At the time of his political rise, the Iowa GOP was being subdivided into three sects: libertarian, evangelical, and establishment. The latter two factions had long warred for control of the state party, but it was the “liberty movement” that was muscularly ascendant in 2008 thanks to Ron Paul’s iconoclastic campaign. Much of the underlying organization was imported into Iowa: It was the members of National Right to Work Committee (NRTWC), the anti-union group, who provided the money, the training, the infrastructure and the tactical expertise. Cultivating young politicians was paramount for the NRTWC crew. These relationships allowed them to appropriate a lawmakers’ political clout as well as their network of supporters. For NRTWC, it was an investment—not just to benefit future campaigns, but to grow their empire of affiliated groups that were raking in millions of dollars in digital solicitations on fighting everything from abortion to regulations to spending.
Sorenson, green and desperate for assistance in his 2008 campaign, walked unwittingly into this trap. Hardly a libertarian—save for his self-interested belief in legalizing marijuana—the rookie politician was, at his core, a classic Christian conservative. Yet he was in no position to turn down help. When the NRTWC cabal offered its services, promising entrée into the Paul grassroots powerhouse, he signed up. “It was Ron Paul Inc. and it was a cash cow,” Sorenson says. “They called it ‘running program.’ They would go find candidates, like me, and promise to ‘take care of you’ and help build a network in your state. … They travel around, they teach operative training classes, they use guerilla-style politics in state races. Then those networks are used to prop up their fictitious groups. They build out their email lists, they send out surveys and letters and requests for money to fight on issues, and it turns into a money-making machine.”
The NRTWC operation has been weakened, but the scheming continues: Campaign for Liberty, a group founded by Ron Paul and staffed by his loyalists, sent a fundraising email in May—signed by the former presidential candidate himself—alleging that Republican senators Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham were “teaming up with Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to ram through one of the worst nationwide gun confiscation schemes ever devised.” Accompanying this utter falsehood were three requests for a “generous contribution.”
… Sorenson was involved in stealing an email list from the computer of a Bachmann staffer who worked for a homeschooling organization but was forbidden from using its resources for political purposes. The theft and deployment of the list provoked a crisis in the Iowa homeschooling community and resulted in an ugly lawsuit with gag-orders galore—an early indicator of malfeasance and dysfunction in the campaign.
…Sorenson pleaded with Benton and Kesari to make him work, to campaign alongside them, to do something. They mostly ignored him, save for the one thing he could uniquely help with: Sorenson traveled around meeting with potential congressional challengers, “running program” for the NRTWC. His duty was to talk them into their races, to promise that Ron Paul Inc. would take care of them. He recalls two targets in particular: Lee Bright, a state lawmaker in South Carolina; and Steve Stockman, a Texas congressman. Both went on to challenge incumbent Republican senators in 2014 primaries—Lindsey Graham and John Cornyn, respectively—and both got demolished. Their defeats only helped grow the Paul machine. “It’s a shell game,” Sorenson says. “They know these guys aren’t going to win. They’re making money off the races because of the email lists.”
…The guillotine fell on October 2 when Weinhardt issued his report: It was “manifestly clear” Sorenson had gotten paid, the special investigator concluded. He had violated Senate rules—first by taking the money, then by perjuring himself.
…Around that same time, on a parallel investigative track, Benton and Tate were called in for questioning—and gave false statements to the FBI, denying that Sorenson had been paid by the campaign. With his former comrades on the hook, and staring down a long prison sentence, Sorenson turned state’s witness. He implicated Benton, Tate and Kesari in the payment scheme, leading to a federal indictment in August 2015 that contained charges against all three men.
..The feds were recommending probation and community service. They believed Sorenson’s assistance with their investigation, and his repeated testimony against the others, had set a valuable example of defendant cooperation.
Judge Robert Pratt wanted to set a different sort of example. Calling the Iowa senator’s actions “the definition of political corruption,” he sentenced Sorenson to 15 months in prison.
…“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?” It’s not the only issue he feels differently about. Once the Iowa legislature’s champion for capital punishment, Sorenson is now adamantly opposed to the death penalty. “After going through what I went through, I’m fearful of putting anyone’s life in the hands of a judge,” he tells me. “I just don’t believe in the justice system like I used to.”
..As for Iowa’s role in picking presidents, Sorenson says, “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.”
