‘Something we’re going to see more of’: How PACs are influencing Idaho’s May 17 primary

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been donated through difficult-to-trace sources this election cycle

By: - May 11, 2022 4:30 am
cash pile with hat saying 'vote'

Since Jan. 1, 2021, individuals and organizations have contributed more than $22.5 million to 763 candidates and 197 political action committees across Idaho. (Getty Images)

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge went through 11 election cycles as an Idaho legislator, and over the past six years, she has seen more organizations and individuals contributing large sums to candidates for every office.

That has never been truer than during the 2022 primary, she said.

Lodge, R-Huston, attempted to pass a bill during the legislative session that she said would have brought more transparency to Idaho’s campaign finance laws. Senate Bill 1367 would have amended Idaho Code to lower the threshold for timely campaign contribution or expenditure reporting from $1,000 to $500. It also would have added a section in code clarifying any entity registered with the Federal Election Commission would be considered a political committee in Idaho.

Idaho legislators talk without masks or distancing
Sen. Patti Anne Lodge (R-Caldwell) talks with Sen. Todd Lakey (R-Nampa) and Sen. Steven Thayn (R-Emmett) on the Senate floor April 6, 2020. (Otto Kitsinger for the Idaho Capital Sun)

It was meant to address what Lodge sees as holes in Idaho’s campaign finance reporting system, particularly after the 2020 election cycle. For example, she said a national political action committee called Conservatives Of spent thousands of dollars on Idaho races but reported the funding through the Federal Election Commission, where it didn’t appear as a public record until after Idaho’s election day because the filing deadlines are quarterly.

The bill easily passed the Senate with 25 votes in favor and four against, but it never received a hearing in House State Affairs. Lodge said the bill became a bargaining chip to get her to hold hearings for House Bill 666, the controversial library materials bill, and House Bill 675, the bill making it a felony to provide gender care to a minor, which she said she wasn’t going to do. Since she decided to retire at the end of her 2022 term instead of run for re-election, it was a disappointing end for the bill.

“That transparency is so needed, and was so needed for this election, because this is such an important election,” Lodge said.

Since Jan. 1, 2021, individuals and organizations have contributed more than $22.5 million to 763 candidates and 197 political action committees across Idaho.

By this same point in the 2018 midterm election, that number stood at about $14.8 million for races statewide, according to itemized contribution reports.

While some high-dollar donors have remained the same over many election cycles, such as Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot and real estate companies like Ball Ventures and Brighton Corporation, other new political action committees have appeared with large sums of money to donate, sometimes with difficult-to-trace origins. Most of the donation activity in the 2022 primary involves Republican candidates, because most of the races with opposing candidates are Republicans.

The individual maximum contribution for a single election in Idaho legislative races is $1,000. The individual maximum for statewide offices is $5,000.

With less than a week to go before Idaho’s primary election on May 17, the Capital Sun examined some of the highest-dollar contributors in this year’s race.

Activist group files complaint against large Idaho contributors

The Idaho 97, an activist organization with a stated mission to fight extremism in Idaho, filed a complaint with the Idaho Secretary of State about two companies and one individual donating to campaigns across Idaho that appear to be connected.

Collectively, the three sources have contributed more than $50,000 to campaigns leading up to the primary. 

Rattlesnake Holdings is listed as a company that has donated $13,000 to five candidates, including $5,000 to Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, who is running for lieutenant governor, and $5,000 to Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who is running for governor. The company has also donated $1,000 to Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, a candidate for secretary of state, and $1,000 each to Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, and Eric Parker, who is running for a state Senate seat.

The address listed for Rattlesnake Holdings is in Malibu, California, and is not a registered business entity in Idaho or California, according to secretary of state records. The address used to belong to Winifred “Wendy” Webb and Watt W. Webb III, along with other members of the family, but is now owned by two men who purchased the multi-million-dollar home from Wendy Webb in September 2020.

Another business called Webb Management Services has donated $19,550 to 16 candidates across Idaho, including $5,000 to former U.S. Congressman and attorney general candidate Raúl Labrador, along with $1,000 each to Reps. Chad Christensen, R-Idaho Falls; Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls; and Ron Nate, R-Rexburg.

According to donation filings, the address for Webb Management Services is a home in Hailey, Idaho, that is owned by Seneca LLC, a registered business entity in Idaho also owned by Wendy Webb. The address for Seneca, according to records, is the same address in Malibu that the family sold in 2020.

According to a business intelligence report from Dun & Bradstreet, Webb Management Services is part of the jewelry and precious metals industry.  

Another $20,177 from an individual named Rudy Webb has been distributed to eight candidates for office in Idaho, including $4,000 to Moon, $5,000 to McGeachin and $5,000 to Giddings. Rudy Webb’s address is listed as the same residential address in Hailey. 

Wendy Webb and Watt W. Webb III are registered as voters in Idaho, according to records, while Rudy Webb is not.

Watt W. Webb III could not be reached for comment. 

Voters enter an elementary school
Voters enter Whittier Elementary to cast their ballots in Boise on Nov. 2, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)


Idaho business requirements don’t apply to campaign donations, secretary says

Idaho’s campaign finance law largely hasn’t been changed since it was crafted in the 1970s, and the code is written without much specificity. 

Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck told the Idaho Capital Sun his office will likely dismiss most of the complaints related to these donations relating to Rattlesnake Holdings and the related entities from the Idaho 97, because no laws have been broken as far as he can tell. 

