Susan Gore of Cheyenne founded the Wyoming Liberty Group and Republic Free Choice. (Courtesy Wyoming Liberty Group)

Susan Gore is arguably Wyoming’s most influential libertarian promoter.

She puts millions of her personal wealth into political activities and nonprofit groups that speak loudly in the Legislature and on the campaign trail.

Since 2008, Gore has founded and financed three non-profit organizations that seek to reshape Wyoming politics and loosen restrictions on campaign spending nationwide. These include the Wyoming Liberty Group, Republic Free Choice, and the Pillar of Law Institute. Her staff had a role in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that allowed corporations, unions, and certain nonprofits to ramp up their political spending.

Even so, many who oppose her activities seem somewhat in the dark about just who she is, where she came from, and what her ultimate goals are. WyoFile’s review of published biographies, court cases, land records, and historical documents reveals some of the facets of her life.

Gore, a resident of Cheyenne, has lived in Wyoming for almost 20 years. Her Wyoming roots go back three generations in the southwest part of the state. She came to Wyoming in the mid-1990s after living for more than a decade in a transcendental meditation community in Fairfield, Iowa. Before that she lived in Delaware and Vermont.

Healthcare policy advisor Charlie Katebi works in the offices of the Wyoming Liberty Group. The nonprofit organization is affiliated with the State Policy Network of conservative think tanks. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)
Healthcare policy advisor Charlie Katebi works in the offices of the Wyoming Liberty Group in Cheyenne. The nonprofit organization is affiliated with the State Policy Network of conservative think tanks. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

More widely known is that Gore grew up in the family that founded the company most famous for inventing Gore-Tex fabric. Through the course of her life, the private family company grew from a small operation in a basement to a global chemical engineering behemoth that makes more than $3 billion in annual revenue and employs 10,000 people.

Gore’s own assets have fluctuated. She was wealthy by the 1980s due to inheriting shares of a family trust, but nearly bankrupt by the late 1990s after falling ill and ending her support of the meditation movement. She later viewed her involvement in the movement as a mistake, according her testimony before a Delaware court.

Her mother then gave her enough shares of family stock to make her wealthy again in the 2000s. In 2003 she adopted her ex-husband in an unsuccessful attempt to boost her children’s share of the family inheritance.

Through it all, Gore pursued her version of a better world. And in Wyoming, she seems to have found her niche as a promoter of conservative-libertarian ideas.

Two of her sons, Joel Otto and Nathan Otto, also play a role by serving on the boards of her groups.

Together, their efforts put pressure on Wyoming’s small-money elections, where nearly every legislative race costs less than $20,000.

Dan Neal, a long-time legislative observer who formerly directed the Equality State Policy Center, has followed Gore’s groups for years.

“I think they are getting more attention than they deserve,” Neal said. “This woman moves in from out of state and hires a bunch of people to come here and tell us what to do. It seems a little odd.”

“Everybody’s got a right to speak their mind,” he said, “but people need to recognize she’s got a lot of money, and she can make her voice a lot bigger and a lot louder than most people.”

Susan Gore’s rise in Wyoming is two intertwined stories: the work of three conservative-libertarian groups with national ambitions to promote anonymous political spending, and the journey of their founder, whose experience as an heiress to a successful family business informed the political changes she proposes.

WyoFile requested comment from Gore through her staff. She did not respond.

Inside Gore’s groups

Susan Gore’s philosophies were evident during WyoFile’s recent visit to the Cheyenne offices of the Wyoming Liberty Group. The headquarters is on the second floor of the Read Block building, just eight blocks from the Wyoming State Capitol.

Inside, the organization has a small library with books on politics and philosophy. Down a long hall policy workers and lobbyists work in individual offices.

Policy advisor Charlie Katebi, who grew up in Massachusetts, works on healthcare and free-market alternatives to the Affordable Care Act. In the next room attorney Boyd Wiggam works on private property rights. His family goes back generations in the farm country northeast of Cheyenne.

At the end of the hall, Maureen Bader, who previously worked for the libertarian Fraser Institute think tank in Vancouver, drafts briefs opposing state-funded economic development and proposing new ways to tax minerals.

Across the hall are the offices of Republic Free Choice, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit think tank that produces political-issue ads in Wyoming elections and shares several employees with the Wyoming Liberty Group. A third group called Pillar of Law Institute is an arm of the Wyoming Liberty Group, but pursues national campaign finance litigation from offices near Washington D.C.