…“When I first got to prison, I looked at people and judged them. But then I got to know them, who they were, and they were nothing like they first appeared. Don’t throw people away.
…For the next 20 minutes, emotion chokes at his voice as he describes in detail the captive brotherhood forged with the sorts of criminals Sorenson would have once gladly banished from society without a second thought. Now he knows them, their struggles, their stories.
…Sorenson emphasizes that he is not naïve. He understands that some people belong in prison, that not everyone’s story should be believed. But having spent the past year in two different institutions, learning about the lives of the inhabitants and the circumstances surrounding their detentions, he developed a burning animosity for the criminal justice system.
His melancholy soon turns to outrage. “There’s no rehabilitation happening in there. There’s no teaching, there’s no training,” he says. Worse, Sorenson adds, were the atrocious conditions: expired food, foul bathrooms, decrepit living quarters. Finally, there’s the underlying sickness plaguing the Bureau of Prisons, race relations—specifically, the entrenched, systemic approach of facilitating and fueling ethnic rivalries in service of the accepted notion that a divided community of inmates is incapable of uniting in the pursuit of a more humane environment.
…This, at last, is when Sorenson’s outrage turns to guilt. It’s not that he could have done more from the inside; it’s that he should have done more from the outside, when he had the power, when he was a policymaker with authority and influence, before he became just another discarded member of society. Sorenson, the Republican state senator and Tea Party superstar with a clear path to Congress, had heard about disparities in sentencing. He had read about the statistical inequalities and crooked economics that are foundational to the American prison system. He had watched the demonstrators on television chanting about the devastation wreaked on minority communities by mass incarceration. And he didn’t buy any of it. Sorenson was a conservative—not just any conservative, but a fiery, in-your-face ideologue who preached punitive justice and individual responsibility. He was a law-and-order dogmatist. And he was, if he’s being honest, “a little bit racist,” with no time for the “bullshit propaganda” being peddled by the likes of Black Lives Matter.
…USP Thomson is a facility for inmates who don’t pose a major security risk, those typically serving shorter sentences and thus ostensibly preparing to re-enter society. “But there’s nothing being done to help them, to educate them—literally, nothing,” he tells me. “There’s an English-as-Second-Language class in there once a week for about 40 minutes. Do you know what they use? ‘Walking Dead’ comic books. I’m not joking.”
Even more appalling, Sorenson adds, were the conditions: food that spoiled years ago, bathrooms that were wholly unsanitary, living quarters that stank of who knows what. He says the cereal they ate each morning was two years expired, with ants frequently spilling into their bowls and floating in the milk. “This is in the United States of America,” he says. “I was just dumbfounded.”
…Sorenson decided to act. He had Shawnee ship him copies of used homeschooling textbooks, passing them out to the younger, less literate inmates. He helped his comrades file grievance forms—free of charge, turning down macaroons (the prison’s official currency) when they were offered in return for his services.. He even worked to bridge racial divides. Sorenson couldn’t hope to transcend the prison’s color barriers—the white inmates still played Pinochle and the black inmates still played Spades—but he spent time with minority inmates whenever possible, absorbing their stories and empathizing more intimately with their circumstances. “Prison will make you more racist if you let it. But I wanted to learn about their issues,” he tells me. “I’m a small-town Iowa guy. You meet these guys from Chicago and you have no idea what they deal with. I was totally blind to their reality. You cross the wrong block and you get shot. You get shot for no reason at all. That doesn’t seem real to someone from small-town Iowa.”
…Nicholson was nine years in and clearly rehabilitated—a man of faith, of conviction, of remorse. But federal sentences require at least 85 percent of time served, meaning Nicholson, a father of two, would not see his children for at least another nine years. “Here’s a guy whose family can’t afford to drive out and visit. It costs $61 a month to use all your phone minutes, and he gets paid $20 a month,” Sorenson says. “They say if you’re incarcerated your children are seven times more likely to be incarcerated, and it’s killing our society. It’s crazy that when an inmate acts up, the first thing they do is take away phone calls. How does that help? You’re not just punishing inmates, you’re punishing kids who need to hear from their fathers. It’s disgusting.”
Two stories here: that of toxic corruption in the Iowa Republican machine and that of a man who eye’s are opened to the realities of the American (in)justice system, a system which he had supported and -by way of that support -in effect- propped up.
Neither toxic situation would have bothered him, if had not ended up in jail in the first place. Karma?