Thu. Jul 29th, 2021

Wealthy conservative donor Susan Gore was a key financier of a years-long effort to spy on Wyoming Democrats and Republicans, an article published Friday by the New York Times revealed, shining a light on the lengths to which the Gore-Tex heiress and Wyoming Liberty Group founder has gone to influence the state’s politics.

The report alleges that Gore helped finance the infiltration of numerous political organizations in the state by a pair of “spies” tied to the right-wing group Project Veritas. Their targets were varied, according to the investigation, ranging from liberal advocacy group Better Wyoming and advocates of medical marijuana. Democrats and moderate Republicans within the Wyoming Legislature were also singled out, as well as the executive leadership of the Wyoming Democratic Party.

The activity even reached the office of Republican Gov. Mark Gordon, the New York Times reported.

“The Governor’s actions have demonstrated his commitment to fiscal conservatism, life, the Second Amendment, patriotism and always putting Wyoming first,” Gordon’s office said in response to the news. “The allegations, if corroborated, of the deceptive behavior of a few politically motivated individuals contained in the New York Times’ story reflect a sad situation and have no place in Wyoming.”

The man and woman with alleged ties to Blackwater founder Erik Prince, along with Project Veritas, were largely unsuccessful in their efforts, according to several victims interviewed by WyoFile. However, observers say the botched incursion into the highest circles of Wyoming politics symbolizes Gore’s escalating role as a puppeteer in Wyoming’s politics, and her role in the populist right’s newfound traction in Cheyenne.

“I think this was the logical progression,” former Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, said. “People like Susan arrive with all this outside money that suddenly shows up, funded by people whose ties to the state are usually its tax climate. I don’t know if they’re concerned at all about the agricultural community or coal miners, or the schools or any of the things that were traditionally issues that people in Wyoming tried to work on.”

Wyoming Liberty Group did not respond to a request for comment.

News of the operation stunned many in Wyoming politics, not only for its nature, but for its chief targets: The Wyoming Democratic Party, the high-powered liberal donor Liz Storer and the progressive advocacy group Better Wyoming and its director, Nate Martin. (Note: The Storer Foundation is a major donor to WyoFile.)

“I don’t really understand why you would try and infiltrate the Democrats,” said Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), a longtime acquaintance of Gore and former board member for her advocacy group, the Wyoming Liberty Group. “They’re not driving the bus in this state, you know.”

Others believe it was not the liberal groups’ activities that drew the interlopers’ attention, but a false perception of their influence by conservative groups that have grown to believe Wyoming’s Republican Party is rife with liberal politicians backed by special interest groups.

In 2018, one of the infiltrators, Sophia LaRocca, traveled to Cheyenne to meet with LGBTQ activist Sara Burlingame, then a Democratic candidate for the Wyoming House of Representatives. Burlingame told WyoFile that LaRocca pitched her on the concept for an advocacy organization intended to “flip Wyoming blue,” an idea Burlingame told her was unrealistic.

Burlingame detected red flags about the woman, she said. LaRocca told Burlingame she wanted to spy on Republicans, Burlingame said, adding that LaRocca had few ties to the state, hadn’t resided here long and lacked a working understanding of Wyoming’s politics.

“The things that they themselves were guilty of, they projected onto us, and assumed that we would also be guilty of,” Burlingame said. “But every person they talked to agreed that not only was [spying] unethical, but it was also not strategic. Living in the least-populated state in the union, you just couldn’t afford to do that. You burn through all your bridges too rapidly. But I think they had an assumption that behind a closed door, we’d drop the mask.”

Members of the Wyoming Democratic Party encountered similar red flags, noticing an overeager quality from LaRocca and inconsistent details about her life, communications director Nina Hebert said. While the party offered LaRocca training, Hebert said she and the party’s digital director limited her access to party infrastructure, leaving the party largely unexposed to her infiltration attempts.

LaRocca and her partner, Beau Maier, befriended Better Wyoming’s Martin and his wife, Wyoming Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) through activist trainings. LaRocca even attempted to join Provenza’s campaign, the lawmaker said in an interview, only to be rejected.

Through their relationship to Martin and Provenza, Maier and LaRocca became connected to individuals who were part of a multi-partisan coalition to lobby for the legalization of medical cannabis, of which Gore has been a vocal opponent. Several lawmakers said they believe the effort was intended to gather intelligence on Republican lawmakers who supported legalization.

“I now look back on these conversations through a lens of rage,” Provenza wrote in a letter to her legislative colleagues sent Friday morning. “Rage because I now know that they came into my home under false pretenses to target me and my family. Rage because they attempted to bait me and my husband into saying or doing something shameful so they could use it to hurt us. Rage because they used the same tactics against some of our most honorable colleagues here in the Legislature.”

The motivation behind the sting, some believe, stemmed from Gore.

“I met with some people from the Liberty Group before running the [cannabis] bill. And what was really fascinating was that almost every person that I talked to who was previously affiliated or with the group all personally took a stance for the decriminalization of medical marijuana, consistent with what I would view as a libertarian position,” said Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne), chairman of the Joint Judiciary Committee and the main sponsor of last session’s marijuana legalization bill. “But they all said the same thing to me, which was that Susan Gore personally has such an issue with marijuana that the Liberty Group would not be taking a position on it.”

Gore traveled to the Capitol to testify against the bill, which ultimately failed.

Gore’s ties to Wyoming date back to the mid-1990s, when she first moved to Jackson after more than a decade living in a transcendental meditation community in Iowa. In 2008, Gore entered Wyoming’s political scene with the founding of the Libertarian-leaning Wyoming Liberty Group. The mission, according to a former staffer who declined to be named, was smaller government, school choice and low taxes.

As the group grew in influence, Freudenthal — then in the final years of his second term — began to take notice of Gore’s activities, he said. Freudenthal said he grew concerned over the influence a single, wealthy individual could have on Wyoming’s politics. Gore eventually cemented a place amid Wyoming’s political class. She donated large sums of money over the years to the Wyoming Republican Party, according to campaign finance documents reviewed by WyoFile. After rebooting its image in 2015, the Liberty Group gained influence.With the Liberty Group’s growing sway in the Legislature and with the public, Freudenthal said, Gore’s personal influence grew as well, with candidates eventually tailoring their messages to match her politics.

Burlingame said she considers the rise of Gore’s influence culminating in espionage inevitable considering current trends.

“In a post-Trump world, you have all these hyper-wealthy donors who have been radicalized into a paranoia about the Deep State,” she said. “And you also have this small army of con artists who are just out looking for someone to fund them. And they’re a perfect match.”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.