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Complaint calls for ethics investigation of Bebout, Nicholas, Mead

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Sen. Eli Bebout

Bebout

Four Wyomingites are calling for an investigation of the second-highest-ranking Republican in the Wyoming Senate, saying Sen. Eli Bebout voted for a program that paid his company $27 million in the past.

The company Bebout partially owns, Nucor, received money in contracts with the Department of Environmental Quality to do work under the Abandoned Mine Land program. Yet this year, when the abandoned mine funding bill came before the Wyoming Senate, Bebout – who is in line to be the Senate president next year – didn’t abstain from voting on the legislation. Furthermore, he was a member of the conference committee of lawmakers tasked with negotiating differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, according to the complaint, made public Tuesday.

Bebout, of Riverton, said he takes the ethics complaint seriously because it’s a question of his credibility and integrity.

“Whatever they need from me, I’ll cooperate,” he said. “There’s nothing hidden in any of this.”

Bebout said he’s been open to the Legislature and the public over the years about the fact that his company has received contracts from the state. It’s also received contracts from the federal government and has done work outside of Wyoming, he said. And there is no guarantee that when Nucor bids on state contracts, it wins them, he said.

“I never voted for direct money to go from AML to a pot of money that I have access to or utilized,” he said. “If that would have been the case, it clearly would have been a conflict.”

The Wyomingites whose names are on the ethics complaint are conservatives – Jennifer Young, a onetime Wyoming Constitution Party candidate for secretary of state, and Campbell County residents Jeff Raney, Vincent Naumu and Leah Naumu.

Bebout’s Democratic opponent in the Nov. 8 general election, Chesie Lee, said she supports a thorough, independent and timely investigation of the allegations in the complaint.

“He has been in the Wyoming State Legislature for 30 years and has held many leadership positions, which makes such abuse of power even more distasteful,” she said. “Should the allegations be substantiated, this put a dark shadow over the entire legislative process.”

Bebout told the Star-Tribune that if he wins re-election, he will run for Senate president.

The ethics complaint may hurt his chances. The Star-Tribune tried to contact Young to discuss his potential bid for Senate president but could not reach her.

The man who provided research for the complainants is Kevin Lewis of Cheyenne. He requested copies of Nucor’s contracts with the state, said Keith Guille of Wyoming DEQ.

Lewis was a senior member of former Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill’s leadership team. During her tenure, Hill battled the Legislature and Gov. Matt Mead over control of the Wyoming Department of Education. This spring, Hill’s husband, Drake Hill, was listed as the attorney on a lawsuit against Mead and legislative leadership over the Capitol reconstruction project.

Lewis declined to talk about the ethics complaint.

In addition to Bebout, the ethics complaint also names Senate President Phil Nicholas, members of the 2016 Senate Rules Committee and Mead.

Allegations

State law, Senate and House rules and the Wyoming Constitution prohibit lawmakers from voting on matters that financially benefit them. They must declare a conflict and abstain from voting, the ethics complaint states.

Lewis found seven DEQ contracts, beginning in 2010, that Nucor won involving Abandoned Mine Land money.

“This is not all of the money that had been contracted with Nucor over the time that they had been doing business with DEQ,” the complaint states. “A Riverton Ranger article quoted Sen. Bebout as having said Nucor received over 25 contracts over a longer period of time.”

Nicholas, the Senate president, said he takes the complaint seriously.

“The rules of the Senate require that a request for an ethics investigation be made in writing,” he said. “I have not received that. So while I’ve read it, I have not received it formally. I have to treat it in my role as the president of the Senate, which means I need to wait until the process moves through.”

According to the complaint, on the final day of the 2016 session, Bebout requested the Senate Rules Committee look into whether he had a conflict.

“He cannot declare a conflict of interest on the last day of the session and cure his failure to disclose the conflict and failure to abstain from voting on legislation in which he had a direct financial interest,” the complaint states.

Nicholas said that the Senate Rules Committee unanimously decided Bebout did not have a conflict of interest. But no decision of the committee is final; it’s subject to a vote of the full Senate.

"If anyone in the session wants to challenge the ruling, that’s the time to do it,” he said. “There was no challenge.”

Nicholas referred the Star-Tribune to comments he made after the Senate Rules Committee met over the Bebout matter during the session.

Nicholas told senators that Bebout’s company does construction, works in water development and water wells and does oil and gas work and specialized reclamation.

Bebout has disclosed the interests but believes he’s among a large group of people with such business interests, and “there’s no direct benefit to him until after the dollars have been appropriated and there’s subsequent bidding,” Nicholas said.

Bebout said Wednesday that since the state Legislature doesn’t meet year-round, many lawmakers have jobs.

“We are a citizen Legislature,” he said. “You have a lot of people who have other ways to make a living. We have teachers. Do they not vote on education bills? You have ag people. Do they not vote on ag issues? We have attorneys. What do they vote on in terms of the law?”

Independent counsel

The ethics complaint asks Nicholas to appoint independent counsel to examine the matter.

“The Senate must initiate an investigation into this matter and take all action required by the Senate ethics rules, Wyoming Constitution and Wyoming statutes up to, and including, removal from office of not only Sen. Bebout but those who were complicit in covering up this violation of these provisions,” it states.

It states that Mead is involved because he has a role in contract approval.

“Ethics complaints involving legislators are handled by the Wyoming Legislature,” Mead said in a statement sent by his spokesman. “ I have every confidence that the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality runs its contracting process fairly and according to the law, and I am also confident there are no facts to the contrary.”

Lee, Bebout’s Democratic opponent, noted that Abandoned Mine Land money comes from taxes coal mining companies pay to the federal government. It’s problematic that Bebout accepts federal money for his business but rejects federal Medicaid expansion to provide low-income people health care, she said.

“I find it hypocritical and harsh that Sen. Bebout rejected federal funds to expand Medicaid that would have helped thousands of Wyoming working people, our community hospitals and the state budget while at the same time he supported over a quarter of a billion dollars in the last few years in federal Abandoned Mine Lands funds to line his own pockets. This is a huge injustice to the people of Wyoming.”

Bebout said mine land money is a separate issue from Medicaid expansion.

“That’s another subject,” he said. “It rises and falls on its own merits. This should rise and fall on its own merits.”

Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock

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