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Secretary of State: Anonymous mailers targeting lawmakers were legal

Mysterious mailers attacking Reps. Barry Crago and Steve Harshman last year were above board, according to Secretary of State Chuck Gray. Both lawmakers are part of the GOP’s traditionalist wing, which has tangled with hard-line legislators.

Chuck Gray, Secretary of State (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

by Maggie Mullen, WyoFile

Anonymous mailers targeting Wyoming Reps. Barry Crago (R-Buffalo) and Steve Harshman (R-Casper) last fall were perfectly lawful, Secretary of State Chuck Gray has concluded. 

“I have determined that the mailers do not constitute either an electioneering communications or independent expenditures under Wyoming law,” Gray wrote in Dec. 22 letters. “As such, I will not be forwarding complaints concerning the mailers for further investigation.” 

If Gray had forwarded the complaints, the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office would have then investigated the matter. 

After the glossy brochures began turning up in Natrona, Johnson and Sheridan county mailboxes in September, private citizens and at least one county clerk brought questions and multiple, formal complaints to Gray’s office. Concerns mostly revolved around anonymity since the mailers did not say who had sent them. Under certain circumstances, mailers that do not disclose who paid for them are illegal. 

As for their content, the mailers contained inaccuracies and misleading statements about Wyoming’s tax burden and the most recent budget passed by lawmakers along with criticisms of Crago and Harshman. Both are notable members of the Wyoming Caucus — a wing of traditional statehouse GOP conservatives that formed in response to the burgeoning, hard-line Freedom Caucus.

In lockstep with other anonymous sites that review Wyoming politicians, the mailers declared the state’s Republican-supermajority Legislature as actually “run by a bunch of lunatic liberals.” 

Nevertheless, Gray made the right call, Crago told WyoFile. 

“I think the secretary of state read the law correctly,” Crago, an attorney, said. 

Gray’s decision to dismiss the complaints rested on several elements including the timing of the mailers falling so far ahead of the 2024 elections. 

What’s unfortunate about the dismissal, Crago said, is what it suggests about what may come.  

“DC politics are in Wyoming,” Crago said. “It might open the gates to a lot of these anonymous-type mailers going after not just legislators, it could be any public official.” 

Harshman did not respond to WyoFile’s request for comment. 

Rep. Barry Crago (R-Buffalo) sits at his desk during the Wyoming Legislature’s 2023 general session in Cheyenne. (Megan Lee Johnson/WyoFile)

Dismissal 

“We should ask ourselves, even if we are able to do this, we should reflect on why we would want to embrace this kind of national approach here. We voters in Wyoming deserve better,” JoAnn Skeim-True, former state GOP committeewoman for Natrona County, told WyoFile in a statement. 

After receiving a mailer regarding Harshman in November, Skeim-True filed a complaint with the secretary of state’s office. She once clashed with the state party for creating a nonpartisan political action committee that encouraged women to run for office, regardless of party.

“I contacted Representative Harshman and the Natrona County Republican Party, and all have claimed no knowledge of the mailer, nor did they send it,” she wrote in her complaint. 

“The anonymous nature of it [is] disturbing. Who sent it? Are they in Wyoming House District 37, are they even in the state? Why are voters being sent nontransparent incorrect information about our electeds? Do we really want ‘dark money’ in our state?”

That same week, Johnson County and Prosecuting Attorney Tucker Ruby asked Gray to weigh in on a similar-looking anonymous mailer that targeted Crago, according to the Buffalo Bulletin. That was the second of two mailers Ruby had flagged.

Gray responded in two letters to the separate mailers, but provided the same explanation and conclusion in both. 

“I do not believe the mailers constitute ‘electioneering communications’ or ‘independent expenditures’ under Wyoming law such that they are required to disclose who paid for them,” Gray wrote. 

First, Gray wrote, the mailers did not “refer to or depict a clearly identified candidate or expressly advocate the nomination, election or defeat of a candidate, nor can they only be reasonably interpreted as a vote for or against a candidate.” 

While both Crago and Harshman are members of the Wyoming House, neither are political candidates, Gray wrote, since the candidate filing period does not open until May 16. 

Gray also highlighted state law that limits the definition of “electioneering communication” to the 30 days within a primary election and the 60 days within a general election. 

“Even if the mailers were sent within the requisite time period, serious questions would remain as to whether the mailers would constitute an electioneering communication, thus requiring disclosure of who paid for them,” Gray wrote. 

More specifically, Gray pointed to state law that exempts news reports, commentary, editorials or similar communications — as protected by both the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions — as well as the U.S. Supreme Court’s scrutiny of state laws that criminalize anonymous political speech.

Additionally, Gray argued the mailers were distinct from other anonymous brochures he’s forwarded to the attorney general for investigation because of their timing, content and connection to a political action committee not registered with the state.

What’s next

If the Legislature decides to revise Wyoming’s campaign finance laws, it’s not likely to happen before the 2024 election — time is constitutionally limited in the upcoming session, where non-budget bills have a higher, initial hurdle to clear. 

As for Crago, he’s undecided as to whether the statutes need updating. 

“I think that’s a good question for the people,” Crago said. “After this next election, if there’s a lot of this stuff, people may not like it and may come to the Legislature and say, ‘Hey, we want you to do something about this. We’re tired of our mailbox being filled with all these anonymous political mailers.’”

The 2024 Budget Session begins Feb. 12. For more on the session, click here.


This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.


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