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Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

Rob Caputa, owner of Caputa's Catering, fills bacon peanut butter cups on Monday while preparing for the Gruner Brothers Booze and Bacon Festival. The festival featuring regional breweries and distilleries -- and yes, bacon -- is set for Saturday at the Casper Events Center.

State luminaries remember George H.W. Bush, who had strong ties to Wyoming

Every few winters in Washington, change begins to brew within the pallid and solemn walls of the Russell and Dirksen Office Buildings on Capitol Hill.

The heat of election season dissipates, the offices of senators retired either by ballot or fatigue empty out while the freshman class of America’s most powerful public servants prepares to take their place. It is another ritual in a long list of time-tested traditions on Capitol Hill, with office space long-determined by a newly elected legislator’s former government service and then by the population of the state they come from, which is then used to assign them a number.

In December of 1962, 65-year-old Milward Simpson — fresh off a historic special election in his home state of Wyoming — was handed his number and, with his son, moved into the office of outgoing Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut, a wealthy, highly educated New England statesman who chose not to seek re-election that fall.

It was in that room that Alan K. Simpson — then a 31-year-old attorney from Park County and three years away from his first seat in elected office — met George Herbert Walker Bush, a Texas oil man who several months later would be elected to the chairmanship of the Harris County Republican Party in his adopted home of Houston.

Casper Star-Tribune Collection, Casper College Western History Center 

Casper College President Lloyd Loftin, board president Ronald Lund, then Vice President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush at Casper College, Jan. 27, 1988.

This chance meeting, as things turned out, would be the start of a friendship that will come full circle Wednesday in the city where they met, as Simpson — the lifelong friend of the man that would become the 41st president of the United States — was among the four people selected to speak in memory of Bush, who died Friday.

Throughout the late-’80s and into the new millennium, the stories of the Bush family, the Simpsons and Wyoming would be closely intertwined, from the careful crafting of policies affecting the West to the quelling of the Yellowstone fires. The youngest Simpson would become a valuable ally not just on the Senate floor but occasionally on the campaign trail as well (whenever he was asked, he clarified in an interview well after the 1992 elections).

Years earlier, the Simpson and Bush families even found themselves involved in a real estate transaction together, when Simpsons’ parents sold their Washington home to Bush and his wife, Barbara, when Bush was first elected to Congress.

“It was a handshake deal, no Realtors, no attorneys, nobody present,” Simpson told the Washington Post earlier this week. “Dad remembered meeting him, and he said, ‘We have a nice house; you have children,’ and they said, ‘Just what we want.’”

Bush was connected to Wyoming as well. From the Cowboy State, Bush found a Secretary of Defense in Dick Cheney, who would later serve as Vice President to Bush’s son, George W. Bush. The elder Bush would later describe Cheney as having become an “iron-a—” over his foreign policy after 9/11, but the two were extremely close while in office, navigating the tribulations of a nation at war in the Persian Gulf to the quieter times. Cheney remembered Bush for his “personal touch,” exemplified by the letter he sent to the daughter of his former defense secretary, now-Rep. Liz Cheney, when her father received the nomination for vice president.

“There was no gesture that was too small or insignificant of what he was willing to do to make people comfortable,” Dick Cheney remembered on the Today Show earlier this week.

Photos from President George H.W. Bush's visits to Wyoming

While it was difficult to gain an official tally by press time, the Star-Tribune was able to count around a half-dozen separate trips the elder Bush made to Wyoming: Fort Caspar for a GOP picnic in 1983, Casper College and Yellowstone National Park in 1988, Cody and Yellowstone again in 1989, a 1990 visit for the Wyoming Centennial Parade, and after his term had ended, a visit to Cheyenne’s Frontier Days. Bush’s most notable visit was likely his return to Yellowstone in 1989 to survey the damage of the wildfires that, one year earlier, upended a fly-fishing trip he had been taking.

Before a 1992 visit to his one-time Chief of Staff Jim Baker’s ranch in Pinedale for a fishing trip, Bush wrote a letter in response to one written by then Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan, wishing him well on his trip. The letter concluded: “You’re a thoughtful guy, but gosh darn it, I wish you were a Republican.”

