... There were expenses that were covered, but I never received regular payment from the Bachmann campaign." Sorenson declined to comment for this story.
William McGinley, an attorney for Bachmann, spoke directly about the congressional investigation in April, saying, "There are no allegations that the congresswoman engaged in any wrongdoing. We are constructively engaged with the OCE and are confident that at the end of their Review the OCE Board will conclude that Congresswoman Bachmann did not do anything inappropriate."
But the slowly-emerging revelations threatened to finally become Bachmann’s undoing. Republican nominee Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama by 15 points in Minnesota’s 6th congressional district, but Bachmann won by only about 4,200 votes – or 1.2 percent. Bachmann won other contests by wider margins, but has never enjoyed a particularly commanding hold on her district.
Minnesota Republicans are far more sanguine about Bachmann’s future prospects, however, especially if she escapes major fallout associated with the ethics probe.
“I think she’ll have a lot of opportunities in the future, either on cable news or joining maybe a conservative group that advocates for the types of things she supports,” said Cullen Sheehan, the manager of Republican Sen. Norm Coleman’s campaign in 2008. “I think what you’re seeing now is the next step in an evolution of what she wants to do in the future.”
Those future plans could even include a bid for statewide office – for Senate or governor – if Bachmann is unscathed by ethics allegations.
“I think she's always wanted to run statewide in Minnesota, but I think she's smarter about the fact that that the stars and the moon would have to line up for her to do that,” Shaver said. “I don't think her political career is over. But if she wants to hold herself out as a favorite of the party or the Tea Party movement, she cannot have any ethical questions hanging over her. Those questions need to be answered.”
This story was originally published on Wed May 29, 2013 7:34 PM EDT