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U.S. Senate
Wyoming investor Foster Friess explains why he's considering a run against Barrasso

Jackson philanthropist and investor Foster Friess confirmed that he is considering challenging Wyoming U.S. Sen. John Barrasso in the GOP primary next year, explaining his motivation in an email to the Star-Tribune.

Friess said that he had not considered a Senate run until former top Trump administration adviser and right-wing media mogul Steve Bannon called him and encouraged him to consider it.

“It pays $174,000 and hey, I have been out of work since 2001,” Friess, who is worth several hundred million dollars, quipped.

Friess said that “several recent incidents” have moved him closer to entering the race, though emphasized he had yet to make a decision. The incidents are as follows:

  1. The United States’ failure to arm Kurdish forces within Iraq, which Friess referred to as a “betrayal.” The Iraqi Kurds joined with the Iraqi government to fight the Islamic State but in October the Kurdish region in the country’s north attempted to declare independence, sparking a harsh backlash from the central government;
  2. The so-called “Uranium One” conspiracy, which claims that Hillary Clinton gave Russia 20 percent of the United States’ uranium supply while she was secretary of state;
  3. A general misuse of federal funds, which Friess ambiguously references as a recent revelation that “some of the fines levied are being allocated to the Fish & Wildlife Commission.”

The email represents Friess’ first comments to Wyoming media and came in response to a series of questions sent from the Star-Tribune.

Friess said that he was not interested in attacking Barrasso and that if he ran it would be to offer voters the pick of two elite options. Friess previously told the Washington Examiner that Barrasso was a hero of his and continued that praise in the email to the Star-Tribune, though he consistently misspelled the senator’s name.

“I am a huge fan of John Barrosso and if I do decide to run the people of Wyoming just need to decide if they would like to have Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers in the line up for them, figuratively speaking,” Friess wrote.

Friess added that while Barrasso said that he withdrew his name from consideration for Health and Human Services Secretary in the Trump administration, the lawmaker might still accept the post and leave the Senate.

Friess acknowledged that he might face some opposition as a wealthy, Jackson-based candidate who was born outside of Wyoming. But he believed his upbringing might better resonate with the state’s electorate. He recounted his parents experience growing up on farms, noting that his mother dropped out of school to “pick cotton and save the family farm.”

“Most of Wyoming ... has a very negative attitude towards Jackson as it is considered sort of an elitist environment so whether or not my humble background will offset that needs to be assessed,” Friess wrote.

In addition to Friess, Bannon also reportedly recruited Erik Prince, the founder of private security contractor Blackwater, to run against Barrasso as part of a bid to unseat incumbent Republicans seen as too close to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

McConnell is seen by some on the populist right as too close to the Republican establishment and as standing in the way of President Donald Trump’s agenda. However, Republicans in Congress have largely voted in lockstep with Trump’s stated position on legislation.

Friess has little connection to Wyoming politics, though has been active on the national stage. He was a major backer of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and has donated significant sums to conservative Christian causes.

Prince, who lives in Virginia but was in Wyoming last month to explore ways to establish residency, has been viewed as a more serious prospective candidate than Friess.

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at The Cook Political Report, which forecasts Congressional races, said in an interview last week that she believed Friess may be floating a run as a way of making a political point in Washington.

“I think Friess is playing that game,” Duffy said. “I really do.”

Downtown Casper development agency again seeks public funding

An organization working to promote downtown Casper has resumed its effort to seek a reoccurring source of public funding for its work.

The Downtown Development Authority is asking the City Council to earmark future funding for its efforts through a mechanism called tax increment financing.

Tax increment financing is a way to set aside funds for a specific project or purpose, Pete Meyers, the city’s assistant financial services director, explained at the Council’s work session last week. One year of sales tax revenue from the downtown area would be collected and that figure would then be set as the base amount, said Meyers. Any money collected from that same area in later years that went beyond the base amount would be designated for the development authority.

Tax increment financing works on the assumption that economies tend to grow even as the cost of government stays the same, according to a recent memo from Financial Services Director Tom Pitlick to City Manager Carter Napier. A government should therefore be capable of providing the same level of services to a neighborhood with the same amount of tax income from that neighborhood.

“As that neighborhood economy grows, that growth will result in additional tax revenue,” states the memo. “The theory is that since this additional tax revenue would not be needed for basic services, it could be set aside for special projects or enhancements that specially benefit that neighborhood.”

Councilman Charlie Powell quickly expressed support for the idea at the work session, stating that he likes that it ensures the money collected is then re-invested back into the neighborhood, which should generate economic growth.

“What gets it in trouble is that word ‘tax,’ he said. “People say ‘well it’s a tax.’ It is not a tax.”

Councilman Dallas Laird said he wanted to wait until learning whether state funding for the city is going to be cut before discussing the matter further.

City and county government leaders are worried that the money they receive from the Wyoming Legislature is in jeopardy, as the state continues to receive less revenue due to weak energy prices.

Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay also said she felt it was “fruitless” to have an in-depth discussion at this point, given that city employees have not yet provided recommendations on whether to approve the financing method.

The Council began exploring tax increment financing options for the development authority back in March, but ultimately decided the timing wasn’t right. Last week’s meeting was intended to resume the conversation, but no vote was planned or taken.

Meyers said Wednesday the Financial Services Department is not providing a recommendation at this point because the idea is still in the “preliminary discussion” stage. He pointed out that Casper has never previously used this financing method.

“We’re figuring it out as we go along … It’s complicated and we would have a lot of details to work out,” he said.

Kevin Hawley, the development authority’s CEO, said Wednesday that the organization would use the funds to improve downtown’s infrastructure, such as curbs, sidewalks, streets and lighting. Hawley said it should not be considered a blank check because the Council would oversee how the money was spent.

The extra income is sorely needed, as the organisation has a “very limited” budget, he said. Currently, downtown property owners have voted to pay a portion of their property tax to the agency.

City officials have prioritized revitalizing the downtown area in recent years.

The DDA opened the David Street Station in August with the hopes that the downtown plaza would encourage new businesses to pop up in the surrounding area. Already, there are signs the space might be having that effect. Several new businesses have opened in the surrounding blocks including Racca’s Pizzeria Napoletana, Urban Bottle and The Gaslight Social bar.

Officials are also planning to renovate one of the main downtown roads in January.

Community Development Director Liz Becher previously told the Star-Tribune that the city will be adding street lights, widening sidewalks and moving the electrical wiring underground along Midwest Avenue.

Truck attack suspect is charged with terrorism offenses

NEW YORK — Federal prosecutors brought terrorism charges Wednesday against the Uzbek immigrant accused in the truck rampage that left eight people dead, saying he was spurred to attack by the Islamic State group's online calls to action and picked Halloween because he figured streets would be extra crowded.

Even as he lay wounded in the hospital from police gunfire, Sayfullo Saipov asked to display the Islamic State group's flag in his room and said "he felt good about what he had done," prosecutors said in court papers.

Saipov, 29, was brought to court in a wheelchair to face charges that could bring the death penalty. Handcuffed and with his legs shackled, Saipov nodded his head repeatedly as he was read his rights in a brief court proceeding that he followed through a Russian interpreter. He was ordered held without bail.

Outside court, his appointed lawyer, David Patton, said he hoped "everyone lets the judicial process play out."

Late Wednesday, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to say that Saipov should get the death penalty.

Also Wednesday, Trump called for quick repeal of the 1990s visa lottery program that Saipov used to come to the U.S. in 2010, and the Republican said he would consider sending Saipov to the Guantanamo Bay detention center — an idea the White House reinforced by saying it considered Saipov to be an "enemy combatant."

Hours later, Saipov was charged in federal court with providing material support to a terrorist group and committing violence and destruction of motor vehicles, resulting in death. Trump's administration could, at least in theory, still send the suspect to the U.S. base in Cuba later, though such a step would be unprecedented.

"There's no legal impediment to that," said Bryan Broyles, the former deputy chief defense counsel for the Guantanamo military commissions.

Trump ordered still tighter scrutiny of immigrants already subject to what he calls "extreme vetting." But the White House offered no indication of what new steps the president might be planning.

"We have to get much tougher, much smarter, and less politically correct," Trump said. He also said the U.S. justice system for dealing with such cases must be strengthened, declaring, "What we have right now is a joke and it's a laughingstock." Again, there was no elaboration from the White House.

Trump took to Twitter early Wednesday to blame Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat who represents New York, for the bipartisan visa program used by the suspect to enter the country in 2010. Schumer did back the lottery program as a member of the House when it was approved with the support of both parties in 1990. It was signed by Republican President George H.W. Bush.

Meanwhile, the FBI was questioning a second person from Uzbekistan, 32-year-old Mukhammadzoir Kadirov. A law enforcement official said Kadirov was a friend of Saipov's and may not have any role in the case. The official wasn't authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Prosecutors said Saipov had 90 videos and 3,800 photos on one of his two cellphones, many of them ISIS-related pieces of propaganda, including images of prisoners being beheaded, shot or run over by a tank.

Saipov left behind knives and a note, in Arabic and English, that included Islamic religious references and said, "Islamic Supplication. It will endure," FBI agent Amber Tyree said in court papers. "It will endure" commonly refers to ISIS, Tyree said.

Questioned in his hospital bed, Saipov said he had been inspired by ISIS videos and began plotting an attack about a year ago, deciding to use a truck about two months ago, Tyree said.

During the last few weeks, Saipov searched the internet for information on Halloween in New York City and for truck rentals, the agent said. Saipov even rented a truck on Oct. 22 to practice making turns, and he initially hoped to get from the bike path across lower Manhattan to hit more pedestrians on the Brooklyn Bridge, Tyree said.

He even considered displaying ISIS flags on the truck during the attack but decided it would draw too much attention, authorities said.