“I wasn’t a close friend of his, Al Simpson was,” Sullivan said in an interview on KTWO Television on Monday night, “(…) but I was benefited by the Republican delegation from Wyoming who were all friends of his, in particular Al and Dick Cheney.”

Bush’s most recent Wyoming trip came in 2005, when Bush and Simpson shared the stage for a look back on their careers in politics at a University of Wyoming fundraising event, discussing everything from going bird hunting together to playing tennis with Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams. They even discussed the beatings in the polls and in the press Simpson received for his role in the Clarence Thomas hearings of 1991, where some saw him as needlessly pressing Anita Hill, who had accused the Supreme Court nominee of sexual misconduct.

Bush stood by him, though, a dispatch from the Associated Press noted at the time, with then-president Bush writing Simpson in a letter: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

Simpson was an ally to Bush as well: As a co-sponsor of significant amendments to the Clean Air Act — a signature achievement of the Bush administration — while in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Simpson helped deliver a bill to Bush’s desk after what was by all accounts an absolute dogfight.

“Day after day, while (then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell) would be running the Senate (he’d) come in and say, ‘OK, where are we now? How are we doing? Are we moving?’” Simpson said in an interview remembering the negotiations. “And then he’d be called to the floor and we’d hack around in it some more, and we put together a bill, and George Bush signed it, and Bill Riley was the head of the EPA at the time. And that could never have been done by anybody else but George because it just pissed off both sides so bad that they couldn’t even breathe.”

Wyoming Sen. Al Simpson talks at the Ramada -- later renamed the Parkway Plaza -- in October 1984. (Casper College Western History Center Casper Star-Tribune collection)

But that, Simpson said, is democracy.

“We had to let everyone have their say, and it was too bad you missed some of it,” said Simpson at a press conference in 1990 marking the bill’s passage to the president’s desk. “Because it was rich … and profane, and sometimes embittered and ugly. But it’s called democracy, and I come away with a great respect for colleagues on both sides of the aisle.”

The warmth between the two perhaps shone through most prevalently at a dinner commemorating Simpson’s time in office after his retirement in 1996. At the podium, Bush choked up during the toast, remembering the 6-foot-7-inch legislator as a giant who would “pull him up” when times got tough.

His closing remarks to the legislator, however, reflected a knowing warmth of the days to come.

“There is a wonderful life after leaving Washington, D.C.” Bush said. “Great happiness. No steady job.”

On Wednesday, it’ll be Simpson’s turn to say his piece.

Casper's Parkway Plaza to be put up for auction Thursday at foreclosure sale

The Parkway Plaza hotel is set to be put up for public auction Thursday at the Natrona County Courthouse.

Ronald Lopez, an attorney at Bailey, Stock, Harmon, Cottam & Lopez, the law firm representing the mortgage holder, confirmed Tuesday that the hotel and conference center was set to be auctioned off as part of a foreclosure sale.

The firm posted a notice of foreclosure sale, set for 10 a.m. Thursday, in the Star-Tribune. It states the hotel’s owner defaulted on the terms of its mortgage.

Tabitha Overgard, the hotel’s general manager, said Tuesday afternoon that she just learned the property will be up for auction this week.

“I don’t know any details about any of that,” she said.

Overgard previously said that the hotel laid off 50 employees when it closed for renovations Oct. 31.

In an interview at the time, Overgard said she was told a national corporation was buying the hotel. It’s unclear what transpired since then.

The Parkway has been owned by CRU Casper since 2015. That company is itself owned by CRU Real Estate Group, of Costa Mesa, California. The facility was built in 1966 and offers 301 guest rooms and more than 45,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space, according to its website.

In recent years, the hotel has struggled with a series of difficulties.

In November 2017, two employees said the hotel had been writing bad checks and ordering workers to illegally buy liquor from retail stores using a company credit card. Wyoming law requires licensed outlets like hotels to buy booze through state-approved wholesale liquor distributors.

City government struck a deal with the hotel in April 2017 to help rebuild infrastructure around the Parkway in support of a planned 40,000-square-foot conference center in the hotel’s southwest parking lot. But the deal was called off when hotel management missed a deadline.