Republic Free Choice is located across the hall from the Wyoming Liberty Group. RFC and several other independent groups sent out mailers in the 2014 election. Policy advisor and lobbyist Maureen Bader, at right, works for the Wyoming Liberty Group on revenue and taxation issues. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)
Republic Free Choice offices are located across the hall from the Wyoming Liberty Group. Policy advisor and lobbyist Maureen Bader, at right, works for the Wyoming Liberty Group on revenue and taxation issues. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

Across the three related groups, employees have a large degree of autonomy to pursue their interests, with support from Gore.

It’s no coincidence that the groups have this libertarian structure. It mirrors the decentralized, entrepreneurial organization of W.L. Gore and Associates, the company Gore’s parents founded in 1958.

Unlike most companies with a hierarchical chain of command structure, W.L. Gore “associates” work in small ad-hoc units and pursue their own projects with leaders of their own choosing. That structure allows for better innovation and the flourishing of individual potential, the company believes.

Susan Gore’s philosophy

Susan Gore’s experience with the non-hierarchical family business seems to underlie the societal changes she proposes for Wyoming.

According to the Wyoming Liberty Group website, “[Susan Gore’s] aim is to ensure that the power of the people and individuals in Wyoming takes precedence over improper government presumptions of authority.”

With less government, Gore believes people would be free to associate and solve problems using private enterprise on a community basis.

In a 2013 radio interview with Glenn Woods of Bold Republic Radio, Gore said she appreciated Wyoming’s culture of neighbors helping one another.

“The reason I started this was because I wanted to live in a place where I had better quality of life,” Gore told Bold Republic Radio. “I didn’t want to see us overwhelmed by too much government, too many regulations, a loss of our culture.”

To that end, Gore seems to be bolstering the already conservative voter base in Wyoming politics. The Wyoming Liberty Group opposes federal involvement in healthcare and education. It champions a free-market philosophy of privatization, where government ideally would stay out of areas where it believes private business can do a better job.

Gore rarely publishes her own thoughts as an individual political commentator. She has written seven columns on the Wyoming Liberty Group webpage since 2010.

Key players

Charles Curley, a computer programmer who is active in the state Republican Party, serves is a Wyoming Liberty Group board member.  (Courtesy Wyoming Liberty Group)
Wyoming Liberty Group member Charles Curley of Thermopolis is a computer programmer and a member of the Wyoming GOP central committee. (Courtesy Wyoming Liberty Group)

The Wyoming Liberty Group was founded in 2008. It has a staff of about 11, plus board members Susan Gore, her son Joel Otto, Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), and Charles Curley.

Charles Curley, a computer programmer by trade, is the Republican Party Chairman for Hot Springs County and a member of the Wyoming GOP central committee. He’s been active in Second Amendment issues and legalizing ownership of gold.

In 2014, Wyoming Liberty Group had seven registered lobbyists: Maureen Bader, former Rep. Amy Edmonds (R-Cheyenne), Jason Gay, Susan Gore, Steve Klein, former Rep. Lorraine Quarberg (R-Thermopolis), and Boyd Wiggam.

Many of the staff work across several divisions of the organization. Charles Curley and Amy Edmonds also do work for Republic Free Choice. Gore is on the board of both groups.

The State Policy Network

The Wyoming Liberty Group is part of a nationwide organization called the State Policy Network, founded in 1991. The organization has think-tank chapters in all 50 states, and receives money from a sophisticated network of donors.

Susan Gore told the Casper Star-Tribune in 2010 she founded the Wyoming Liberty Group after her brother David W. Gore formed a similar organization called the Cascade Policy Institute in Oregon, also a State Policy Network affiliate.

The Gore family company

Susan Gore provides the majority of financial support to the organizations through her family wealth, which she has also used to pursue personal interests, while supporting her sons and their entrepreneurial projects.

Gore’s parents Wilbert (“Bill”) and Genevieve “Vieve” (Walton) Gore were originally from Utah.

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Vieve Gore’s family ranched near Woodruff, Utah in the 1910s, according to the genealogy website The Waltons also had a 640-acre homestead just over the Wyoming border on Pine Hollow Creek, near Kemmerer, where they spent summers. The family did not prove up on the homestead and mostly lived on their main ranch near Woodruff. Vieve’s grandfather John Arnold was a judge in Evanston, Wyoming.

