In the wake of Wyoming’s first campaign-finance filings of 2022, some lawmakers, candidates and election watchers are raising concerns about accountability, lack of oversight and confusion.
In a year with “election integrity” on the ballot in numerous races, and what’s shaping up to be record spending, some fear new rules and a lack of proactive compliance checks by the secretary of state could result in inadvertent violations, or worse. A WyoFile analysis of campaign finance reports corroborates such concerns.
Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper), for example, who’s running to lead the office that oversees the state’s elections, filed reports that raise questions, but they won’t be reviewed unless a complaint is filed. That’s because the secretary of state’s office does not automatically audit campaign finance reports and errors are not uncommon.
The reports are filed and available to the public but, “no one’s really right now going through and checking” their legitimacy, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) said. “It’s just kind of all based on your word.”
Zwonitzer is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee. Last spring, the Legislature passed two bills from the committee that changed campaign finance reporting requirements with the intent to make the process more transparent. More could be done, Zwonitzer said, but lawmakers would need to make allowances for the kinds of honest mistakes made by political newbies like first-time office seekers.
The 2022 campaign for Wyoming legislative seats is on track to be the state’s costliest on record. Approximately $1.88 million has poured into statehouse races, according to reports filed with the secretary of state’s office ahead of Tuesday’s primary election. The total has already surpassed total contributions for 2020’s record-breaking year, including both the primary and the general election.
With approximately $115,000 split about evenly between two candidates, Senate District 29 leads Wyoming’s legislative campaigns in total fundraising. Political action committees have provided about half of incumbent Sen. Drew Perkins (R-Casper) $58,850. Challenger Bob Ide, meanwhile, has raised $56,220 — with half of that coming from family or himself, according to filings. The candidates report raising almost the same amount from individuals.
Technically, Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) has raised the third-most money for his re-election campaign to Senate District 1 with approximately $42,660.
However, before Gray began pursuing his bid for secretary of state, and after he suspended his campaign for the US House, he was briefly a candidate for reelection in House District 57. His father made two separate $25,000-donations to that campaign, according to Gray’s Aug. 9 primary financial report. Wyoming election law caps individuals’ direct donations to statewide campaigns at $2,500, and to non-statewide races, like legislative campaigns, at $1,500. There are no limits, however, on direct contributions from immediate family members, including parents.
Wyoming statute prohibits candidates from seeking more than one public office at a time. Despite that, the two donations came on May 23 and 24, the week after Gray ended his statehouse run and made his bid for secretary of state official on May 18. Gray spent the entirety of that $50,000, according to his campaign report, with about $35,000 put towards television advertisements in late July, more than a month after he began running for a different office.
Gray filed a separate report for the secretary of state’s race, in which his father provided $510,000 of the approximately $528,000. Between contributions to a super pac backing Gray’s US House race, and direct donations to his statehouse and his secretary of state campaigns, the elder Gray has spent at least $760,000 on his son’s candidacies this election cycle.
While state law enables any person to transfer funds from their campaign account to any other campaign account, such a transfer of funds must be labeled an expenditure and the receipt of such funds as a contribution, according to state campaign finance law. The law also requires that both the expenditure and contribution be reported in the respective campaign finance filings. Gray’s District 57 House filing does not report any expenditures to his campaign for secretary of state, or any other campaign.
Gray did not respond to WyoFile’s request for comment.
Not every legislative race has seen a notable increase in fundraising. For roughly half the candidates running for either chamber, their total reported contributions remained under $10,000. About 50 candidates raised less than $5,000. Even those numbers are above the typical fundraising for statehouse races, however.
Evie Brennan is running as a Republican candidate in Senate District 31 — a new district created during the recent redistricting process. This is Brennan’s first time running for office, so it was also her first time filing a campaign finance report with the state.
Brennan thought she had correctly accounted for two $500 donations from two different candidate committees, she said. However, Brennan listed the contributions from the “Wyoming State Party” and put “Republican” under the name column in her official report.
Brennan wasn’t aware she had made a mistake until WyoFile reached out to her — state statute prohibits political parties from spending funds on a candidate who faces an opponent in the primary election. Brennan has amended her report to disclose the donations that came from Darin Smith for Wyoming and Wilson for Wyoming. WyoFile confirmed those donations with Rep. Sue Wilson (R-Cheyenne) and Darin Smith’s federal filings. A Wyoming Republican Party spokesperson also said the party had not given to Brennan’s campaign.
For fellow first-time statehouse candidate Robert Davis, the paperwork also brought confusion. The House District 47 candidate had not realized a process separate from filing his campaign finance report is required to form a candidate committee in Wyoming, he said.
Davis received $3,000 from Carleen Brophy and $5,000 from the Committee to Elect Robert Davis. However, no such candidate committee had been formed with the state. Davis had not realized this error until WyoFile reached out for comment.
“Nothing came back. So I thought everything was good,” Davis said.
The committee is made up of himself and a few family members, Davis said. He planned to contact the secretary of state’s office to correct the error, but also expressed frustration with the process.
“It’s no worse than trying to do your income tax,” Davis said.
Neither Davis nor Brennan were notified about their mistakes from the secretary of state’s office because there is no automatic audit mechanism for campaign finance reports. A review of filings only takes place if the office receives a complaint about a report, according to Monique Meese, a spokesperson with the secretary of state’s office. As of Monday, zero complaints had been submitted to the office regarding primary campaign reports, Meese said.
The lack of initial review can leave first-time candidates vulnerable to campaign violations for honest mistakes, according to Zwonitzer. It can also open the door to nefarious actors, he added.
There’s been discussion about creating a position in the secretary of state’s office that would be dedicated to audits as well as candidate education on how exactly to file, Zwonitzer said. But it hasn’t gotten much traction since it’s not clear what the position would do during non-election years.
In 2003, the Legislature passed a more stringent and comprehensive campaign finance bill. Two years later, however, the Legislature weakened much of that bill, Zwonitizer said, when “a good quarter of the Legislature had screwed up on their filings.”
Since then, very little has been done to tighten things back up, Zwonitzer said, save for the two bills passed this spring.
House Bill 49 – Election reporting requirements, which is now law, requires any organization that receives or spends funds in excess of $1,000 for the purpose of influencing an election outcome to officially file as a political organization with the secretary of state’s office. That must be done within 10 days of receiving or spending such funds, and must include a name and a mailing address. The bill also gives discretion to the secretary of state’s office in assessing a fine, and provides a window to resolve the issue.
House Bill 80 – Campaign Reports-amendments was also signed into law. It provided similar discretion and time-frame guidelines to the secretary of state. It increased the penalties for campaigns and political action committees that do not file itemized statements of contributions and expenditures by the stated deadline. Under the law, instead of a one-time $500 fine, any person or organization failing to file a report now incurs up to $500 in daily penalties until said report is filed.
Currently, six candidates running for the Legislature have yet to file a primary election campaign report leaving each liable for $3,000 and a total of $18,000 between them.