WASHINGTON - A year after Michele Bachmann's presidential ambitions sputtered in Iowa, a close adviser is alleging that her political organization is withholding money from former staffers to keep them quiet about the turbulent final months of the campaign.
Peter Waldron, a national GOP operative, said Friday that senior Bachmann officials are demanding that he sign a confidentiality agreement that, he believes, would bar him from discussing "unethical, illegal, or immoral activity" on the campaign.
Rep. Bachmann, R-Minn., and the top echelon of her Iowa staff were hit with a lawsuit last year alleging the improper use of a Christian home-schooling organization's e-mail list. That allegation is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation.
But two former Bachmann aides say the document is a standard campaign release agreement and has nothing to do with the lawsuit.
The dispute with Waldron is the latest in a series of organizational mishaps that plagued Bachmann's presidential campaign -- from mass resignations in New Hampshire to the abrupt resignation of campaign manager Ed Rollins and the 11th-hour defection of Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson, her state campaign chairman.
Waldron, an evangelist and veteran of GOP presidential campaigns going back to Ronald Reagan, is himself no stranger to controversy. In 2006, he was arrested for possession of assault rifles in Uganda in disputed circumstances.
"I'm baffled as to why Peter would be doing this," said Iowa political consultant Eric Woolson, who managed Bachmann's Iowa campaign. "It doesn't make any sense to me."
Waldron, who served as the campaign's national faith outreach director, frequently rode the campaign bus as part of Bachmann's entourage. Campaign records show that the campaign owes him $916, a sum that he says has been outstanding for a year.
In its last report to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the now-defunct campaign showed $169,558 in debts and $53,451 in cash on hand. But Bachmann still has a political war chest exceeding $2 million, counting her congressional campaign committee and a separate political action committee called MichelePAC.
Minnesota businessman James Pollack, Bachmann's national finance chairman, said the presidential campaign has paid off more than 90 percent of its debts and expects to resolve any outstanding obligations "in the very near future."
Pollack called Waldron's allegations "false, inaccurate and misleading."
Waldron said that the sums owed to him and four other unnamed aides total about $5,000. The campaign says the dispute only involves Waldron and one other staffer, for a total of less than $2,000. Waldron said the dispute could also trigger a potential complaint to the FEC because of the possibility the campaign carried debt obligations off its books.
But money is not the immediate stumbling block. Rather, Waldron said, it is Bachmann's demand that he and other ex-staffers not discuss what they know about the campaign "without first speaking with Michele Bachmann's attorneys."
'He's not being held captive'
Woolson said Waldron, founder of Christians Restoring America's Greatness, has always been free to discuss the case involving the e-mail list. "To my knowledge, he's not being held captive by armed guards."
The confidentiality agreement, a copy of which was obtained by the Star Tribune, covers strategy, polling, fundraising, and other "activities relating to the campaign." It does not mention criminal or unethical behavior; Waldron said "that's my understanding of the restriction."
Waldron acknowledged that he and others have already talked to investigators in the disputed e-mail case.
The lawsuit was brought by Barbara Heki, the campaign's home-school outreach director. Heki, who belonged to the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators, accused Sorenson of taking the group's e-mail list from her private computer without her permission and using it to reach home-school families before the Iowa caucuses.
Bachmann campaign officials have described the use of the list as "inadvertent." Campaign finance reports show that they eventually paid the group $2,000 for the list. Heki, however, claims she was blamed for the unauthorized use of the list and expelled as a board member.
That case remains "an open investigation,'' said Urbandale police officer Randy Peterson.
While the campaign now accuses Waldron of unfairly disparaging Bachmann, he says he doesn't blame her. "I think she outsources decision-making and defers good judgment to others who don't have good judgment," he said.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.