Wilbert L. “Bill” Gore was born in Meridian, Idaho and attended college in Utah, according to the Gore company website. He married Vieve in the 1930s, and then moved east to work for Remington Arms and DuPont before starting his own business with Vieve in Newark, Delaware in 1958.

Susan Gore’s parents were self-made entrepreneurs. Bill Gore worked as a chemical engineer and CEO of the Gore company, joined by his son Bob who invented Gore-Tex fabric. The company is most famous for Gore-Tex, but it also produced massive amounts of plastic-coated cables, medical devices, and a variety of other products based on fluoropolymers.

The company grew to 1,000 employees by 1979. Bill Gore died while backpacking in Wyoming’s Wind River Range July 26, 1986 at age 74. He is buried in Alpine, Utah.

Susan Gore’s life

Susan Gore was born in 1939. The family originally lived in Salt Lake City, but moved to Delaware in 1950. According to reporting by the Wilmington (Delaware) News Journal, she attended Newark High School in Delaware where she met her future husband Jan C. Otto. They both attended Middlebury College. Otto later earned a graduate degree in physics from Dartmouth and an M.B.A. from Harvard. She and Otto divorced in 1981, and he later moved to Boulder, Colorado.

During the 1980s Susan Gore put part of her resources into supporting the transcendental meditation movement, advocating for prisons to use meditation as part of rehabilitating inmates. She gave to the effort in Vermont, a state where she had lived with Otto.

YouTube video

Gore and her sons later lived near the Fairfield, Iowa, headquarters of the transcendental meditation movement started by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, one-time spiritual advisor to the Beatles. The community included a university and dozens of start-up businesses founded by followers of the Maharishi, including Gore and her sons.

Delaware Chancery Court documents cite Gore as testifying she became ill and was in “very, very bad shape” by the end of her time in the meditation movement. According to Susan Gore’s testimony as cited in a Delaware Supreme Court decision: “After leaving the [meditation] movement in 1995, Susan spent three years convalescing in a series of monasteries. By the end of the 1990s, Susan was facing the possibility of personal bankruptcy.”

Her financial troubles came after years of selling her shares of family stock and putting money into the meditation movement and her sons’ businesses, according to her siblings. At one point she invested $5 million into her son Joel Otto’s airplane business, according to the Wilmington News Journal reporting.

During Gore’s marriage to Otto, she sold a portion of her 3,900 shares in the Gore company to support herself and her family, according to court documents. She also put 1,340 of her shares into trusts to benefit her children and out of her own reach.

Susan Gore moved to Wyoming in about 1996. In an effort to resolve her financial situation Gore wrote a letter in 1999 to her mother asking for more Gore stock from the family’s Pokeberry Trust. Vieve Gore eventually released 336 shares of stock to support Susan, according to court documents. The shares together were potentially worth tens of millions of dollars.

Susan Gore’s political contributions

After coming back from the brink of bankruptcy, Gore showed interest in donating to political causes. She gave $5,000 in donations to the national Libertarian Party from 2003-2005. She’s also given to Wyoming candidates such as Mark Gordon, Cynthia Lummis, and Liz Cheney, according to campaign filings.

Overall, Susan Gore isn’t an especially active donor to specific candidates. Campaign records show she prefers giving to political action committees, issue groups and nonprofits.

Gore’s largest political gift of $500,000 went to the Red White and Blue Fund, a PAC that backed Rick Santorum in his 2012 campaign for the Republican primary for president. Jackson Hole resident Foster Friess gave $2.1 million to the group that same year.

Even that amount pales in comparison to her political spending devoted to the groups she has founded.

Gore finances Wyoming Liberty Group

Despite the Wyoming Liberty Group’s appeal to grassroots conservatives, Susan Gore was the driving force behind the group’s financial survival in its first few years.

IRS documents from 2008-2012 show Gore — and one other unlisted donor — provided more than 75 percent of the group’s $4.3 million in funding up to that time.

Gore founded the Wyoming Liberty Group in 2008. Together with one other donor she has given more than $3.2 million to the nonprofit organization. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)
Gore founded the Wyoming Liberty Group in 2008. Together with one other donor she has given more than $3.2 million to the nonprofit organization. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

Public documents indicate the unlisted person holds a position of authority in the organization. The donor could be another board member, or a Gore family member, but the Wyoming Liberty Group declined to comment on this point.

Overall, from 2008-2013, Susan Gore and the unlisted person contributed $3.2 million, while 109 individuals and eight foundations contributed a little more than $1 million. The IRS does not require nonprofits to list individual donors on 990 forms.

