By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
State Senate President-elect Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, has had all 10 of his joint standing committee chairmen sign pre-written letters of resignation to him.
“I don’t believe there’s ever going to be a need to use them,” Driskill said. “People call them a blackmail or whatever, I call them an ultimate level of support from my people. They have faith that I’m not going to do the wrong thing to them unjustly.”
Driskill said the move was made to improve the overall state of decorum among lawmakers, which he believes is not in a good state. The letters can be initiated by Driskill if he feels someone has violated the verbal pledge legislators take to respect one another and the legislative body.
Won’t ‘Tolerate’ Bad Behavior
“I’m not going to tolerate people that badmouth members of the Legislature, past or present,” he said, adding he finds it distasteful when phrases like “the swamp” are used to describe the legislative body. “I’m not going to tolerate it.
“I’m prepared to do that right up to removing a member from the body.”
A Turbulent Session
The upcoming legislative session comes on the heels of a 2022 budget session that was rife with infighting, controversy and allegations.
Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, was stripped of his committee positions and Rep. John Romero-Martinez, R-Cheyenne, was accused of making a death threat against Rep. Andi LeBeau, D-Ethete. A police report and Wyoming Highway Patrol investigation was launched as a result of the latter incident.
“I’m trying to get where people treat people with respect and restore the decorum,” Driskill said. “Anybody who watched videos of the session that went on can tell it was very contentious. It got very personal, it wasn’t just about arguing bills.”
Driskill said he doesn’t see the letters as holding any legal standing; rather, they’re a symbolic measure.
“It’s probably more of a public perception,” he said.
Driskill said he also had at least one other non-chair committee appointee sign the letter.
Bouchard said he was asked to sign Driskill’s letter and refused. It would likely take another Senate vote for him to be kicked off a committee again.
“I told him, ‘I’m not going to sign that letter,’” Bouchard recounted telling Driskill. “I don’t work for the pleasure of you, I work for the pleasure of the people.”
Despite refusing to sign Driskill’s letter, Bouchard was put back on the Labor, Health and Social Services Committee for the upcoming session.
“I am pleased to be restored to the committee that I was wrongfully stripped of,” Bouchard said in a pre-written statement. “I look forward to serving and building upon the six years of service to the people while on Labor and Health committee.”
‘Sets A Bad Precedent’
Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, said Driskill considered asking him to sign the letter, but never did. McKeown drew backlash in fall 2021 for allegedly threatening the use of bayonets against those who enforce COVID-19 regulations.
McKeown said he is bothered by the precedent the letters might set.
“It makes me nervous,” he said. “I think it sets a bad precedent taking away power from the voters.”
Similar preemptive resignation letters or behavior pledges weren’t required from any members of the House by Speaker of the House-elect Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, in making his appointments.
Driskill said he views the letters as a necessary tool to encourage respectful behavior in the Legislature while increasing candor among its members.
“I think it will empower discussion and debate,” he said.
He said he views the committee chair role as the manager of a team. The duty of the chair of most boards is usually to help facilitate and drive discussion rather than stake out division and agendas.
“It gives a chairman the right power,” he said. “They’re not just a chairman of a committee, that’s your management team.”
Sen. Laursen Snubbed
McKeown, a first-term senator elected in 2020, is disappointed he was only chosen for one committee, the Revenue Committee. A number of other senators were chosen for two committees, but not all.
“I’m actually happy to be on Revenue, but I’m disappointed to only be on one committee,” he said.
Bouchard said many in leadership have committed the same bullying and intimidation others have accused him of.
Sen. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, agreed. Laursen was the only one of the 93-member state Legislature that wasn’t put on at least one of the 10 main committees.
“I’ve been attacked by Ogden for things that I’ve talked about,” Laursen said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all.”
May Not Be Over For Bouchard
Sen. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, chair of the Legislature’s Management Council, told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in August that a decision would be made before the upcoming session on whether a formal investigation would be launched in response to Bouchard’s actions last session.
“I expect the Management Council to finalize the proceedings in the actions taken against me, in such a public fashion, as the body ‘enjoyed’ when bringing false allegations against me,” Bouchard said in his statement. “Anything short of this is just a dishonest attempt at silencing the First Amendment protections of the elected in public forums.”
Pre-written resignation letters are not unheard of in the corporate world and in private business. Even in governmental circles, public officials often have hired employees and craft similar documents in case of a less-than-fortunate scenario down the road.
A OnePoll study taken of 2,000 employed Americans in January found that 59% have contemplated quitting their jobs enough to have a resignation letter for when they do.
But in the world of politics, an elected official cannot generally be forced to resign unless a formal procedure and vote from a legislative body takes place. Driskill said he conferred with a few attorneys on the legality of his letters and received no pushback.
“It’s pretty controversial, but not unheard of,” he said.
With a nearly 50/50 split among the two major wings of the Republican Party, Driskill said working together to pass quality legislation will be a feat that requires active effort.
“We’re going to have to work hard to work together,” Driskill said. “Some of the best policies come from these splits. We just need to have good, honest debate.”