A WyoFile investigation reveals Wyoming elected officials, candidates and party operatives personally accepted at least $3.6 million in federal relief subsidies, even as many espoused anti-government-spending policy positions.
Some candidates have made campaign promises to reject federal dollars as state lawmakers. At the statehouse last spring, some legislators made unsuccessful pleas to send more than $1 billion in stimulus back to Washington.
Many of those same lawmakers and candidates relied on federal dollars to keep their private businesses running through the COVID-19 pandemic, according to records from the Small Business Administration and the Wyoming Business Council. The Paycheck Protection Program was established in 2020 as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act.
As one of the federal government’s largest coronavirus relief programs, it offered forgivable loans for businesses to keep their employees. The funds could be used for some other costs, too. Issued by private lenders and credit unions, the loans were backed by the SBA.
(WyoFile received a $60,878 loan in April 2020, since forgiven, based on its then five full-time employees.)
In November 2020, all PPP borrower names were publicly released after a federal judge in Washington ruled in favor of news organizations.
WyoFile in part used WyOpen, a database created by the state auditor’s office in 2019, to examine Wyoming Business Relief Program records. While separate from the PPP, Wyoming created similar programs using CARES Act dollars to support businesses. The Wyoming Business Council administered many of those grants.
At least 30 prospective or sitting lawmakers own or are financially involved with businesses that got federal financial relief. There was significant overlap between those borrowers and Republicans who have publicly opposed state acceptance of federal dollars.
GOP Chairman Frank Eathorne told WyoFile earlier this year he regretted accepting federal agricultural subsidies totaling $109,000 for 2001-05.
In January 2021, Eathorne was approved for a $20,883 PPP loan – the maximum a sole proprietor or self-employed individual could borrow. The loan retained one job. Eathorne did not comment.
PPP loans were designed to be forgiven. That required a separate application to either the SBA or the borrower’s lender once the entirety of the loan had been spent.
Eathorne had his loan fully forgiven in January after applying through his lender, Converse County Bank in Douglas.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell had a PPP loan fully forgiven in September. Rammell received the maximum amount for a sole proprietor on account of Wyoming Veterinary Center, his animal clinic in Rock Springs. Additionally, Rammell got a $50,000 grant through a federally funded state program meant to provide immediate pandemic relief to businesses that lost revenue due to COVID-19 local or state government health orders.
This year, Rammell has campaigned for governor on a platform to remove the federal government from Wyoming’s dealings, both by rejecting funding and by taking over federally managed land. Rammell reiterated his political opposition to federal government assistance, at a gubernatorial debate in Riverton.
Rammell declined to comment now.
Some of the discussion on federal government spending has taken a turn for the ugly this campaign season. In June, Rep. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper, was heckled during a candidate forum in Casper when he said he would not be in favor of eliminating federal dollars from Wyoming’s budget.
Sweeney and Allemand
“I understand the anger at the federal government,” Sweeney told WyoFile. “But in reality, it can’t work that way.” He was referring to Wyoming’s schools, hospitals and nursing homes, which he said would cease to function without federal funding.
Both Sweeney and his primary opponent, Bill Allemand, are involved with businesses that received PPP loans.
Allemand took a different tack at the June forum. Along with several other House candidates, Allemand said Wyoming should not accept any funding from the federal government.
Allemand owns and operates a trucking company out of Midwest. When his first PPP loan was approved – April 8, 2020 – oil demand was sinking. In Wyoming, there were 230 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and a public health order closed public spaces such as schools, restaurants and gyms. Gov. Mark Gordon and other top officials asked residents to stay home when possible.
“In order to survive what the government was doing to me, I did choose to use the PPP,” Allemand said.
Allemand’s loans, totaling about $70,000, were fully forgiven and his trucking company remains in business. Still, Allemand faults the federal government.
“The federal government, who is to take care of this nation, failed,” Allemand said.
U.S. House race
Some candidates seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., are linked to COVID-19 dollars.
Harriet Hageman has told Wyoming Public Radio she decided to run for federal office instead of pursue another bid for governor because of pandemic “overspending” by Congress.
Some of the funds buoyed her husband John Sundahl’s law firm, as well as several of her family members’ agricultural ventures. The bulk of those five loans amounted to about $130,000 and retained 14 jobs. All were fully forgiven.
Hageman’s campaign declined to comment.
Two of Hageman’s Republican opponents also received PPP aid. Robyn Belinskey got $7,936 and Sen. Anthony Bouchard of Cheyenne received $25,000.
During a candidates’ debate in June, both Belinskey and Bouchard were critical of federal spending, when asked about President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law.
