WASHINGTON – On July 21, Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty was followed around Iowa to multiple campaign stops by three young women wearing identical blue T-shirts that read "Iowa Energy Forum."
At an 11 a.m. stop in Webster City, high school student Jennifer Cantrick -- one of the women wearing an IEF shirt -- spoke up during the question-and-answer session and said, "The Obama administration has proposed raising taxes on energy producers. Wouldn't this slow job growth and increase the cost of energy?"
Two hours later in nearby Fort Dodge, fellow high school student Maddison Abboud raised her hand and asked the exact same question.
"Hi, I had an energy question," Abboud said. "Okay, so the Obama administration has proposed increasing taxes on energy producers. So wouldn't you say that this would slow down job growth and increase energy prices?"
The third woman, who refused to talk to The Huffington Post afterward, videotaped the questions and Pawlenty's answers.
After Abboud's question, Pawlenty decided he was tired of the routine. Cantrick and Abboud had been attending the former Minnesota governor's events for a few days and asking questions, according to another reporter at the Fort Dodge event. Pawlenty himself joked that Cantrick and Abboud had "probably heard my speech 50 times."
Pawlenty, betraying some exasperation but keeping his manner friendly, explained to the audience what Cantrick and Abboud were up to.
"Okay, I'm going to answer your question, but the Iowa Energy Forum, very dedicated group, mostly of young volunteers and helpers, and they come to all the meetings and they ask good questions, they're usually high school or college students, right? So, before I answer your question, let's give you a little work assignment here," Pawlenty said. "Why don't you stand up and tell this group what the Iowa Energy Forum is and what you believe and what you're trying to advocate for. All right?"
Abboud, a petite brunette, hesitated and then froze, clearly unexcited about the idea of speaking in front of a room of 50 or so people. But Pawlenty smilingly insisted she come up.
"Go ahead. Come on up here. Come on, you can do it. Come on up here," he said, as Abboud sheepishly walked up to stand next to him. "What about your chicken friend here?"
Cantrick was clearly not into joining her friend.
"No?" Pawlenty said. "Well you do it, you go ahead."
Shyly, Abboud said, "Well, I am Maddison, and I work with the Iowa Energy Forum, and we are a grassroots organization and we support all forms of energy, but we are big into drill here and drill now." And she quickly sat down.
The incident was mildly amusing at the time, and showed a willingness by Pawlenty to go off script in a way he hadn't before. But the exchange became more intriguing, and odd, when it came to light Tuesday that Cantrick and Abboud are interning this summer at a Des Moines political consulting shop run by two Pawlenty advisers who have been working with him since last year.
The company they are interning with, LS2Group, is run by Chuck Larson, a former U.S. Ambassador to Latvia under President George W. Bush, and a former Iowa State Republican Party chairman. Cantrick and Abboud are not even from Iowa. They're from McLean, Va., a suburb of Washington D.C., according to LS2Group's Facebook page.
Larson and Karen Slifka, a fellow leader at LS2Group and a long-time Republican political operative, are both being paid by the American Petroleum Institute, the nation's largest trade association representing oil companies, according to the Des Moines Register. Their job is to promote the IEF, which is focused in general on promoting greater domestic energy production. That includes increasing domestic drilling, offshore drilling, natural gas exploration, and it also means preventing tax increases on oil companies and preserving existing subsidies.
It is not yet public how much Larson and Slifka are being paid by API. But the two were paid $47,000 by the Pawlenty campaign in the second quarter of this year, from April through June. The payments were made to the pair's limited liability corporation, Midwest Political Professionals.
A Pawlenty spokesman told The Huffington Post Wednesday that as of June 1, Larson and Slifka had transitioned from paid advisers to volunteer consultants.
Neither Larson nor officials at the IEF returned requests for comment, but the connection between Larson and Slifka and the IEF has sparked plenty of talk in Iowa, as well as conspiracy theories both political and financial in nature.
State Sen. Kent Sorensen, a top supporter of fellow Republican candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) in Iowa, has alleged that the Pawlenty campaign is attempting to pass off the cost of busing supporters to the Aug. 13 straw poll in Ames by pointing them in IEF's direction. Sorensen said Pawlenty was "attempting to hijack nonprofit organizations for his own political gain." A Pawlenty spokesman called that charge "malicious" and said Sorensen was "distorting the truth."
But others in the state, particularly the ethanol industry, believe API is trying to hasten the demise of ethanol subsidies so they can eliminate a competitor.
If this were the case, one Republican consultant told HuffPost, it would tarnish the shine on Pawlenty's outspoken stand against ethanol subsidies, which the candidate has portrayed as an example of his willingness to take on sacred cow issues.
There was another possible explanation for why Pawlenty is getting quizzed by high school students who then go back to the offices of his own consultants. One Iowa Republican consultant not affiliated with Pawlenty or Bachmann said that groups like LS2Group are often paid by corporate clients based on "deliverables," such as letters to the editor of newspapers, the number of calls to radio stations, the number of people recruited to attend events, and, yes, the number of questions asked of public officials or candidates for office in public settings.
So even if the repeated questions from IEF interns irritated or exasperated Pawlenty, his own advisers had no financial incentive to call off the dogs. Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant said Wednesday he did not think Pawlenty had known that the IEF interns were working for Larson and Slifka, but said Pawlenty has no problem calling on IEF representatives and is "glad to discuss his energy plan."
Pawlenty has not been singled out for the repeated questioning. Most of the other Republican presidential candidates have received similar questions from people at events representing IEF, as ThinkProgress has reported. Some in Iowa say there are a shortage of highly-skilled consultants and so they end up wearing different hats. Larson did not respond to an email request for comment, but told the Register that he and Slifka "are professionals" and keep their different spheres of work separate.
At the least, Pawlenty's experience reveals, as one Iowa Republican put it, "a tangled, goofy web" in which politics, money, and influence are intermingled in ways that look questionable.
Alex Becker and Tyler Kinkade contributed to this report.