Tag Archives: public trust

Ex-Iowa senator gets jail for endorsement scheme

Saying that “political corruption is slowly eroding the foundations of our Democracy,” a federal judge sentenced a former Iowa state senator to 15 months in prison for accepting money in an endorsement scheme, even though prosecutors had sought only probation.

Iowa Sen. Kent Sorenson took a payment for endorsing presidential candidate Ron Paul in 2012. In announcing his surprise decision, Judge Robert Pratt said that those who betray the public trust in such a way must be punished.

Sorenson was a sought-after Iowa politician as GOP presidential candidates began campaigning in Iowa in advance of the state’s January 2012 Republican caucuses. He betrayed not only the public, but also Michele Bachmann’s campaign: He first accepted $59,000 for endorsing her before taking $73,000 for endorsing Paul.

Iowa Senate rules prohibit lawmakers from taking money from political campaigns.

Sorenson initially denied the endorsement scheme to a state Senate committee, but he resigned in October 2013 after the committee concluded that he had taken payments in exchange for his endorsements. He also lied to federal agents who were investigating whether the Paul campaign illegally concealed the payments.

In a plea deal, Sorensen agreed to testify against three Ron Paul campaign aides, who were charged with covering up the payments. Campaign chairman Jesse Benton and campaign manager John Tate received two years’ probation, and deputy campaign manager Dimitri Kesari received up to three months in prison. All are appealing their convictions.

Federal prosecutor Richard Pilger asked for two years of probation and community service for Sorenson, even though the maximum penalties for the charges he faced — causing false reports and obstructing an investigation — were 25 years in prison.

Pratt said that Sorenson only came forward after the FBI raided his house and took evidence showing that Sorenson took secret payments while serving as a publicly elected official.

Although Sorenson expressed remorse, his family lashed out in anger. Following the sentencing, members of his family threateningly drove an SUV over a curb and onto the courthouse sidewalk and concrete entryway near reporters. A federal security agent pounded his fist on the vehicle and told the Sorenson family to get the vehicle away from the building.

The vehicle sped away as a daughter flashed an obscene hand gesture and cursed at reporters through an open window.

Sorenson didn’t comment.

Public’s trust was abused over police videos

On Aug. 14, after a night of unrest prompted by the fatal police shooting of a black man, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said his review of body camera video of the incident proved the officer had acted appropriately.

“The individual did turn toward the officer with a firearm in his hand,” Flynn stated, later saying the man, 23-year-old Sylville Smith, “was raising up with” the gun.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said a still photo he was shown from the video “demonstrates, without question, that (Smith) had a gun in his hand.” In fact, Barrett declared, the officer “ordered that individual to drop his gun, the individual did not drop his gun.”

This purportedly exculpatory video itself was not promptly released, despite requests from Barrett and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker that this occur. It still has not been released. But we know now that public officials did not give an accurate account of what it shows.

Bill Lueders, Your Right to Know columnist
Bill Lueders, Your Right to Know columnist

We know that because, in mid-December, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm filed criminal charges against Dominique Heaggan-Brown, the former Milwaukee police officer who killed Smith. (Heaggan-Brown was fired over an alleged sexual assault shortly after the shooting.)

According to the criminal complaint charging the officer with first-degree reckless homicide, Smith held a gun as the officer fired his first shot. Smith, struck in the arm, pitched the gun over a fence and fell to the ground. The officer then fired a second, fatal shot to Smith’s chest.

“A review of the body camera video from (both officers at the scene) confirms that at the time of the second shot, Smith was unarmed and had his hands near his head,” the complaint says.

A 2014 state law governing investigations of police shootings requires that gathered materials be released if a decision is made not to file charges. The law is otherwise silent as to whether and when these materials are released.

Barrett has renewed his call for release, while Flynn has weighed in against this. Chisholm told me his office will not release this evidence prior to its use in a criminal proceeding.

In this case, I believe, it is already too late to restore confidence in the integrity of the process. Flynn’s representations about the video were at best misleading, and Barrett’s statements suggest he was misled, as was the public.

The whole point of outfitting police with cameras, at taxpayer expense, is to ensure truthfulness and enhance accountability. That did not happen here. And many more months may pass before the video is released.

Other jurisdictions have more enlightened policies. In Chicago, for instance, videos of police shootings are normally released within 60 days, and posted online.

In the legislative session that begins in January, there will likely be renewed efforts to establish consistent state policies regarding police body cameras; a bill to do so in the last session went nowhere.

Now is the time, in the wake of this regrettable case, for the citizens of Wisconsin to insist that the video records they are paying for are not kept secret, or used to mislead them.