Bouchard’s PPP loan was for a septic services company. According to his lawmaker financial disclosure form, Bouchard is involved with the company in a directorship capacity. However, the lawmaker told WyoFile the company belongs to his wife, Billie Jean, and she’s responsible for taking out the loan. According to secretary of state records, a BJ Bouchard is president/director of the company.
A federally backed loan from a private lender is different from other federal government spending, according to Bouchard. The senator abruptly ended a phone interview before WyoFile could get further clarification.
Bouchard was not alone in his stand against the American Rescue Plan Act.
In the Wyoming Senate, six other lawmakers voted against the final passage of the bill on third reading – four of which are involved to various degrees with businesses that received PPP dollars. They are Sens. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, Cale Case, R-Lander, Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, and Tara Nethercott R-Cheyenne.
Sens. Biteman and Case did not comment. Nethercott told WyoFile she would not have opposed the bill had the vote been closer.
“It wasn’t anything to do with, ‘We shouldn’t be taking these federal funds’ because we’re in no position to deny them,” Nethercott said. Instead, her vote was in protest of what had been left out of the bill.
McKeown said it was a difficult decision to apply for PPP loans for his two grocery stores in Wright and Gillette. He did so “to protect the livelihood of 38 employees and their families.”
The opposition to the ARPA was more pronounced down the hall in the House chamber.
Senate File 66 – American rescue plan act recovery funds appropriations, laid out how the state would spend some of the $1 billion-plus Wyoming received through ARPA. Ultimately, the bill passed both chambers and a joint conference committee. During the third reading of the bill, Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, brought an amendment to delete the enactment clause – a parliamentary maneuver that, if passed, would have killed the bill.
Fortner withdrew the amendment. Several spoke in favor of it, and 18 representatives ultimately voted against the passage of the spending bill on third reading.
Of those 18, half own or are involved with private businesses or nonprofits that relied on federal dollars to survive the pandemic, including: Reps. Fortner; Ocean Andrew, R-Laramie; Mark Baker, R-Green River; John Bear, R-Gillette; Chuck Gray, R-Casper; Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland; Christopher Knapp, R-Gillette; and Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody.
Bear, who owns and operates a dry-cleaning business in Gillette, said the decision to take on federal loans was challenging. His business received about $81,000 in PPP funds plus $36,000 through a federally funded Wyoming Business Council grant.
At the onset of the pandemic, Bear kept his business open and 14 people employed by pivoting. The business advertised laundry services for overworked first responders and clean bedding for those infected with the virus. That didn’t last and business dried up, Bear said.
“We could have laid our employees off and closed our doors,” Bear said. “We chose to provide confidence to our employees who depend on us for a secure living by offering them a reduced level of work but a consistent level of pay. We utilized CARES Act dollars to do that.”
Bear doesn’t see his political views at odds with his use of federal dollars for his own business. The PPP loans are distinct from other forms of federal government assistance, he said.
“Business owners were given no choice but to comply with the mandate to close and even if they chose to defy the government edicts, their customers were nowhere to be found as they too were under a government lockdown,” Bear said.
“Do I believe it’s hypocritical? Sure, maybe in ways it is,” said Rep. Haroldson.
He works as a pastor in Wheatland at Impact Ministries, which received about $18,000 through a since-forgiven PPP loan. While Haroldson’s signature appears on the loan application, it was the ministry’s board of directors who decided a PPP loan was necessary, Haroldson said. That was frustrating for Haroldson, but he accepted their decision.
“That money was already allocated, that money was already going to be spent and those loans were already going to be forgiven,” Haroldson said. “That was just the nature of that monster.”
Accepting federal funding or not must be carefully decided on a case-by-case basis, according to Rep. Andrew. His vote against the ARPA bill had more to do with how the money was being spent than a political hard line, he said.
SF 66 “was a bill appropriating the funds, not an acceptance or rejection of federal funding,” Andrew said. “I personally voted no because I disagreed with how quickly and for what the funds were being used.”
Where Andrew draws the line on federal funding has to do with the implications of such dollars. If funds came with some sort of strings attached, such as new policy implementation, then Andrew would consider whether his constituents would agree with such policy, he said.
Andrew’s food truck business received about $484,000 through a PPP loan in order to retain 54 jobs. Andrew stands by his stance on federal government spending, partly because he sees federal funding as money “taken from Wyomingites through either taxation or inflation caused by printing money.
“The system is the problem,” Andrew said, “Ideally, the money would stay in Wyoming and never be filtered through the federal government. Until there is change at the federal level, we are forced to make the most of it.”