GOP complaint against Democratic organization bounces around state

May 10, 2017

CASPER — A 6-month-old complaint by the Wyoming GOP against an organization that provided Democratic legislative candidates campaign assistance has been circling among a number of state and county offices — with one attorney saying the matter is evidence of a weakness in election law.

The Republican Party’s complaint against ELLA WY was originally sent to the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office, which oversees elections. The complaint has also been on the desks of Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael and Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent, who said Tuesday that she sent it back to the AG’s office on March 16, believing it would be the proper agency to undertake an investigation and possible prosecution.

“The election laws need to be revised,” Trent said. “It isn’t just open-and-shut. It’s very convoluted. There needs to be a revision.”

In late October, the GOP questioned whether ELLA and the candidates it represents were involved in sending negative campaign literature about Republican opponents during the 2016 general election.

The mail came from the Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance and Women Lead Wyoming — two projects of Forward Wyoming Advocacy. Jackson philanthropist Liz Storer helped start ELLA and Forward Wyoming Advocacy.

While it is legal for the hunters’ and women’s groups to send mail promoting some candidates and criticizing others — the practice is known as independent expenditures — it’s against the law if the groups worked in concert with ELLA or the candidates. The GOP wanted the Secretary of State to determine whether the law had been broken.

On Oct. 25, Deputy Wyoming Secretary of State Karen Wheeler sent a letter to Michael, the AG, asking him to look into the matter. Wheeler wrote that the secretary’s staff believed two election laws may have been violated.

In January, after the election fervor had died down and the 2017 legislative session was underway, Wyoming Senior Assistant Attorney General Michael Robinson replied to Wheeler that the AG’s office was the wrong group of attorneys to look into the matter.

Robinson wrote that the complaint should have been sent by a voter to either the secretary’s office or the county attorney where the elector lives, and that the “Republican Party does not meet the statutory definition of a qualified elector.”

The AG’s office becomes involved only when the secretary or prosecuting attorney fails to look at a complaint or prosecute it, Robinson wrote.

On Feb. 9, Wheeler forwarded the complaint to Trent, the Albany County attorney. Wheeler wrote that she sent the information to Trent because ELLA and Forward Wyoming Advocacy are headquartered in Laramie.

But Trent said she sent the information back to the AG’s office.

Trent said her office is charged with investigating and prosecuting election disputes on the city or county level.

But she believes the GOP’s complaint is a statewide matter for the AG’s office because legislative offices are state positions. Wyoming House and Senate candidates — as well as organizations involved in independent expenditures — file campaign finance paperwork with the secretary of state. Local candidates file their financial disclosure forms with the county, she said.

“If I take it on, then I’m taking on a matter that is of state concern,” Trent said. “And that is not the role of the county attorney.”

Michael, the AG, didn’t reply to an email from the Star-Tribune seeking comment Tuesday.

In 2014, Trent hired ELLA to provide data for her campaign for county attorney. She said she did not employ ELLA for campaign management, another service of the organization. She said a different group of people worked at ELLA at the time and she said she could prosecute the case if necessary.

Mitch Edwards, the Wyoming Republican Party’s attorney, said in an email he trusts Trent will properly analyze the issues if her office is the appropriate place to handle the complaint.

“Whether it is (the county) attorney, the Attorney General, or some other proceeding, we hope that the matter will be pursued and that steps will be taken to enforce Wyoming’s campaign finance laws,” he said.

Chris Bell, ELLA’s executive director, maintains the relationship among his organization, Forward Wyoming Advocacy and the candidates was lawful.

“Over six months have passed since the initial complaints were publicized prior to the election, and the Attorney General, the Secretary of State nor the county attorney have yet to take any action to imply that any violations of elections law occurred,” he said in an email.

A number of Democratic candidates were listed in the GOP’s complaint, including Charles Pelkey, who was re-elected to his Laramie seat.

“I used ELLA as a customer and paid for political consulting, literature preparation and that kind of stuff,” he said. “But that’s a completely separate entity.”

Pelkey said he helped ELLA and the hunters’ group when they first were established with paperwork for registering with the state. He said his role didn’t involve him knowing much about the day-to-day workings of the organizations or any the independent expenditures.

“I was a glorified post office,” he said.