Why We Should Worry about Michele Bachmann

Michele Bachmann and supporters at Tea Party Rally

According to Roll Call, Michele Bachmann and three other right-wing Congresspeople used money from the their Congressional office accounts to pay for equipment and a sound system for a tea party rally on November 5, 2009 that was organized to protest President Obama’s health care bill.

According to House expense reports, Bachmann and three conservative GOP colleagues — Reps. Tom Price (Ga.), Steve King (Iowa) and Todd Akin (Mo.) — each paid $3,407.50 that day, a total of $13,630, to a sound and stage company called National Events, apparently for the sound system used at the rally.

The money came from the Members’ taxpayer-funded office accounts, despite House rules prohibiting the use of these funds for political activities. Bachmann’s office insists the expense was a proper use of official funds.

Bachmann billed the event as a “press conference,” which can be funded from official accounts. But no questions were taken from the press and, unlike most press conferences, it opened with a prayer, the national anthem and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

A press conference? According to the article, Bachmann also hyped the rally on Fox News and Minnesota Public Radio and posted an announcement of the event on her House website, which is also against House ethics rules. She apparently also used these funds for travel expense to media appearances and to pay political consultants and a speechwriter for her “response” to the State of the Union address.

The Hill says that, while the use of taxpayer funds for political purposes is questionable, it isn’t absolutely clear that she did anything wrong. But certainly this shows that Bachmann may have a tendency to cut corners when it comes to ethics.

On Saturday, the Guardian published a profile of Bachmann following her appearance at the New Hampshire Republican Debate.

They quote Stillwater, MN blogger Karl Bremer on a particularly troubling episode in Bachmann’s political history:

“She has got plenty of skeletons in her closet,” he said. One of those skeletons could be her relationship with Frank Vennes, a man who served time in jail for cocaine distribution and money-laundering after being convicted in 1987. After his release, and apparently after finding God while in prison, Vennes became a friend of Bachmann and a big campaign donor for her elections. However, Vennes has recently been indicted on charges stemming from a Ponzi scheme and could end up behind bars again.

That is a juicy story. As are Bachmann’s links to the mysterious “Bobby Charles Thompson”, who disappeared after the collapse of his apparently fraudulent fundraising organisation, which had been portrayed as a navy veterans’ group. Arrest warrants have now been issued for Thompson, whose real identity is not known. But what is known is that Thompson’s group donated campaign funds to Bachmann.

Then there is the issue of the Bachmann family farm in Wisconsin. The large rural property has been the recipient of considerable government largesse in the form of agricultural subsidies, despite the fact that Bachmann is a vociferous critic of government handouts. Yet Bremer’s blog has reported that the farm has reaped the Bachmanns about $154,000 of government cash since 2001. That is obviously not illegal but – given Bachmann’s virulent dislike of state welfare – it could make for some interesting headlines.

But will the media cover Bachmann’s “skeletons,” or are they going to give her a pass like the one they gave Obama in 2008? Frankly, I’m worried about it. It’s easy to dismiss Bachmann and treat her as a joke, and she deserves that. But she is driven and a very hard worker; the tea party crowd find her charismatic and inspiring; and she is one of the best fund-raisers around.

In three congressional terms, presidential contender Michele Bachmann has made a name for herself as a formidable fundraiser. As of her latest filing with the Federal Election Commission, Bachmann had $2.8 million cash on hand (compared with, say, veteran Ron Paul’s $1.6 million). And she took in $13.5 million in the 2010 election cycle, out-raising the leader of her own party, John Boehner, by almost $4 million and making Bachmann the most prolific fundraiser in the House. So how is she getting all that money?

Bachmann is increasingly getting money from individuals making smallish donations, a feat that helps solidify her status as a grass-roots, Tea Party–fueled outsider rather than another Establishment fixture. Of the $1.7 million she reported raising last quarter, only $1,500 came from non-individuals, and the average donation was just $619.34.

The Washington Post reports today that Bachmann is increasingly using a new fundraising technique for which is is uniquely qualified, called “money blurts.”

Here’s how it works: An up-and-coming politician blurts out something incendiary, provocative or otherwise controversial. The remark bounces around the blogs and talk shows and becomes a sensation.

And in the midst of it all, the politician’s fundraisers are manning the phones and raking in the donations.

Consider Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), the tea party favorite and newly minted presidential candidate, who has made a specialty of raising money in the wake of bold and well-placed remarks. Shortly after accusing President Obama of having “anti-American views” during one cable-news appearance, for example, Bachmann took in nearly $1 million.

I’ve spent the past few days reading extensively about Bachmann’s personal and political history. I’ve learned two important things from all this reading: 1) Bachmann is a dangerous extremist with serious psychological problems; and 2) She should never be underestimated.

I will continue to write about her, because I think that with the dearth of exciting Republican candidates, the growing strength of the crazy right, and the increasing tendency for the media to ignore facts and accept lies at face value, she could actually win the nomination. We can ridicule her all we want, but we dismiss her chances at our peril.

Here’s some video of Bachmann’s “press conference” on November 5, 2009.