Political payback? One wealthy donor may have influenced GOP primary defeats
Republican Sens. Jeff Agenbroad of Nampa, Carl Crabtree of Grangeville and Jim Woodward of Sagle said their votes to hold a charter school bill in committee earlier this year prompted a Boise businessman to make a series of individual and business donations to their primary opponents as an act of political retribution.
(Photos courtesy of the Idaho Legislature)
| September 23, 2022 1:00 AM
When three Idaho senators spoke out against a charter school bill earlier this year, it sparked what they say was an aggressive effort to unseat them that was partly driven by one wealthy businessman who is the subject of a recent campaign finance complaint.
The complaint, filed on Aug. 24 by a Nampa resident who is not employed in politics, alleges that Boise resident Larry Williams over-contributed to 14 legislative candidates by thousands of dollars, under his own name, his wife’s name and the names of four of his businesses.
An elections official confirmed the contributions appear to have violated campaign finance laws, but said it’s up to candidates to handle incoming funds in ways that comply with the law. The Idaho Secretary of State’s office has not contacted Williams about the complaint.
Republican Sens. Jeff Agenbroad of Nampa, Carl Crabtree of Grangeville and Jim Woodward of Sagle told the Idaho Capital Sun their votes to hold the charter school bill in committee prompted Williams to make a series of individual and business donations to their primary opponents as an act of political retribution.
Grangeville, Nampa senators say they received threats leading up to donations
As the Sun previously reported, the three senators were already dealing with attack ads from Idaho Freedom Action starting in mid-February, including mass text message campaigns and robocalls that claimed the senators supported social justice programs and did not support parental choice in education.
All three were also members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee at the Legislature, which is a powerful committee responsible for setting and approving initial budget bills for the full body’s consideration each session, which includes bills that fund education at all levels across the state.
Crabtree has known Williams for a few years. He said Williams contacted him about supporting House Bill 545 — which would establish a charter school revolving loan fund — before the bill went before the Senate Education Committee on March 14. Crabtree said he told Williams he was uncomfortable with the level of risk the state would take on by distributing general fund dollars to burgeoning charters.
“I said, ‘You come up with another solution that doesn’t put us at risk, and I’m on board,’” Crabtree said.
On the day of the bill hearing, before the vote, Crabtree said one of Williams’ associates approached him and told him Williams was inclined to donate a lot of money to his opponent if the bill didn’t pass.
“It turned out he did what he said he was going to do,” Crabtree said. “And he was grandly successful.”
Crabtree’s opponent received $6,000 in contributions from Williams and his businesses — about 15% of the opponent’s total fundraising for the primary.
Williams told the Sun that this particular exchange did not happen and is not true. He added that the donations were not made as an act of retribution, but rather to “try to get a Senate more balanced.” Any negative comments from the affected senators were sour grapes, he said in an email.
Nearly a month after senators held the bill in committee, Agenbroad received an email from Williams that was the first contact the two ever had. Responding to an end-of-session wrap-up email, Williams said, “It’s going to be really nice to see two of our banker legislators from Canyon County retired. It appears there has been too much union education money floating around.”
That was a reference to Williams’ unhappiness with Agenbroad over his votes on education during the legislative session.
Williams supports charter schools and Hillsdale College curriculum
Larry Williams grew up in Midvale and founded Idaho Timber Corp. in 1979. It became one of the most successful companies in Idaho. He then founded Tree Top Ranches, where he and his wife, Marianne, continue to raise cattle and horses and have a history of racing horses.
He donated the land for what would become Marianne Williams Park in southeast Boise. Through his family foundation, Williams has donated millions to Boise State University and other local public and private schools, several local churches, the Wyakin Foundation supporting wounded veterans and the Saint Alphonsus Foundation. He has also donated a total of $145,000 to the Idaho Freedom Foundation since 2014.
It’s unknown if Williams has donated individually or through any of his other entities to the Idaho Freedom Foundation or to its affiliated 501(c)(4) political nonprofit Idaho Freedom Action. The organizations do not have to disclose their donors. The Idaho Freedom Foundation could not be reached for comment.
Williams is a strong supporter of charter schools, and said he particularly loves charters that operate under the Hillsdale College model. Hillsdale is a private conservative college in Michigan that also has a charter school network of affiliated schools, one of which is Treasure Valley Classical Academy in Fruitland. According to IRS filings for the family foundation, Williams donated $110,000 to the school when it opened in 2019.
Former President Donald Trump appointed Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn to serve as chairman of the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission, created in November 2020. The commission served as a response to the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project,” which discussed American history with a focus on slavery and the contributions of Black Americans.
In other states where more Hillsdale charters have been proposed and approved, including Tennessee, critics have said the college’s 1776 curriculum is racist because it includes passages about the civil rights movement running “counter to the lofty ideals of the (Founding) Fathers.”
Agenbroad told Senate Education Committee the proposal was too risky
Nampa Sen. Jeff Agenbroad attended the committee meeting to testify against the bill. Based on his experience as a commercial banker for 22 years, Agenbroad said the bill would make the state a “lender of last resort,” and that while he supports charter schools, the investment would be unfair to public schools across Idaho, which have nearly $874 million in deferred maintenance needs, according to the Idaho Office of Performance Evaluations.
“I’m always of the opinion that you take care of what you have before you go buy new, and in this case, we’d be giving the charter schools two-and-a-half million (dollars) of state money while we’re letting our (existing) schools fall down,” Agenbroad told the committee. “I do think there is a mechanism out there to solve the problem we’re talking about. I just don’t think this is the one.”
