By CJ Baker, Powell Tribune
Leaders of the Park County Republican Party contend state Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell, has a conflict of interest — his concurrent service on the Powell hospital board — that should have prevented him from voting in October’s special session on vaccine mandates. However, Kost says he’s been assured by counsel that his dual roles do not present a legal problem.
The county party’s central committee voted unanimously this month to send a letter to Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill and Secretary of State Ed Buchanan that accuses Kost of violating state rules and laws related to conflicts of interest. It asks Hill and Buchanan to “investigate this situation and take the most serious action warranted under the authority of the Wyoming Constitution, the Senate rules and Wyoming State Statute, up to and including criminal prosecution.”
“It asks for — if there is criminal liability — that criminal prosecution,” precinct committeeman and letter author Troy Bray of Powell explained at the Dec. 2 meeting.
However, Powell Hospital District attorney Tracy Copenhaver told Kost in a written analysis last month that there is no conflict of interest from serving in the two capacities.
If the Park County Republican Party wants to make a big deal out of the issue, that’s their business, Kost said when the party first drafted the letter in November.
“I did what I needed to do to make sure I was still legal; I was legal,” he said. “From there, so be it.”
Kost has served on the Powell Hospital District Board and the related Powell Valley Healthcare board since 2011. He was reelected to the district board in 2018 — the same year he won a four-year term in the state Senate.
Wyoming law allows people to hold more than one elected office, so long as the entities they represent do not provide funding to each other. In this case, the Legislature does not directly appropriate money to the Powell hospital, Kost said. For instance, any state grants are awarded by the State Loan and Investment Board, which is controlled by the five statewide officials rather than the Legislature.
“There’s nothing that I could do that could influence the amount of money that our hospital would receive,” Kost said. He said the hospital’s attorney, Copenhaver, assured him in 2018 that holding the two positions did not run afoul of the state’s restrictions on holding more than one elected office.
However, the issue was raised amid the recent special session, called in response to the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccination mandates.
Declaring a conflict
Kost drew scrutiny from some local conservatives after proposing an amendment to Senate File 1003, a bill that aimed to prevent businesses and other entities from discriminating on the basis of a person’s COVID-19 vaccination status. Kost took issue with the entire concept, feeling it would pit employers against employees and force businesses to choose between violating state law or federal law.
Looking to get hospitals “out of the middle of that bill,” Kost sought to amend the legislation to allow health care providers like Powell Valley Healthcare to “refuse, withhold from or deny employment opportunities based on a person’s COVID-19 vaccinations status or on whether the person has a COVID-19 immunity passport if necessary to protect the health and safety of patients or of employees who are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19.” It also allowed providers to “exercise reasonable measures imposed through the least restrictive means” based on a person’s vaccination status.
After learning of the amendment, Vince Vanata of Cody, who is the Park County Republican Party’s state committeeman, issued a personal “call to action,” saying Kost might have a conflict of interest because of his role on the hospital board.
After receiving pushback, Kost ultimately withdrew his amendment and recused himself from the vote on SF 1003.
“Due to concerns from certain people, I am going to declare a conflict and not vote on this,” he announced on the Senate floor.
Vanata sent another email saying a “battle” had been won, saying Kost recused himself “because people became aware of his ties to the healthcare industry, and voiced their concerns to him.”
“Moreover, the senator may have realized his positions put him [in] direct conflict with his ability to vote and serve the people of the State of Wyoming,” Vanata wrote.
The letter approved by the Park County Republican Party’s Central Committee this month says Kost’s dual roles created “a substantial Conflict of Interest in matters concerning the vaccine mandates” and that he should have removed himself from voting due to a “significant financial or personal interest.”
The rules of the House and Senate define a “personal or private interest” as being when a lawmaker will receive “a direct personal or financial gain or loss if the measure or bill is enacted.” It must also be “a greater benefit or a lesser detriment” than the general public or another large group of people.
The party’s letter does not say what they believe that Kost stands to personally gain or lose from the vaccination mandates.
“In case somebody didn’t check, you don’t get paid for being on the hospital district and so there’s no financial gain for me in that,” he said.
Although Kost briefly recused himself, he went on to vote on other legislation in the session after being reassured by Copenhaver that he did not have a conflict.
“They said there’s not any problem,” he said, “and so that’s where it ended.”
But the Park County Republican Party is hoping for an investigation into Kost’s actions, with enthusiastic support for the letter approved this month. When Bray finished reading the document, it was met with an “amen” and a round of applause.
The 26 precinct committeemen and women present at the Heart Mountain Clubhouse — representing 30 of the committee’s 78 members — voted unanimously to approve the letter, followed by another round of applause. One of Sen. Kost’s legislative colleagues, state Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, was among the committee members present for the vote.
Kost has been at odds with more conservative members of the local party for some time, saying at a September panel discussion that they are “looking for somebody to be their puppet, not to think on their own and look for what’s best for Wyoming.”
“I’m not here to fight with them,” he said this month. “I’m just here to keep doing what I think is right for the people.”
While the letter only complains of a conflict of interest, more conservative Republicans in the state have expressed unhappiness that the special session ended without a more forceful push against the Biden administration’s mandates.
Last month, the state party passed a resolution strongly condemning Republican lawmakers who voted against some of the bills, saying they failed to protect the people of Wyoming. The measure was among 11 resolutions passed by the state party — including one saying they would no longer recognize U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney as a Republican and others opposing mask and vaccine mandates and critical race theory.
Vanata said some of the measures incorporated text from Park County Republicans.
“What we are saying and what we are doing here in Park County is making a difference,” he told the body on Dec. 2.
Vanata also discussed a resolution the Laramie County Republican Party brought to November’s state party meeting, which called for action against Bray. The Powell precinct committeeman had sent a profane email to state Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, in September, which took issue with the way she handled an earlier bill on coerced vaccinations. Bray told Nethercott in part that, “if I were as despicable a person as you, I would kill myself to rid the world of myself” and closed with “F— YOU C—.”
Speaker of the House Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, and Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, asked the Park County Republican Party and Wyoming Republican Party to join them in calling for Bray to resign his post.
The two GOP organizations did denounce Bray’s language, but the county party declined to discipline him and the state party rejected Laramie County’s proposed resolution. Wyoming GOP leaders modified the resolution to condemn two state lawmakers, Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, and Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, rather than Bray.
“It went beautifully,” Vanata said of that result.
As the meeting came to a close, Park County Republican Party Chairman Martin Kimmet told members to continue to be tenacious.
“They try to wear us down and they try to beat us up, and in Park County we haven’t let that happen,” he said. “We’ve stood up to them, we’ve been strong.”