DES MOINES — Kent Sorenson drove through Des Moines with his cellphone turned off.
He was distraught over how his teammates with Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign treated him like a "leper" at a rally earlier in the day at a Pizza Ranch in Indianola.
Word had gotten out about a $25,000 check his wife had been given two days earlier by Dimitri Kesari, a deputy campaign manager for Ron Paul. It was presumably incentive for Sorenson to turn tail and support the congressman from Texas.
The highly emotional conservative state senator found himself in a parking lot at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, where Paul was holding his own presidential campaign rally.
"Are you guys going to take care of me," Sorenson recalled asking campaign chairman Jesse Benton before walking onstage to endorse Paul. He expected to be paid.
"You're bleeding for us, we'll take care of you," Benton reportedly replied.
This was the story of his now-famous Dec. 28, 2011, loyalty switch that Sorenson told in federal court Thursday, testifying for the prosecution in the conspiracy trial of Kesari and Benton, who is also married to Paul's granddaughter.
The two former Paul campaign staffers were indicted in August for allegedly keeping secret $73,000 that the Paul campaign paid Sorenson for his endorsement ahead of the Iowa caucus. Prosecutors claim that Kesari and Benton orchestrated a plan to filter payments to Sorenson through an audio/visual production company after he publicly denied being offered any money for his endorsement.
Sorenson pleaded guilty in August 2014 to two charges, including obstruction of justice, and faces up to 25 years in prison. A prosecutor on Tuesday told jurors in his opening statement that Sorenson, a father of six, would take the stand in hopes of getting a lighter sentence.
Then-presidential candidate Ron Paul, left, gets a schedule update from Jesse Benton, his National Press Secretary, after Paul spoke at Des Moines University. (Photo: Register file photo)
His credibility could be a key factor in the trial: U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor Richard Pilger portrayed Sorenson as apologetic in his opening statement, telling jurors his testimony would be backed up by emails and invoices introduced as evidence. But Jesse Binnall, a lawyer for Kesari, argued Sorenson has a "strained relationship with the truth."
The former state senator started his testimony late Tuesday afternoon and was scheduled to continue at 9 a.m. Friday.
In his testimony, Sorenson detailed the negotiations with Paul campaign staffers that ended with his endorsement in late December 2011 just days before the caucus. Until then, Sorenson had served as the Iowa chair of the campaign for Bachmann, then a U.S. congresswoman.
Sorenson told jurors Kesari was his main connection to the Paul campaign. The two became political allies and friends after a conservative group Kesari worked with, the National Right to Work Committee, backed Sorenson in statehouse elections.
"Dimitri consistently throughout the entire year of 2011 talked to me about switching to the Paul campaign," Sorenson told jurors.
Kesari raised the stakes during a Dec. 26, 2011, dinner with Sorenson and his wife at Claxons BBQ in Altoona, Sorenson said.
Over dinner, Sorenson said he told the deputy campaign manager that he was worried about Bachmann's polling, as well as whether he'd receive his paycheck from her campaign. Sorenson admitted in court that Bachmann's campaign paid him at least $7,500 monthly, which violated Iowa Senate ethics rules; he resigned shortly after those payments were criticized by an independent investigator in 2013.
Sorenson went to the bathroom after dinner while Kesari handled the check, he told jurors.
"I remember us joking about which campaign would be able to pay for dinner, " he said.
In the car, Sorenson said his wife showed him a $25,000 check that Kesari had written on the account of his family-owned jewelry store. The check was made out to Grassroots Strategies, Sorenson's consulting company, he said.
But, Sorenson testified that either later that night or the next morning he told Kesari he would not be switching campaigns. He also told several Bachmann campaign staffers about the incident over the next day, and told jurors he was treated "like a leper" by campaign staff on the morning of Dec. 28, 2011.
The former state senator said he "felt secure" when he made his decision to switch later in the day that he'd be paid for his endorsement of Paul.
Kesari faces several charges in the case, including conspiracy. Benton only faces one charge of lying to FBI agents during interviews in July 2014.
Jurors also saw evidence of how Sorenson's dramatic flip was viewed by Benton, Kesari and others in the Paul camp during testimony from FBI Special Agent Karen LoStracco, who testified about emails that investigators retrieved. The morning after the dinner in Altoona, Kesari sent the other two an email saying Sorenson was getting "cold feet" about making the move.
"(Expletive) him," Benton wrote back. "This is absurd."
In another email later that day, Benton wrote, "Either he honors his commitment or we have to expose him as the money-grubbing shakedown artist that he is."
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