John Miller, deputy New York police commissioner for intelligence, said Saipov "appears to have followed, almost exactly to a T, the instructions that ISIS has put out."

It was not clear whether Saipov had been on authorities' radar. Miller said Saipov had never been the subject of a criminal investigation but appears to have links to people who have been investigated.

In Tuesday's attack, Saipov drove his speeding truck for nearly a mile along a bike path near the World Trade Center, running down cyclists and pedestrians, then crashed into a school bus, authorities said. He was shot in the abdomen after he jumped out of the vehicle brandishing two air guns, one in each hand, and yelling "God is great!" in Arabic, they said.

The attack killed five people from Argentina, one from Belgium and two Americans, authorities said. Twelve people were injured; nine remained hospitalized in serious or critical condition.

On the morning after the bloodshed, city leaders vowed New York would not be intimidated and said Sunday's New York City Marathon, with 50,000 participants and some 2 million spectators anticipated, will go on as scheduled, with increased security.

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As Wyoming prepares change to coal bonding rules, feds announce walk back

Proposed Wyoming rules for coal mining may fill a void in the Cowboy State created by the Trump administration’s push for deregulation within the industry.

The federal agency that oversees mining and reclamation is poised to change its position on self-bonding — a practice allowing firms to post IOU’s based on the strength of their balance sheets in lieu of cash or insurance for post-mining cleanup costs. The administration is considering whether to halt proposed Obama-era rules that discourage self-bonding.

Meanwhile, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality is nearly finished with a preliminary update to state regulations, including self-bonding, said Keith Guille, spokesman for the department.

Those rules have not been released, but a draft for public input is expected next week, he said.

“From our standpoint, self-bonding still has a place, but what that will look like, that is what we are working on,” he said. “Self-bonding is not the only one we are looking at. We need to look at all the financial rules and see what needs to be changed.”

The controversy

A Department of the Interior report released last week stated limiting self-bonding is an overly burdensome rule on the industry, one that could make it difficult for coal companies to continue operating.

It’s an argument that was often heard in recent years.

Whether coal companies should be self-bonded became a key point of contention during the coal bankruptcy period of 2015 and 2016, when Wyoming’s largest coal companies filed for Chapter 11, laid off workers and reduced production. They were strapped for cash and carrying billions in debt, a perfect storm of market forces and risky company decisions.

Environmental groups argued that companies in a weakening coal sector might eventually walk out on reclamation obligations in Wyoming and the tab could fall on the taxpayer.

Federal bankruptcy judges and the Department of Justice appeared to agree with the environmental groups, and bankrupt companies like Peabody Energy and Arch Coal were pressured to replace millions of dollars in self bonds with more traditional insurance options when they emerged from bankruptcy. The Office of Surface Mining began a rule-making process in mid-2016 to craft stricter provisions for companies wishing to self-bond given the uncertainty in the coal sector and the expectation that the coal market would continue to weaken.

A spokesman for the federal mining agency did not respond for comment by press time.

The coal economy has stabilized compared to this time last year, and the big companies have replaced their self-bonds. But the outlook long term for the coal sector has not improved. Wyoming regulators are supportive of the walk back on self-bonding from the Office of Surface Mining, said Guille, with the DEQ.

The citizen groups that opposed self-bonding have not changed their stance.

Setting a new standard

By federal law, Wyoming’s bonding rules can’t be weaker than federal standards.

However, states can be stricter, said Shannon Anderson, legal counsel for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowner’s advocacy group based in Sheridan.

The group was a vocal opponent to the pervasive use of self-bonding by Wyoming operating companies, objecting multiple times to proposed restructuring agreements that did not replace those self-bonds.

Anderson said she hopes Wyoming picks up the slack from the federal side with the upcoming proposed rule changes.

“I think this is a great example of when the federal government isn’t acting, states can move in and act on their own,” she said. “This will be a Wyoming rule for companies operating here, but we also think it will be setting a new standard so other states can adapt, potentially OSM (Office of Surface Mining) at some level can adapt the state rule.”

Wyoming has frequently defended the practice of self-bonding, which came about because traditional insurance markets in the ‘80s were less secure than a company’s balance sheet. Self-bonds are just one of the ways Wyoming holds company’s financially accountable, DEQ representatives have said repeatedly.

Peabody Energy, the operator of North Antelope Rochelle in Campbell County, announced its plan to replace more than $700 million in self-bonds in March, but the company hinted that it may seek self-bonding again in the future.

Whether these large post-bankruptcy companies would be allowed to self-bond is a hypothetical question that Guille, spokesman for the DEQ, said he could not answer.

The agency would consider a request for self-bonds according to its rules, he said.

Neither a state nor federal rule can make self-bonding disappear. That would take a statutory change, but states can set a precedent by raising the bar for qualification, said Anderson from the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

“There is still room at the state to do good things,” Anderson said. “If anybody has something to lose on self-bonding it’s Wyoming, given the amount of coal mine reclamation that we have. It is in the state’s interest to do the right thing.”