By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
A bill will be considered in the Legislature’s upcoming 2023 session that would tighten campaign contribution laws in Wyoming.
Senate File 40, sponsored by state Sens. Cale Case, R-Lander, Brian Boner, R-Douglas, Tara Nethercott and Dan Zwonitzer, both R-Cheyenne, in many ways takes a roundabout approach to peeling the fruit it intends to consume.
The legislation clarifies that federal political action committees are not required to file state contribution and expenditure reports if the contributions and expenditures of the PAC are exclusively related to federal candidates or issues.
Noticeably absent from the bill is how it would address federal PACs that also are involved in state-level elections.
By leaving this out, the legislation indirectly asserts that any PAC participating in state-level campaign activity in Wyoming must file with the state.
Case said that’s not specifically spelled out on purpose.
“The rules have to be the same for everybody,” he said. “We’re just trying to close the loopholes that prevent us from stopping people trying to get around state reporting.”
Boner said he sees SF 40 simply as bringing increased transparency to Wyoming’s elections.
“If you’re spending money in the state’s elections you need to disclose it,” Boner said.
Coal Country Conservatives
Both Case and Boner said the legislation was inspired by the Coal Country Conservatives PAC.
“It looked like it was formed to evade the state reporting requirements,” Case said.
Coal Country Conservatives was particularly active in Campbell County elections this year. Although most of the organization’s electioneering efforts were for state and local races, the PAC only filed campaign finance information at a federal level.
The Federal Election Commission does not monitor state and local races. It is state election officials who are responsible for monitoring non-federal races.
The PAC disclosed its state level spending and contributions with the FEC, but not until nearly a month after the August primary election.
Coal Country spent $8,047 during the election, all of which it reported going to printing costs on behalf of candidates. It raised $10,560, of which $4,460 came from anonymous donors.
Gillette residents Colleen McCabe and Laura Cox were respectively listed as treasurer and president of the PAC.
Last week, the FEC filed a complaint with McCabe for failing to file contribution and expense reports for the time period from Oct. 20-Nov. 28, information that had been due Dec. 8.
It was the second complaint the PAC has received from the FEC this election cycle for failing to file campaign finance information on time.
The Wyoming Secretary of State’s office, which oversees state elections, does not have the same filing deadlines and requirements as the FEC, so filing state finance information on a federal level doesn’t satisfy both state and federal requirements.
True West PAC
Even less transparent was the True West PAC, which listed a Cheyenne post office box as an address but had no Wyoming residents associated with the organization.
True West opposed State Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, in his state Senate campaign against incumbent Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, who the PAC also directly supported.
In other ways, True West was more transparent than Coal Country, as it listed candidates and the money it gave them.
It spent $55,266 during the election season and was funded with a single $100,000 contribution from the True West Policy Fund. No information is publicly available on the organization.
Not a penny of the campaign donations were spent on federal elections or elections outside of Wyoming.
Contention Lives On
Outgoing Campbell County Clerk Susan Saunders filed a complaint about Coal Country PAC with the Secretary of State’s office and FEC in September, accusing the organization of shielding its own campaign finance expenditures.
The Wyoming Secretary of State’s office reviewed Saunders’ complaint and determined Oct. 5 there was no violation of Wyoming’s election code.
Despite the rejection, Saunders appeared before the state Legislature’s Corporations Committee on Oct. 14 and said legislation is needed to prevent activity like this from happening in the future.
Earlier this month, Coal Country in turn filed a complaint against Saunders with Interim Secretary of State Karl Allred, accusing her of making “several biased and unethical statements” in her complaint.
Cox said Saunders attempted to silence political speech and never attempted to contact her or McCabe with her concerns.
By not doing so, Cox claims Saunders violated Wyoming law. Saunders would have had this responsibility when it came to county- and city-level campaign filings Coal Country participated in, but would not have had the same authority or direction to do so in regard to state-level races, which falls under state jurisdiction.
“In spite of her decades of experience in the clerk’s office, she wrote a complaint that demonstrated both an ignorance of the law that governs federal and state electioneering and a desire to deprive certain local citizens and candidates of their legally protected right to free expression,” Cox said.
Coal Country PAC and Saunders didn’t respond to requests for comment from Cowboy State Daily.
“The false assumptions and doubt created were an attempt to smear the personal reputations of the officers and Coal Country Conservatives PAC as a grassroots political organization,” Cox said.
Cox said the bad publicity diminished the PAC’s efforts in the general election, which she said amounted to stifling “private dissent.”