By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
With Wyoming Deputy Secretary of State Karen Wheeler stepping down in less than two weeks, her office will lose 37 years of experience.
Wheeler has served under seven secretary of state administrations during her time with the state, likely the most of any staff member in the history of the office.
“The duties don’t really change,” she said with a small smile “Every secretary does bring their vision, but really, it’s the hardworking people that are here and stay here that really shaped the office.
“Secretaries come and go, it is the staff who stays here and really forms the office.”
‘This Is My Home’
During her 37 years, Wheeler has played a role in nearly every aspect of the department that oversees registration of business entities, statewide elections, election laws, campaign finance, securities, public notaries and registered agents, trade names and trademarks, document authentication and agricultural liens.
“This is my home, my pride and joy,” Wheeler said proudly.
The type of institutional knowledge Wheeler possesses isn’t likely be replaced anytime soon. Many lawmakers found her knowledge particularly valuable for input on drafted legislation, able to provide nearly four decades of historical context to legislators.
She was a familiar face before the Corporations, Elections, and Political Subdivisions Committee, which is the home committee for the Secretary of State’s office. Wheeler said she enjoyed educating, not lobbying, legislators on bills.
“Deputy Wheeler’s service to the state is unparalleled,” said state Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne. “Her tireless professionalism and expertise has guided excellence in both policymaking and deliverables to the businesses and people of Wyoming. Her depth of knowledge and expert testimony to the Legislature will be irreplaceable.”
One testament to the impact she made could be seen in the response to her LinkedIn post announcing her resignation.
Among the people to comment on her departure were Gov. Mark Gordon, state Sens. Stephan Pappas, R-Cheyenne, and Fred Baldwin, R-Kemmerer, Department of Revenue Director Brenda Henson and many others.
The Start Of A Journey
A Wyoming native, Wheeler started her career in the secretary of state’s office in 1985 after temporarily stepping away from school at the University of Wyoming.
Then, the office was under the tutelage of longtime Secretary of State Thyra Thomson.
After starting her career working with corporations and limited partnerships, she later moved on to the securities division, serving as a financial analyst and an auditor. This position involved Wheeler’s participation in a federal white collar fraud task force sponsored by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Battle Against Fraud
Over her 20 years in this role, she worked directly with federal law enforcement agents and testified before federal grand juries and in federal courts, a responsibility she felt particularly proud of because of the difference it made in communities across the state.
“Which is probably, as I reflect on, the most rewarding times of my career, because when our Wyoming citizens would lose their money, and maybe frauded out of it, we could give them some closure,” she said. “We couldn’t get their money back, but we could hold those accountable that took them.”
Wheeler was there in 1988 when the IRS issued its favorable ruling for Wyoming limited liability companies to be taxed, opening the door for these types of typically small businesses in the state.
“That was really monumental,” Wheeler said.
Keeping Ahead Of Trends
Wheeler believes her staff has stayed ahead of the times when it comes to implementing new technology and rules. For example, in 2016, the office made it possible for the public to submit initial filings for LLC profit corporations online.
“We saw an incredible jump in initial filings after that,” she said.
She also served as director of compliance, overseeing the entire Securities Division, which included oversight and auditing of the stock brokerage industry, commercial registered agents and notaries.
She believes the allegations brought forth in the “Pandora Papers” and “Panama Papers” about loopholes exploited in Wyoming’s corporate security trust laws, are simply allegations.
“It’s nothing more than allegations,” she said. “No one has ever brought to this office proof of conviction or proof of wrongdoing, it’s allegations.
“No matter what the law is on the books, there are people who break the law, but bring us proof.”
The state lacks any kind of training for registered agents and background checks aren’t required for the members of trusts and companies they represent.
A number of major former criminals turned up as part of an extensive examination by The Washington Post and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists this spring within thousands of company records filed with the state of Wyoming.
Under state law, managers and members can either be corporate entities or natural persons, making it possible for a shell corporation to be formed in Wyoming without any individual person named in the corporate records.
There also is no requirement to file with the Secretary of State’s office the name of company managers or members.
Wheeler became deputy secretary of state in 2015 under former Secretary of State Ed Murray. The deputy is the No. 2 decision-maker in the office.
When Secretary of State Ed Buchanan began in 2018, he retained Wheeler as his deputy. Interim Secretary of State Karl Allred has done the same.
Another proud moment for Wheeler was getting a state office building in Casper named after Thomson, her former boss, a project she initiated. The dedication for the building took place in April, which the Thomson family attended. It’s the first state building in Wyoming named after a woman.
“Knowing what Secretary Thomson did for our state, and particularly working parents and mothers,” Wheeler said. “She was incredible.”
One of the few aspects of her job she found disappointing was when the department’s offices were moved out of the Capitol to the Herschler Building next door in 2019.
“It’s just a humbling experience every day to walk up those steps into that building,” she said of the Capitol. “It really was a humbling experience and I’m reminded every day you are there to serve your state.”
The secretary of state and the office are in charge of overseeing all election matters in Wyoming.
Prior to the 2020 election, the topic of election laws and security were relatively mundane conversation pieces for most people. But after former President Donald Trump started questioning the results of that election, the topic took on a whole new life in Wheeler’s office, quickly becoming an area of concern for many Wyoming residents.
“I think our other responsibilities have been forgotten, not by members of this office, but by the general public,” she said.
The allegations brought by Trump and many hardline conservatives did nothing to hinder Wheeler and former Secretary of State Buchanan’s faith in the security of Wyoming’s elections.
“We all knew Wyoming did not have issues in the 2020 election,” she said. “It got very disheartening for us to see our constituents suddenly lose confidence in Wyoming’s elections when we’ve never had those issues before.”
Defending Wyoming’s Process
The office began an Election Integrity Initiative that featured a statewide tour from Buchanan this summer, giving presentations on how the state’s elections work and the security measures in place.
There was a lot of work “to help restore faith in the election process in Wyoming before the 2022 election,” Wheeler explained. “It was shocking and a little disheartening, but we took it very seriously and it was our job to make sure that Wyoming citizens have faith in elections again.”
Time To Go
Shortly after Secretary of State-elect Chuck Gray won the Republican nomination, Wheeler and a handful of other leading staff members in the office announced their resignations.
She and three others from the five-member executive team are leaving, representing 119 years of experience between the four of them.
“With the incoming administration, the change in administrations, I just felt that it was a good time for me to close this chapter of my book and start a new one,” Wheeler said.
But she has spent significant time working with Gray’s transition team to ensure the best retention of institutional knowledge possible.
Wheeler isn’t retiring and said she will be looking for job opportunities in the private sector.
“Hopefully, my experience can be a benefit for an organization,” she said.