An incident that occurred in Fremont County has prompted a local lawmaker to request a review of the reporting requirements for political expenditures in Wyoming.
Currently, state law requires any group of two or more people to file an expense report as a political action committee (PAC) if they spend money to influence elections.
But that rule is not always followed or enforced, Wyoming Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said during a Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee meeting last month.
“The law now (is) being just ignored,” Case said. “It happened right here in Fremont County. (So) I’d like to propose that we look at tightening that up.”
Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese said the local incident involved an advertisement that “appeared to be” paid for by a group of citizens expressing support for several political candidates.
When Freese asked who paid for the ad, she said she was told that a “group of people … got together, (and) a couple of people gave money” to support the expense.
“I said, ‘Well, really you should file as a PAC,’” Freese recalled. “And this person said, ‘I did not know that.’”
The individual proceeded to “try to do the right thing” by filing as a PAC through the Secretary of State’s website, Freese said, but they were unable to do so because they hadn’t assigned themselves any official officers – a roadblock that she called “ludicrous.”
“If you don’t have a chairman and treasurer, it doesn’t let you (file),” Freese said. “If you’re trying to do the right thing (and) report … there’s no way to do it on the state level.”
The group could have filed at the county level, Freese said, but Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun “would not support my view” on the reporting rules.
“(He) did not agree with the way the statutes are written,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s just the way my county attorney interpreted that, but … since my county attorney wouldn’t support me in that, it went by the wayside. I still recommended that they file a report, and that didn’t happen, and I had to drop that.”
She is still concerned about the situation, however, pointing out, as a “flip” example, that the next time she runs for office, she could ask her husband to “go out and get a bunch of friends together (to) give him money, and I’m going to run under the radar of where I got my money.”
“It could be from corporations, it could be dark money, it could be whatever – (but) nobody is going to know about it,” Freese said. “A group of people (can) gather money … undetected and say it’s an individual doing it.”
After hearing from Freese, the committee decided to draft a bill creating PAC filing exemptions for groups that spend less than a certain amount, or that publicly disclose their identities and individual contributions.
“I actually don’t want our campaign reporting to be onerous,” Case said. “But this is a situation where a group can do exactly what a PAC does, and a PAC has to follow the law, and there are consequences.”
Freese advised the committee to pay specific attention to the statutory language about PACs “formally” organizing, since that was one reason LeBrun had disagreed with her about the filing requirement.
“He felt that (the local group) had not formally organized, since they told me that they just got together,” Freese said. “That might be another area that you look at.”
Later in the meeting, Karen Wetzel of Lander addressed the committee, guessing that she is “probably” the individual that was being discussed during the PAC filing conversation.
“Back in the election season last year I did run several newspaper ads,” Wetzel said. “I was a person that asked several people if they wanted to come in with me and do that. (But) nobody did. I did it by myself as a private citizen. I even contacted they Secretary of State’s office. They also contacted the Attorney General’s office. I was told I did not need to file anything – that I was fine – and I would appreciate it if Sen. Case would stop telling me that I’m breaking the law.”
Case didn’t respond to Wetzel’s comments at the time, but his co-chair, Wyoming Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, said, “That’s not how I recall the conversation,” and Wetzel replied, “In private he tells me I’m breaking the law.”
The Corporations Committee’s next meeting is scheduled to take place Aug. 24-25 in Douglas.