By Leo Wolfson, political reporter
A federal complaint has been filed against a Gillette Political Action Committee by the Campbell County clerk. The actions of this PAC have drawn frustration and outrage from local politicians and election officials in Campbell County.
The complaint was filed with the Federal Elections Commission and Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Buchanan by outgoing Campbell County Clerk Susan Saunders last week, accusing the Coal Country Conservatives PAC of shielding its own campaign finance expenditures.
“It is my professional judgment the organization of these entities and their subsequent activities can, at best, be described as a scheme to thwart transparency in a way that is deceptive to the public and may be illegal,” Saunders wrote in her complaint. “I believe these activities had a material impact on numerous races in Campbell Country’s 2022 primary election.”
Saunders requested a “swift and robust investigation” from the state and federal entities to look into the matter.
The FEC already sent Coal Country a warning letter on Aug. 2 for failing to file its campaign expenditures from May 18-June 30, a deadline that was in early July.
These expenditures were submitted early Thursday morning. The PAC claims it spent $102 through the end of June, all on administrative costs. All but $500 of the committee’s $1,800 raised came from an anonymous donor.
No other reports have been filed yet for the PAC, which Saunders said she also found suspicious.
Coal Country registered as a Wyoming business with the Secretary of State’s office, but did not register with the elections branch of the office as a political campaign to report state level expenditures.
“This question is relevant as the electioneering materials CCCPac (Coal Country) distributed lists only one federal candidate and numerous statewide, legislative, local and precinct candidates,” Saunders wrote.
Coal Country took the step of filing as a federal PAC, despite the large majority of its electioneering efforts being for state races, an unusual and legally ambiguous move. The FEC does not monitor state and local races. It is state election officials who are responsible for monitoring non-federal races.
Wyoming law requires any organization that spends more than $500 in state races to register with the Secretary of State’s office. The federally-registered Western Conservatives PAC did that this year, spending $355,133 in Wyoming elections this year.
Karen Wheeler, acting Secretary of State, told Cowboy State Daily on Friday afternoon her office has a different interpretation of one particular state law Saunders cited, providing possible indication that Coal Country did not need to register with the state. She also said there is another law that potentially conflicts with this law and her office is consulting with Attorney General Bridget Hill on the matter.
“That’s the million dollar question,” she said.
Both entities list Colleen McCabe as treasurer. Laura Cox is listed as the president of the PAC and the registered agent for the Wyoming corporation. Neither responded to requests for comment on Saunders’ complaint.
McCabe was arrested on Aug. 1 for driving under the influence of alcohol and fleeing or attempting to elude officers.
Saunders said it is not clear whether the federal version of Coal Country or the Wyoming corporation was participating in the state’s elections.
If it was solely acting as the federal version, it may be using the lack of federal surveillance as a way to cloak its state-level expenditures. If the Wyoming business version of Coal Country was taking part in state elections, it failed to register as a political committee and report its campaign spending, which was due in mid-August.
Wyoming and federal law forbids PACs from directly coordinating with candidates or to each other through third party intermediaries. Saunders also wants investigators to find out if Coal Country coordinated directly with candidates.
State Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, said he suspects the organization was coordinating with numerous candidates. The organization endorsed candidates all the way down to the Republican Party precinct committee member level.
This summer, Campbell Deputy County Clerk Kendra Anderson attended a showing of election conspiracy movie “2000 Mules” hosted by State Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, during his Secretary of State campaign. During the event, Anderson said Cox was on stage, handing out cards from the PAC’s “Campbell County Conservative Voter Guide.” If this account is true, these actions are legally dubious at best.
These cards were also mailed out to Campbell County residences during the campaign. The PAC advocated for a slate of highly conservative candidates, including Gray and Anderson’s opponent Cindy Lovelace, who ended up winning the primary election.
Anderson said Cox promoted at the event how they picked their favorite candidates based on a questionnaire sent out to candidates, a document she never received. Despite endorsing Lovelace, Anderson said Cox told her they only sent the questionnaire to candidates who make policy decisions.
Rusty Bell, a Campbell County commissioner who ran for State House, said he received a questionnaire from Cox, an individual he said he had never heard of before. He passed by her house shortly after and saw a sign already up for his opponent, Abby Angelos.
“I saw this person was already supporting my opponent so what’s the point?” Bell said as his reason for not filling out the questionaire. He also said the questionnaire was riddled with many “leading questions.”
Angelos and many of the other candidates Coal Country endorsed won their respective races.
“I’m glad the clerk made the complaint,” Bell said. “There’s questions to be asked.
“This stuff will continue to get worse if we allow it to. We can’t have confidence in our elections if they’re not really fair elections.”
Bell suspects an individual other than Cox is running Coal Country. State Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, said on the Wake Up Wyoming with Vic Wright Show on Friday, he suspects a Wyoming legislator is behind the campaign. Coal Country endorsed one of Fortner’s opponents, Roger Connett.
Their only public donor so far is Barbara Luthy, a prominent member of the local “John Patriot” and Campbell County Grassroot Conservatives organizations. Susan Sisti, another member of both these organizations, makes reference to handing out “conservative voter guides” in a July 4 Facebook post. Sisti’s husband was endorsed by Coal Country in his bid for Gillette City Council.
Anderson said there were countless people seen with the voter guide cards when they came to vote in the primary. She said she finds it ironic that Coal Country has promoted candidates standing up for election integrity as she finds it unethical to tell people who they should vote for.
“They scream election integrity but they tell people how to vote, how is that election integrity? she asked.
Bell found it unethical that Cox signed up to be an election judge while allegedly running the PAC.
“Not knowing the law is not a good excuse either, it doesn’t look good,” he said.
One voter guide mailed out by Coal Country was misconstrued by some as sent out by the Campbell County Republican Party. This prompted a formal notice from the county party that it did not produce these mailers. State law prevents political parties from endorsing individual candidates during the primary election. The party later put out their own mailers listing every Republican candidate running in the primary.
Write-in candidate Patricia Junek was endorsed by Coal Country in her campaign against Barlow and lost. Junek is now registered as an Independent to run against Barlow in the general election.
Barlow said he found it telling that Junek received more than 800 votes as a write-in candidate, as proof of Coal Country’s influence on the primary elections.
“It’s a trojan horse waltzing through the black hole of dark money,” he said.