The foundations giving to Wyoming Liberty Group include the State Policy Network that gave $90,000 in 2009 and Donors Capital Fund that gave $485,000 between 2009-2011.

Donors Capital Fund is an aggregator of conservative mega-donors that gave $59 million to different groups in 2010.

Despite receiving large support from Gore, Bader said the Wyoming Liberty Group has “a lot” of public support, even among legislators.

Wyoming Liberty Group attorney Steve Klein agreed. “Susan as our president is always out there trying to do her best to raise money,” he said.

Susan Gore’s sons

Susan Gore’s sons Joel and Nathan Otto contribute to her efforts by serving on the boards of her nonprofits. A third son, Jan Peter Otto, is not involved with the groups.

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Joel Otto moved to Wyoming in 1999 after living in Florida and Iowa. He now lives at a ranch on Sinks Canyon Road near Lander, where he has previously hosted a gathering called “Liberty Fest.”

Joel Otto’s small-government politics mirror his mother’s. He is a founding board member of the Wyoming Liberty Group, and writes pieces for the Republic Free Choice website. He was the Country Party Candidate in Wyoming’s 2012 election for U.S. Senate. He earned 2.5 percent of the vote, compared to 75.8 percent for John Barrasso (R) and 21.7 for Tim Chestnut (D). Some members of Wyoming’s Country Party were formerly members of the Libertarian Party, but disagreed with the direction of the national Libertarian Party.

County land records show Joel Otto co-owns his ranch with his brother Jan Peter Otto, who owns a sports car rental company.

Susan Gore’s son Nathan Otto of Boulder, Colorado, is a board member of Republic Free Choice. Otto’s wife, Amber Lupton, also is a board member.

Nathan Otto and Amber Lupton have worked together on several efforts including the Safe Conflict Project, and a relationship therapy course called Discipline of Love. They co-wrote a book titled Give Peace a Deadline. Nathan also works as a family wealth counselor and business consultant. He previously built and sold several Internet businesses in the 1990s.[/wpex]

Adopting her ex-husband

Much of what is known about the adoption story as reported below comes from Delaware court rulings that are publicly available, and reporting by Wilmington News Journal reporter Cris Barrish based on additional court documents located in Delaware.

Nathan Otto’s interest in the family’s Pokeberry Trust led Susan Gore to adopt her ex-husband Jan C. Otto as her son in 2003.

Susan Gore had already disposed of many of her shares, and Nathan wanted to change the family stock distribution formula set up by his grandparents to boost the inheritance for him and his brothers, according to court rulings.

According to reporting by Cris Barrish of the Wilmington News Journal that cited Nathan Otto’s testimony, each share of Gore family stock was worth upwards of $66,000 in the 1990’s, an amount that has likely climbed since then. For most of the Gore grandchildren, their loss of dozens shares under Nathan’s proposed formula was worth millions, while the gain for Susan Gore’s branch was tens of millions of dollars.

While Vieve Gore refused to change the trust formula, and her four siblings and their children likewise disagreed, the Susan Gore branch contemplated her adopting another child. Doing so would automatically make all the distributions equal — 350 shares per grandchild.

Susan initially felt adoption was not the best way to change the trust. Yet by spring 2003 Susan settled on adopting one of her son’s children. Then her ex-husband Jan C. Otto jokingly suggested that she adopt him, according emails cited in court rulings.

Susan and her sons at first dismissed the idea, but within a few weeks Nathan emailed his father to say Susan wanted to move forward with the adoption, court papers say.

Gore adopted her ex-husband Jan C. Otto in Cheyenne in July 2003. As the Wilmington News Journal noted, he was 65 years old, she was 64. They did not inform Vieve Gore, the other grandchildren, or her siblings of the adoption, according to court rulings.

Initially, Jan C. Otto said he didn’t want the inheritance for himself, but he later decided to try to lay claim to the money, according to court documents.

Court battle

Susan Gore considered un-adopting her ex-husband, but before that could happen Vieve Gore died in January 2005. That brought the adoption out in public, and launched a multi-year court battle between the Gore grandchildren and the Susan Gore/Otto branch over whether Susan’s adopted son — her ex-husband — was entitled to benefit from the trust.

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The court ultimately ruled against Otto and the Susan Gore family.