The hotel has been sold several times in the past decade. Casper businessman Pat Sweeney sold the Parkway to a Texas-based company in 2008, but after that firm failed to meet certain conditions, Sweeney took control of the property again. He sold the hotel to CRU three years ago.

Crime reporter Shane Sanderson contributed to this report.

Feds object to bankruptcy plan proposed by owner of Wyoming coal mine

The bankrupt coal firm that owns the Kemmerer mine in southern Wyoming has provided too little detail in its restructuring plan for a reasonable review, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice stated in an objection filed Friday.

The federal department’s protest does not address proposed cuts to retiree benefits and pensions that have been criticized recently by retired miners.

Westmoreland Coal Co., one of the oldest coal mining firms in the U.S., has attempted to speed through it bankruptcy proceedings since filing in early October. The company would sell off its core assets, restructure $90 million in debt and potentially terminate some obligations to retirees. Westmoreland paid $10.2 million in bonuses to executives in the year before its bankruptcy and has recently sought permission from the court to mete out retention bonuses to management over the course of the bankruptcy proceedings.

The U.S. Trustee’s Office — a division of the Department of Justice that oversees bankruptcy proceedings — now argues that though the bankruptcy is still in flux, Westmoreland’s current disclosure statement and plan lack a legal foundation for the company to get out of debt. Westmoreland’s plan also seeks to release third-party entities from liability without a legal justification, the Trustee’s Office noted in its Friday filing.

Retired from Kemmerer coal mine, workers plead for pensions in company bankruptcy

Perry Norris, 65, worked at the Kemmerer coal mine for 40 years. For four decades he worked three shift rotations. He broke an elbow at the mine in southern Wyoming, broke his back and picked up a persistent cough from years of inhaling dust, he explained in a handwritten letter submitted Monday to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Houston, where Westmoreland is moving rapidly through its Chapter 11 restructuring.

“The Debtors have not demonstrated in any way, nor to any degree, the appropriateness of the proposed provisions,” the legal documents state in regard to exculpating third parties.

Citing case law, the Trustee’s Office states that federal bankruptcy law’s provision allowing for a fresh start for debtors “is not intended to serve this purpose of releasing parties from any negligent conduct that occurred during the course of the bankruptcy.”

The U.S. Trustee’s Office has objected to high-profile coal bankruptcies before. During the recent downturn, when three major Wyoming operators sought Chapter 11 relief, the federal agency stepped in when Alpha Natural Resources — the former owner of the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mins in Campbell County — sought permission to provide retention bonuses to its executives during bankruptcy. The Department of Justice also held up the transfer of Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr to a newly formed company until Alpha had secured its cleanup liabilities in Wyoming and other states.

Westmoreland Coal Co. operates in six states and Canada. The company employs about 1,700 people across the U.S. and pays pensions and provides health benefits for a host of retirees, including many that worked at the Kemmerer mine in Wyoming.

In recent weeks, some of those retirees have sent letters to the bankruptcy judge asking that Westmoreland be denied the ability to cancel its obligations to its retired miners.

In a letter submitted to the court Monday, Lawrence Hinton of Kemmerer noted that he retired earlier this year after four decades at the mine.

“Now, after 41 years of planning our financial future is in jeopardy,” Hinton wrote of his family. “I urge the court to protect the health care and pension benefits for all the miners, especially the retired miners and their dependents.”

Hinton notes he is a member of the United Mine Workers of America Local 1307. The union has objected to Westmoreland’s restructuring plan since before the company filed, objecting to proposed cuts to miner benefits the company had floated before filing.

Westmoreland has argued in court filings that it is facing tremendous economic pressure in relation to the declining coal market, citing a lack of access to capital, compliance with coal regulations and price fluctuations for coal.

“All coal companies face these challenges and many have filed for bankruptcy protection in recent years,” the company stated.

Wyoming’s largest utility, Rocky Mountain Power, has also objected to Westmoreland’s bankruptcy plans due to the effect on its electricity customers if the Kemmerer mine folds.