Under Idaho law, contributions to campaigns aren’t considered business transactions, whereas a company conducting official business would be required to register as a business entity with the secretary of state’s office in Idaho. As long as Rattlesnake Holdings and Webb Management Services are just donating money, there is no need for the companies to be registered as official businesses in Idaho or another state of origin. 

“So the fact that neither Rattlesnake or (Webb Management Services) are registered in Idaho isn’t in and of itself a problem,” Houck said.

If someone donated under a false name or in an attempt to obscure their true identity as a donor, that would be a violation, he said. The fine for that violation is $250.

But there’s no reason to believe Rudy Webb is a fictitious name, Houck said. It could be a nickname for Watt W. Webb III.  

All of the contributions are within the legal limits to each candidate, he said, with the possible exception of Scott, who received donations from all three sources. That would only be an issue if both companies have the same ownership. The office still needs to determine if that’s the case, he said, and if so, Scott can remedy the issue by refunding one of the donations.

“It is a great example of high net-worth contributors and how money can move from out of state or in state and it is hard to see through what’s there,” Houck said.

From his perspective, it doesn’t signal any holes in Idaho’s campaign finance laws. The system is working how it’s supposed to, he said, and more people moving to Idaho means more money flowing in from different sources.

“It’s something we’re going to see more of,” he said.

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National super PAC with libertarian ties gives big to Citizens Alliance of Idaho

One of the largest political action groups in this year’s primary is Citizens Alliance of Idaho, a group founded by North Idaho resident Matt Edwards and John Guido, whose address according to Idaho Secretary of State records is a UPS Store mailbox. It’s unclear if it is the same Guido who is treasurer of a national libertarian political organization called Advocates for Self-Government. 

Edwards could not be reached for comment.

The Federal Election Commission lists Citizens Alliance as a super PAC that has raised $155,000 from three sources. One is $30,000 from Bryan Smith, who is a board member of the Idaho Freedom Foundation and is challenging U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson in the Republican primary. Paul Hetrick, a chiropractor in Pennsylvania, donated $25,000 as well, and Chris Rufer gave the largest sum of $100,000. Rufer is the owner of a tomato-processing company called Morning Star Company in California, and he is also chairman of the board for Advocates for Self-Government.

The Citizens Alliance super PAC, which is based in Dublin, Ohio, gave $150,000 of its dollars to the Citizens Alliance of Idaho political action committee in early April. Another branch of the super PAC that is based in Wilmington, Delaware, gave $40,000 to the Idaho group. The donors of that sum won’t be known until later this summer since the donation reporting is quarterly at the federal level.

The Citizens Alliance of Idaho PAC also received $30,000 from Doyle Beck, a board member of the Idaho Freedom Foundation and member of the Bonneville County Republican Party leadership. Beck has also donated $10,000 to the Freedom Foundation’s Idaho Freedom PAC and $10,000 to Defend Idaho, a PAC that recently spent $47,350 on broadcast advertising to oppose Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden in his re-election bid.

Citizens Alliance of Idaho has also spent more than $50,000 on Facebook advertising to promote itself and the candidates it endorses based on legislators who sign its pledge.

Other political action groups spend thousands to oppose, support Idaho candidates

At this stage of the primary, organizations that have spent money to campaign for or against certain candidates start to report independent expenditures to the Idaho Secretary of State.

Of the groups that have spent the most on those efforts, one is Conservative Action for Idaho, which has spent more than $54,000 to oppose Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, who is running against Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, for the legislative seat in District 9. Boyle has a 74% rating from the Idaho Freedom Foundation and often votes with the group of legislators who adhere most closely to the foundation’s recommendations on bills.

Take Back Idaho, a group formed by Republicans who actively speak out against the Freedom Foundation, has spent $28,000 on advertising to oppose Boyle, Christensen and Rep. Karey Hanks, R-St. Anthony.

Other groups that have given maximum contributions to candidates with only a UPS Store or Postal Annex mailing address including Wawona Properties, which has contributed $5,000 each to McGeachin and Giddings, and RhinoPAC, which has donated $32,150 to 37 candidates across Idaho.

SMC Properties, which is connected to a company called Money Metals Exchange in Eagle, contributed $88,500 to Citizens Alliance of Idaho. Money Metals Exchange donated $20,000 to the Idaho Freedom PAC, and the company’s owner, Stefan Gleason, has contributed $19,500 to 21 candidates during this election cycle, including $5,000 each to Labrador, Giddings and Moon.

Should Idaho’s laws around campaign finance change?

Houck said these aren’t examples of Idaho’s campaign finance laws being too loose. He said he’s happy the system is working how it’s supposed to and keeping candidates in compliance with the law.

“I think this is exactly how campaign finance actually operates when you get up to big campaign donors. It is not uncommon,” Houck said.

Lodge disagrees. She said she’s disturbed by this type of activity in campaigns across Idaho, and she thinks it’s a dangerous trend.

“It’s very scary to think about what could happen to us, and to me that’s corruption. That’s totally corruption,” Lodge said. “But they probably don’t think of it that way.”


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Kelcie Moseley-Morris
Kelcie Moseley-Morris

Kelcie Moseley-Morris is an award-winning journalist who has covered many topics across Idaho since 2011. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Idaho and a master’s degree in public administration from Boise State University. Moseley-Morris started her journalism career at the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, followed by the Lewiston Tribune and the Idaho Press.