Susan Gore declined to speak with WyoFile for this story. Asked to comment on this episode in Gore’s life, Wyoming Liberty Group attorney Klein said he didn’t have a comment.

“I do not speak on behalf of Susan Gore on that at all,” he said. “I think it is counterproductive. … In policy discussions, it is just a lot of hot air.”

Last fall Cheyenne pastor and former state employee Rodger McDaniel, brought up the adoption in the context of pension reform. McDaniel believed the Wyoming Liberty Group’s efforts to reform state pensions would be detrimental to public employees and retirees.

“Wyoming’s employees didn’t adopt former spouses to secure their retirement,” wrote McDaniel, a former policy advisor to Gov. Dave Freudenthal. “They did it the old-fashioned way. They worked for it.”

Court documents do not make clear how Gore would have financially benefited by increasing her sons’ inheritance.

Bader dismissed criticism of Susan Gore adopting her ex-husband as attacking her character rather than her positions. “Really, it’s just plain ad hominem,” Bader said. Klein agreed.

“I think it is a cheap shot to go after Susan’s personal life,” he said.


Wyoming Liberty Group positions and Benjamin Barr

Attorney Benjamin Barr is perhaps Gore’s most influential advisor in shaping the organizations’ policy positions. Much of Barr’s work centers on election issues, with a focus on removing limits to campaign finance law.

Attorney Benjamin Barr worked at the Federal Elections Commission before joining the Wyoming Liberty Group and writing a brief that was cited in the Citizens United decision.(Courtesy Wyoming Liberty Group)
Attorney Benjamin Barr worked at the Federal Elections Commission before joining the Wyoming Liberty Group and writing a brief that was cited in the Citizens United decision.(Courtesy Wyoming Liberty Group)

A 1997 University of Wyoming graduate in German and political science, Barr earned his law degree at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and now lives in Rockville, Maryland.

From February 2007 to September 2008 Barr served as counsel to members of the Federal Elections Commission. He was lead counsel to FEC commissioner David Mason and to Don McGahn, a Republican appointee who worked for five years to relax campaign finance regulations.

Wyoming Liberty Group attorney Klein worked with Barr at the FEC as an intern for four months in 2008.

Barr’s experience at the FEC led to starting his consulting firm Government Watch and working with the Wyoming Liberty Group beginning in Sept. 2008. IRS documents show Barr received significant consulting fees from the Wyoming Liberty Group during its startup phase.

From 2008-2011 his total compensation was $774,397, according to IRS tax forms. After that he is not listed as an independent consultant making more than $100,000.

Barr’s first legal project with the Wyoming Liberty Group was a friend of the court brief that the Supreme Court cited in its 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission decision.

In part, the ruling struck down the ban on electioneering communications by corporations, unions, and nonprofits. That means such groups can spend money to advocate for or against candidates.

Republic Free Choice founded

Benjamin Barr’s work on Citizen United in 2010 helped open the door for 501(c)(4) social welfare groups to engage in political speech without having to disclose their donors to the IRS.

Donations to 501(c)(4) groups are not tax-deductible, and the organizations are prohibited from spending a “substantial” part of their funds — more than 50 percent — on lobbying and elections.

The designation allows donors to give as much as they want, anonymously, without violating campaign finance laws.

To that end, Gore founded Republic Free Choice in 2012. The new group allowed Gore to diversify her spending and broaden her impact by creating direct mail campaigns on specific issues.

Contributions to the Wyoming Liberty Group topped $1 million in 2011, then dropped to $610,000 in 2012 — the same time that Gore founded Republic Free Choice with a budget of $358,000, according to IRS tax forms. In 2013 Republic Free Choice raised $803,000 in revenue.

IRS records don’t indicate if or how much Susan Gore may have given to Republic Free Choice.

The 501(c)(3) Wyoming Liberty Group think tank and lobbying organization, is co-located with the 501(c)(4) Republic Free Choice think tank and advocacy group. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)
The 501(c)(3) Wyoming Liberty Group is co-located with the 501(c)(4) Republic Free Choice. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

Republic Free Choice in the 2014 elections

During the 2014 primary campaign several Wyoming candidates experienced the mass-mailing techniques that a group like Republic Free Choice can bring to bear.

Chris Knapp of Gillette was a Republican candidate for Wyoming House. In the weeks before the primary, voters in his district received multiple flyers from Republic Free Choice and other groups that questioned his conservative credentials.

“Obviously they had money behind them because literally it was about six different mailers to all the voters, and how do you compete with that?” Knapp said.

