Saturday, December 13, 2014

Serving Two Masters

Not to dwell on the Wyoming Liberty Group but when an influential state senator admitted he’s a member of their board of directors, my ears perked again. Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, Senate chair of the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee is a WLG board member.
In light of formal legal opinions issued by the Wyoming Attorney General, that’s a conflict of interest. But the curious part about Case’s acknowledgement it it ripped the veil of secrecy WLG maintains about board members. Click on the web page of most non-profit organizations and you find their board members. Not so with WLG.
They list staff members. There’s founder and Texan Susan Gore and a group of other Texans, a Canadian, and a Swede who is now a Wyoming resident. There’s a sprinkling of Wyoming folks including former legislator Amy Edmunds whose husband Harlan is a recently elected legislator.
But not the names of their board members. Under federal tax law, an organization’s board plays critical roles. The board governs the organization, establishing broad policies and objectives, assigning priorities. Boards acquire resources for financing operations. They’re expected to find the money.
Board members determine organizational mission and monitor programs and services. In other words, it’s the WLG board that decided to attack Wyoming’s state employee pension program, fight Medicaid expansion, and oppose legislation requiring certain political action committees to report contributors and expenditures.
WLG board membership of any state legislator problematic. At a recent session of the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee, state elections director Peggy Nighswonger expressed concern that organizations raising and spending money supporting or opposing candidates found a way around laws requiring reporting because they didn’t use specific words saying a candidate should or should not be elected.
A proposed bill would require these groups disclose their donors if they “directly or indirectly” advocated for the election or against candidates. Supporters included the League of Women Voters. Marguerite Herman, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters, said she supports the change.
“Our group supports as much attribution as possible to get information out there to voters,” she said. “They want to know where (the ads) are coming from and who is paying for them so the voters can decide how to place that in their decision-making.”
There was one influential opponent. The Wyoming Liberty Group. One organization running these types of ads during the past election was Republic Free Choice, a conservative group coincidentally staffed by people who happen to be part of the Wyoming Liberty Group.
Like WLG, the Republic Free Choice (RFC) website doesn’t name its board but lists a Cheyenne address and allows for email requests. I submitted one asking for the names of their board members. I received no response.
Case acknowledged membership on the WLG board and involvement of RFC in the questioned campaign tactics, but then used his authority as committee chair to lay the bill back for “an interim study,” the graveyard for many good ideas.
Is Case’s WLG board membership a conflict of interest? In 1997, then Attorney General Bill Hill answered that question, finding a paramount consideration is “the need to maintain public confidence in the integrity of elected representatives.” Hill said legislators must avoid even an appearance of impropriety.
The AG simply paraphrased Jesus who said long ago we cannot serve two masters.
Conflicts of interest occur, the AG said, whenever a legislator finds difficulty in “devoting himself with complete energy, loyalty, and singleness of purpose to the general public interest.”
Case will find it difficult to do that. WLG priorities, established by its board, include fighting efforts to require shadow organizations to report contributions and expenditures to defeat candidates.
The League of Women Voters believes, "People need to know where the money is coming from.” WLG believes people shouldn’t know. As chair of the committee writing election law, Case cannot fully devote himself to the public interest while serving the mission of WLG. He must choose which master he’ll serve.

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