Republican secretary of state candidate Chuck Gray said Monday the $300,000 he loaned a previous campaign came from his own funds that were legally given to him after the death of his grandfather.
At a Monday candidate forum in Casper, Gray called a federal complaint filed against him last week regarding those loans “false and defamatory.” He reiterated that point Tuesday in an email to the Star-Tribune, saying the claim was leaked because his opponents believe he’s winning.
“I will continue my grandfather’s legacy of dedication to service by fighting as hard as I can to return government authority back to the people and away from the corrupted insiders like my opponent,” he said. “That’s why I too have donated to my campaigns to make sure that out-of-control government authority is returned back to the citizens.”
The complaint, submitted to the Federal Elections Commission by former Secretary of State Max Maxfield, alleges that loans Gray reported that he made to his previous congressional campaign were actually not funded by the candidate and therefore violated federal campaign finance law.
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Maxfield alleges in the complaint that because Gray only listed roughly $10,000 of earned income in 2021 and the first few months of 2022, loans that amount to nearly $300,000 must have come from another source, not Gray himself.
Gray denied the allegation at the forum, as he did last week. But this time he offered an explanation for the loans.
“My grandfather two years ago passed away, and businesses that I helped build were cashed out as part of his passing. Those funds were my funds,” he said.
“They were reported correctly, went through multiple attorneys,” he continued. “And shame on Ms. Nethercott, her allies, Mr. Maxfield for taking advantage politically — trying to take advantage — of my grandfather’s passing.”
Gray, who is also a Casper lawmaker, added that he was advised by his attorneys that “income off the death of a loved one is not subject to the reporting in those disclosures.”
On the day the complaint was filed, Gray declined to tell the Star-Tribune the source of the money when asked where the $300,000 came from. He responded with a statement calling the filing “frivolous” and saying it was the work of liberal insiders working with the Star-Tribune to elect his main political opponent in the race, Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, whom Maxfield has endorsed.
Maxfield previously said that his opposition to Gray’s candidacy did not play a role in filing the complaint.
Nethercott hit back at Gray at the forum, questioning whether he was qualified for the secretary of state’s position.
“It says your income is $11,000 a year. That’s a question for the people of Wyoming to ask — whether or not a 32-year-old who doesn’t own a home in Wyoming, who’s only worked for his father’s business and earns $11,000 a year is the next secretary of state, number two to the governor,” Nethercott said at the forum. “And I think that’s a decent question when $11,000 a year is less than minimum wage. It’s an offense to the hard working men and women of this state.”
If the money did come from liquidating businesses before the campaign, and if the money went to Gray at the time, the loan is likely legal, said one expert, whom the Star-Tribune spoke with before Monday’s forum.
“Is the money really the candidate’s money or not?” asked Adav Noti, legal director of Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit campaign law watchdog group. “The Federal Election Commission when it’s asked to analyze that question looks at legal entitlement to the money.”
When money is in the candidate’s possession, even in something like a joint checking account, and especially before the start of a campaign, it’s fair game for the candidate to list it as his or her own, Noti explained.
“That pre-existing distribution, that’s not going to be a [campaign] contribution,” Noti said.
The federal complaint theorizes that the money came from Gray’s father, Jan Charles Gray, which would violate the straw donor ban.
The elder Gray donated $100,000 to his son’s U.S. House campaign through a donation to a political action committee — Protect Wyoming Values PAC — supporting the state representative’s bid for Congress. That was the only contribution from Jan Gray listed.
Gray has attempted to raise issues with Nethercott’s campaign. In a text last week to the Star-Tribune, he alleged that “Nethercott has also not put the ‘paid for’ line in her signs and there have been meetings with the Secretary of State’s office to begin investigation on that.”
In a statement to the Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s current Secretary of State Ed Buchanan said that wasn’t the case.
“No such meetings have occurred nor has anyone contacted us about that,” Buchanan said. “In addition, WS 22-25-110(b) exempts yard signs as far as requiring a disclosure as to the ‘paid for.’”
Gray and Nethercott have emerged as candidates on opposite sides of the debate on election integrity.
Gray is running as a 2020 presidential election skeptic, saying that there was more fraud than the margin of votes between Biden and Trump.
Gray is pushing to ban ballot drop boxes, which have become a target after the movie “2000 Mules” was released, a film that alleges widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Gray has also sponsored numerous showings of the movie throughout Wyoming while on the campaign trail.
Nethercott says that there is “no objective evidence” to prove that the 2020 election was stolen for President Joe Biden, and she repeatedly emphasizes her confidence in Wyoming’s elections.
There is a third candidate in the race: Mark Armstrong, a Wyoming native and former geologist.
“Welp, this is politics. And my opinion of this is Chuck is calling Tara an insider, Tara is calling Chuck untruthful and unethical ... I just suggest you believe them both...,” Armstrong said at the forum. “I’m running to give you a choice.”
Buchanan is not running for reelection, having sought and obtained a position as a judge in Goshen County. The primary is Aug. 16.