A 12-year veteran of the Campbell County Commission, Knapp says he is pro-life, pro-gun, and anti-Obamacare. Republic Free Choice didn’t call him or fact-check its claims before sending out the material, he said.

Knapp took to social media to rebut the mailers.

“Your tactics have been deplorable and don’t belong anywhere in Wyoming,” Knapp wrote in a public Facebook post to Republic Free Choice.

He suspected he became a target of the ads because he did not answer a position questionnaire sent out by the group.

“I hate to see politics when it gets slimy and goes there,” Knapp said in an interview with WyoFile.

Chris Knapp lost the primary election to Roy Edwards by 123 votes.

Attorney Steve Klein lobbies for the Wyoming Liberty Group. He recently moved to the Washington D.C. area to work on campaign finance litigation with Wyoming Liberty Group attorney and consultant Benjamin Barr at the group's Pillar of Law Institute. (Courtesy Wyoming Liberty Group)
Attorney Steve Klein lobbies for the Wyoming Liberty Group. He recently moved to the Washington D.C. area to work on campaign finance litigation with Wyoming Liberty Group attorney and consultant Benjamin Barr at the group’s Pillar of Law Institute. (Courtesy Wyoming Liberty Group)

Republic Free Choice also sent out mailers opposing Ed Opella, a former Casper mayor, city council member and county commissioner. He ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Kendell Kroeker (R-Casper). Another group called Wyoming Freedom Riders ran ads against Rep. Kroeker. Unlike most independent groups, Wyoming Freedom Riders has no public presence or website, and the only name associated is a registered agent who provides similar services to many companies.

“I didn’t like people with deep pockets trying to influence an election up here,” Opella said. “They came after me and bad-mouthed me and said things about me that weren’t true, and I didn’t appreciate it. But that’s politics. … They can do what they want. It’s a free country.”

Klein said hard-fought races are only a prelude to what lawmakers face in Cheyenne.

“If you can’t handle the high school nature of legislative election, you are going to be in for a big surprise when you get to the actual big show at the Legislature,” he said.

Anonymous money growing in Wyoming, nationally

At least six Wyoming groups used mass mailing to distribute “issue ads” in the 2014 election cycle without having to disclose their donors. That’s more groups than ever before, according to Wyoming Secretary of State Elections Division director Peggy Nighswonger.

The proliferation is happening across the country, according to election law expert and University of Montana law professor Anthony Johnstone.

Citizens United and related cases released a flood of independent campaign spending from a mix of Super PACs and less transparent groups,” Johnstone wrote in an email. “Many disclosure laws no longer effectively follow the money funding these new groups.”

In pursuing campaign finance cases for Wyoming Liberty Group, Barr and Klein cast their position as a defense of free speech. Money is speech, and more speech — anonymous or otherwise — makes for more robust participation in elections, they argue.

“It is really disingenuous for them to say that,” said Adam Smith, spokesman for Every Voice, national group working for more transparency on money in politics. “The only thing they have helped is the wealthiest people to write bigger checks.”

“These donations are paid speech, and in this post-Citizens United world, free speech has gotten really expensive, and very few people can actually afford it,” Smith said.

The influx of money from donors using nonprofits and PACs can quickly outpace the small amounts of money raised by local interests and constituents, Johnstone said. It becomes an affordable way to support candidates that may end up making multi-million dollar decisions once in office.

Disclosure of funding sources allows average citizens to judge whether those donors share their interests, Johnstone argues.

More disclosure?

Attorney Boyd Wiggam, a native of southeast Wyoming, focuses on property rights issues for the Wyoming Liberty Group. He served as local counsel for group's 2014 case Brophy v. Maxfield, which ended with Secretary of State Max Maxfield (R) agreeing to stop enforcing aggregate campaign contribution limits for individual donors in Wyoming state races. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)
Attorney Boyd Wiggam, a native of southeast Wyoming, focuses on property rights issues for the Wyoming Liberty Group. He served as local counsel for group’s 2014 case Brophy v. Maxfield, which ended with Secretary of State Max Maxfield (R) agreeing to stop enforcing aggregate campaign contribution limits for individual donors in Wyoming state races. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

It’s not possible to add up the growth in spending from independent groups because they are not required to file such information with the secretary of state. Yet anecdotally, the 2014 election brought an increased volume of mailers.

That raised calls for more disclosure from independent groups, and opposition to disclosure by the Wyoming Liberty Group.

