A WyoFile investigation reveals that scores of Wyoming elected officials, political candidates and party operatives personally accepted at least $3.6 million in federal relief subsidies even as many traded on anti-government-spending policy positions — including public opposition to federal COVID-19 relief funding and efforts to reject dollars for critical state-government programs.
Some candidates have made campaign promises to reject federal dollars as state lawmakers. Others credit pandemic-related spending by Congress as inspiration to run. At the statehouse last spring, one group of legislators went to similar lengths when they made impassioned yet unsuccessful pleas to send more than $1 billion in stimulus funds back to Washington.
However, that fiscal philosophy appears to be easier said than done. 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 by the Trump administration 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 on the payroll. The funds could also be used for other costs, such as interest on mortgages, rent and utilities. Issued by private lenders and credit unions, the loans were backed by the Small Business Administration (SBA), a federal agency. (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 several news organizations. The judge ordered the SBA to release the names, addresses and precise loan amounts for all PPP loans. Subsequently, several searchable databases were created.
WyoFile’s review of SBA’s PPP loan data involved using the full names of lawmakers and state-wide elected officials of all political affiliations as well as any business enterprises disclosed on their financial disclosure filings. Candidates who have expressed strong opposition to federal government spending were also examined. Additionally, WyoFile sought out Republican and Democratic state party leadership in the records.
WyoFile also relied on WyOpen, a searchable database created by the state auditor’s office in 2019, to examine Wyoming Business Relief Program records. While separate from the PPP, the state of Wyoming created similar programs using CARES Act dollars to support businesses through grants. The Wyoming Business Council administered many of those grants.
WyoFile’s review of PPP loan and Wyoming Business Council records indicate at least 30 prospective or sitting lawmakers own or are financially involved with businesses that relied on financial relief from the federal government. Furthermore, there was a significant overlap between those borrowers and Republicans who have publicly opposed state acceptance of federal dollars. WyoFile chose to focus on those who have expressed, either by vote or voice, staunch opposition to federal spending while accepting those dollars in their personal endeavors.
What the public records reflect
GOP Chairman Frank Eathorne told WyoFile earlier this year he regretted accepting federal agricultural subsidies totaling $109,000 for the years 2001-2005.
“Since then, I have learned that government handouts are not for me,” Eathorne said. “They don’t fit my political ideology. If a private business can’t remain in business on its own, it probably shouldn’t be asking for government help.”
In January 2021, however, Eathorne was approved for a $20,883 PPP loan — the maximum amount that a sole proprietor or self-employed individual could borrow. The loan, taken out under his full name, “William Eathorne,” retained one job, according to the record. Eathorne did not respond to WyoFile’s request for comment.
PPP loans were designed to be forgiven, but forgiveness was not automatically given. It required a separate application to either the SBA or the borrower’s lender that could be submitted once the entirety of the loan had been spent.
Eathorne had his loan fully forgiven in January of this year after applying through his lender, Converse County Bank in Douglas.
Similarly, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell had a PPP loan fully forgiven in September 2021. Rammell also received the maximum amount for a sole proprietor on account of Wyoming Veterinary Center, his animal clinic in Rock Springs. Additionally, Rammell received 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 last week, where he trumpeted his allegiance to free-market capitalism.
“I want people to attend to their responsibility for their own lives,” he said. “I want them to be prepared for whatever situation, and the last thing that the people of Wyoming should do is get more addicted to federal money.”
Rammell declined to answer WyoFile’s questions for this story.
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.
“I understand the anger at the federal government,” Sweeney told WyoFile. “But in reality, it can’t work that way,” 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 private businesses that received PPP loans. But 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 and as a lawmaker he would vote according to that political ideology.
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. (No shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders were ever enacted, though a short-lived mask mandate went into effect in December 2020.)
“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.
Earlier this month, Harriet Hageman told Wyoming Public Radio she decided to run for federal office instead of pursue another bid at the governor’s seat because of “overspending” by Congress during the pandemic. Some of the spending that came Wyoming’s way, however, buoyed her husband John Sundahl’s law firm as well as several of her family members’ agricultural ventures, including four relatives on her statewide campaign team. The bulk of those five loans amounted to about $130,000 and retained 14 jobs. All were fully forgiven.
Hageman’s campaign declined to answer WyoFile’s questions. In an email, Hageman campaign advisor Tim Murtaugh characterized WyoFile’s inquiry as “political nonsense and journalistic malpractice.”
Two of Hageman’s Republican opponents in the race for Wyoming’s lone seat in the U.S. House also received federal assistance through PPP loans — Robyn Belinskey ($7,936) and Sen. Anthony Bouchard of Cheyenne ($25,000).
During a House debate in June, both Belinskey and Bouchard were critical of federal spending when asked about President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law. Belinskey called it “government overreach.” Bouchard used his response time to say he voted against the bill in the Wyoming Legislature used to appropriate American Rescue Plan Act funds.
“It’s a carrot that has a stick,” Bouchard said.
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 statehouse stand against ARPA. In the 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 include Sens. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester), Cale Case (R-Lander), Troy McKeown (R-Gillette) and Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne).
Sen. Biteman did not respond to WyoFile’s request for comment.
“I am not an opponent of federal funds or I wouldn’t be supporting Medicaid expansion,” Case said. The lawmaker owns and operates a restaurant and hotel in Lander, which took big hits early on in the pandemic, he said. But PPP loans, totaling about $296,000, helped him retain 38 employees, most of which he was initially forced to lay off.
Case said he voted against the ARPA bill because he was concerned about inflation and the short-term nature of its infusion.
“The real problem in Wyoming is that the ARPA funding disguised problems with our revenue structure and let us kick the can down the road without dealing with our serious structural deficit,” Case said.
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, but he did so “to protect the livelihood of 38 employees and their families.”
The opposition to the ARPA bill, however, 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, but not before a group of Republicans initiated a symbolic challenge. 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.
“There’s nothing free. Nothing comes without a price and we’re paying a huge price in Wyoming every time we buy into one of these government programs,” Fortner said on the House floor.
Fortner withdrew the amendment but 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, also 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. But 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.”
On the House floor, Bear urged his colleagues against spending the ARPA funds on “pet projects.” Instead, Bear advocated for putting those dollars into the Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund. His first choice would have been to return those dollars to the federal government, he said, though he knew that was “never going to happen with our current Legislature.”
Still, Bear doesn’t see his political views at odds with his use of federal dollars for his private business dealings. 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,” Rep. Jeremy Haroldson said. Haroldson 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.
Senate File 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.”
In addition to the candidates and lawmakers addressed above, WyoFile identified 14 sitting lawmakers who are involved with private enterprises that also received PPP funds.
Several lawmakers, including Baker, Gray, Knapp and Rodriguez-Williams, either did not respond to WyoFile’s requests for comment or declined to answer questions.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include comments from Sen. Cale Case —Ed.