The Kemmerer mine provides coal to Rocky Mountain Power’s nearby Naughton Plant. The coal-fired power plant and the mine are significant employers and revenue drivers for the small town.

Roughly 285 miners were employed at Kemmerer as of June. The local union is currently bargaining for a new contract with its employer, a process that has been delayed by the bankruptcy proceedings, the group said.

After CIA briefing, senators lay blame on Saudi crown prince

WASHINGTON — Breaking with President Donald Trump, senators leaving a briefing with CIA Director Gina Haspel on Tuesday said they are even more convinced that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he believes if the crown prince were put on trial, a jury would find him guilty in “about 30 minutes.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who demanded the briefing with Haspel, said there is “zero chance” the crown prince wasn’t involved in Khashoggi’s death.

“There’s not a smoking gun. There’s a smoking saw,” Graham said, referring to reports from the Turkish government that said Saudi agents used a bone saw to dismember Khashoggi after he was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Graham said “you have to be willfully blind” not to conclude that this was orchestrated and organized by people under the crown prince’s command.

Trump has equivocated over who is to blame for the killing, frustrating senators who are now looking for ways to punish the longtime Middle East ally. The Senate overwhelmingly voted last week to move forward on a resolution curtailing U.S. backing for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

It’s unclear whether or how that resolution will move forward. The vote last week allowed the Senate to debate the measure, which could happen as soon as next week, but senators are still in negotiations on whether to amend it and what it should say.

Haspel met with a small group of senators, including leadership and the chairmen and top Democrats on the key national security committees, after senators in both parties complained that she didn’t attend an all-Senate briefing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last week.

Pompeo and Mattis tried to dissuade senators from punishing Saudi Arabia with the resolution, saying U.S. involvement in the Yemen conflict is central to the Trump administration’s broader goal of containing Iranian influence in the Middle East. Human rights groups say the war is wreaking havoc on the country and subjecting civilians to indiscriminate bombing.

The two men also echoed Trump’s reluctance to blame the crown prince. Pompeo said there was “no direct reporting” connecting the crown prince to the murder, and Mattis said there was “no smoking gun” making the connection.

After that briefing, Graham threatened to withhold his vote on key legislation until he heard from Haspel. “I’m not going to blow past this,” he said. That afternoon, senators frustrated with the briefing and the lack of response to Khashoggi’s killing overwhelmingly voted to move forward with consideration of the Yemen resolution, 63-37.

Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin said the briefing with Haspel “clearly went in to an evaluation of the intelligence” and was much more informative than the session with Mattis and Pompeo.

“I went in believing the crown prince was directly responsible or at least complicit in this and my feelings were strengthened by the information we were given,” Durbin said.

Durbin joined Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer in calling for a full-Senate briefing from Haspel.

“Every senator should hear what I heard this afternoon,” Durbin said.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a critic of Saudi Arabia, said that excluding some lawmakers is “the very definition of the deep state” and that he suspected that the Trump administration is attempting to get some lawmakers to switch their votes on the resolution by giving them information.

Khashoggi was killed two months ago. The journalist, who had lived for a time in the U.S. and wrote for The Washington Post, had been critical of the Saudi regime. He was killed in what U.S. officials have described as an elaborate plot as he visited the consulate for marriage paperwork.

U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that the crown prince must have at least known of the plot, but Trump has been reluctant to pin the blame.

“It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event,” Trump said in a lengthy statement Nov. 20. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”

The president has touted Saudi arms deals worth billions of dollars to the U.S. and recently thanked Saudi Arabia for plunging oil prices.

“They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran,” Trump said in the statement. “The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.”

In a column for the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Graham wrote that the killing and other moves by the Saudi regime showed “astounding arrogance entitlement” and disregard for international norms.

“We are a coequal branch of government exercising leadership to safeguard the country’s long-term interests, values and reputation,” wrote Graham, of the Senate. “After all, someone’s got to do it.”

Graham said after the briefing that he would push for a nonbinding resolution that the crown prince was “complicit” in Khashoggi’s murder. Graham and Paul have also said they think Congress should block a pending arms deal with the kingdom.