In a November 2014 meeting of the Legislature’s Corporations Committee, lawmakers chose not to take up a proposed bill that would require independent expenditure groups to file reports about their activities with the secretary of state.

Wyoming Liberty Group lobbyist Steve Klein spoke against the bill at the meeting. So did committee chairman and Wyoming Liberty Group board member Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander). Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper) moved to table it.

Case later told WyoFile that he hadn’t violated any conflict of interest rules because there was no formal vote on the bill. Read this WyoFile feature for more.

The Pillar of Law Institute

The founding of the Pillar of Law Institute demonstrates Gore’s intentions to give more attention to campaign finance issues than would be possible with periodic litigation by the Wyoming Liberty Group.

Barr is general counsel of the Pillar of Law Institute, and Susan Gore is a director. Klein moved to Washington D.C. this March to work full-time with the institute.

The institute states its position:

“Campaign finance laws are suffocating political debate in America. Organized and professional operatives use these laws to silence conservative activists from sharing their political views publicly.”

Barr wrote a column after the 2014 election saying that the influence of money in politics isn’t as strong as people might think.

“Many will still disdain political spending, castigate the wealthy for being civic-minded, and claim the full ruin of our Republic. Don’t listen to them. Money speaks, but not very loudly. Voters matter most and no amount of spending on slick political advertisements transforms Americans into an army of corporate lemmings. We are a fiercely independent people fully capable of making important political decisions. We’d like to remain that way.”

Klein noted that campaign spending was important, but far from decisive in the 2014 Wyoming elections. Some candidates who outraised their opponents lost the vote in November.

A state flag stands next to a bookshelf containing books by prominent conservative authors in the Wyoming Liberty Group library. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)
A state flag stands next to a bookshelf containing books by prominent conservative authors in the Wyoming Liberty Group library. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

A changing Wyoming

Looking back over the past century, Susan Gore’s influence in Wyoming represents something new and unusual, according to University of Wyoming history professor Phil Roberts.

“We’ve not had … a person who is really wealthy who has tried to develop around them a group with the goal of extensively lobbying the Legislature on a multitude of issues,” Roberts said.

With money at her disposal, Susan Gore seems to be pushing her own agenda that doesn’t necessarily reflect the popular will, Roberts said.

At the same time, the state has seen growing campaign spending over the past 20 years. Roberts worries the new money can bring a decline in the face-to-face culture of small-town politics.

“The lack of civility we saw in the last election I think is directly attributable to being no longer a state where politics is personal,” Roberts said. “When you have a campaign that is run on money and advertising and those circulars in the mail, there is no reason to talk to an opponent or compromise. [That’s] the corrosive effect of any substantial amount of money in a campaign.”

Ultimately, Roberts said the money nationalizes state issues, and devalues the civility that Wyoming politicians of both parties have long held in high regard.

“[You] basically start modeling yourself after that awful example of U.S. Congress that has become a fundraising machine more than a deliberating body,” he said.

“I don’t think it is good for democracy, and I don’t think it’s good for Wyoming.”

Roberts’ position squares with many groups that believe the growth of money in politics poses a threat to the process.

Yet for Klein, the Gore groups’ efforts to reduce campaign finance regulations would benefit not just the wealthy, but all donors who want to give to a group and speak their minds. He said the dangers are “vastly overemphasized.”

“[Americans] spend a heck of a lot more on Halloween than in an election cycle,” Klein said. “I think we are certainly out of danger.”

Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on

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  1. Now here’s what’s wrong in Wyoming politics – or a BIG part of it – Go back to Texas Susan Gore and take your filthy money with you!

    Chris Christian

  2. Excellent look behind the gauntlet at how big money fuels political agendas. This is what the Citizens United decision has wrought, for better or worse.

    Michael Pearlman

  3. Similar to Bloomberg’s and Stayners millions to the sierra club, et al. Big money for the “hard” left or “far” right ideologic divide hurts Wyoming politics and its people. Good read.

    Paul Cook
    Wilson, WY

  4. Great article, Greg. So bizzarre that in a state that needs investment to diversify our economy, that millionaires like her and Friess throw their money behind things that make sure they have more political say/power rather than actually doing something good. Hey millionaires, how about investing in the economic diversity of the state, thereby creating both jobs and the goodwill that makes people trust you, since it shows you care about Wyoming before you start trying to push all the plebs around.

    Laramie, WY