Woodward told the Sun he agreed with Agenbroad’s assessment that it put the state in a poor financial position, but he was open to other proposals.
“If we wanted to offer something like this, maybe we should’ve been looking at all of the schools,” Woodward said.
In the end, the committee vote wasn’t close, with three in favor and six against. Three Republican senators voted to advance the bill, and Woodward and Crabtree joined two other Republican senators and the two Democrats on the committee to vote no. Sens. Robert Blair, R-Kendrick, and Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, were the two other “no” votes.
Williams gave a single $1,000 contribution to one of Blair’s primary opponents, Dan Foreman, who went on to win the primary. Two $1,000 donations were also given in Larry and Marianne Williams’ name to Lent’s primary opponent, Bryan Scholz, but Lent won his primary handily.
Williams has cut off donation funding to Boise State in protest of its diversity efforts
Williams has become more politically active in the past few years, particularly with his opinions about Boise State University’s diversity and inclusion efforts under President Marlene Tromp. As reported by ProPublica in June, Williams wrote a letter to Idaho legislators in February 2021 expressing his unhappiness with BSU, which he said he and his wife have supported and donated to for 50 years, including 20 years as a member of the BSU Foundation Board. Williams wrote that the last six to eight years at BSU, including a controversy over Big City Coffee’s short-lived campus location, have been “monumentally disappointing” as he said it has strayed further and further from the principles that make it great.
“We have seen Black Lives Matter followers use the BSU campus for protests — and watched BSU faculty and departments support BLM’s messages of intolerance and divisiveness,” Williams wrote as another example. “… It appears BSU no longer shares our Idaho values. BSU’s message is clear: it’s fair to discriminate against people on the basis of their skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other chosen factors.”
Williams said in his letter that he and a number of fellow BSU donors and supporters met with BSU administration about their concerns and requested that BSU scrap its diversity and inclusion plans and “reign in the overly-activist ‘Inclusive Excellence Student Council’ arm of the student government.”
He concluded with a postscript saying, “Until this is turned around, we will not be donating to BSU, with the sole exception of BSU’s elite football program as led by its principled coaches and respectful student athletes.”
Crabtree said he worked with Williams late in the 2021 legislative session on an effort to restrict social justice-related programs at BSU through bill language and a funding cut of approximately $2.5 million.
Deputy secretary of state: No fines or consequences for over-contributions
Campaign finance rules in Idaho Code say individual contributions to legislative candidates are limited to $1,000 per election, and contributions from a business entity associated with the same individual cannot exceed an additional $1,000.
Candidates named in the complaint received $1,000 from Williams and up to $5,000 in additional donations from several of his companies: B&L Co., L&M Investments, Tree Top Ranches and Snake River 300.
Candidates who received $4,000 from Williams, his wife and associated businesses received twice the maximum allowable contributions for a single election. Tree Top Ranches is owned by LDW, Inc., which lists Larry and Marianne Williams as president and secretary, according to Secretary of State records, so even in cases where candidates received $3,000, it is still over the legal limit.
While Idaho Code is specific about maximum contributions from business entities with the same controlling interest, guidelines on the Idaho Secretary of State’s website don’t include that information.
According to Idaho’s Sunshine system records, between the beginning of 2021 and the May 17 primary, Larry Williams alone gave $50,500 to 38 candidates across the state, including Gov. Brad Little and former secretary of state candidate Dorothy Moon, who is now chairwoman of the Idaho Republican Party.
Marianne Williams has donated $36,000 in her own name to 30 candidates. Williams’ four business entities gave another $37,000 to 18 candidates, for a total of $123,500.
Houck said his staff has contacted each of the candidates who received contributions that violated the statute and advised them of their options to correct it.
Republican candidates who received more than the legal limits from the Williams’ include:
Brian Lenney: $4,000
Scott Herndon: $4,000
Cindy Carlson: $6,000
Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale: $6,000
Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, running for Senate: $4,000
Doug Pickett: $4,000
Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell: $6,000
Rosa Martinez: $4,000
Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls: $3,000
Rep. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa: $4,000
Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg: $4,000
Rep. Codi Galloway, R-Boise, running for Senate: $3,000
MaryKate Johnson: $4,000
Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett: $3,000
As of Monday, several candidates had already amended donations to change them to general election funding instead of the primary, including Carlson, Lenney, Herndon, Nichols, Pickett and Skaug.
Houck said there is no set deadline for candidates to amend their filings, and his office is still waiting to hear back from a few candidates.
Martinez, who lost her primary race, returned one of her donations to B&L Co. Although Rice also lost his primary, he has not returned any funds and said he’s following the process advised by the Secretary of State’s office.
Houck said candidates who intend to run for office again in 2024 can hold on to campaign funds until then if they wish.
Carlson spent all of her primary funds by May and received $2,000 more than the maximum for both elections, which Houck said can be remedied if the candidate loans their own money to the campaign. Carlson made a $3,000 loan to her campaign on Aug. 29, according to the state’s sunshine reports.
Carlson told the Sun it was an administrative error because she is new to campaigning.
“I was not intending to do anything illegal. If I did anything illegal, it’s because I did not understand the law,” she said.
Houck said since all of the contributions were reported in a timely manner and properly disclosed, the likelihood of imposing any fines on candidates who took improper donations is very low. Williams will not be responsible for any fines either.
“We’re doing our best to interpret what’s written (in statute) and get to a level of compliance that it feels like the Legislature is looking for,” Houck said. “When we do have a final resolution, we’ll follow up with whoever submitted the original (complaint).”
Senators who lost seats want Idahoans to understand who is influencing politics
Agenbroad, Crabtree and Woodward said they don’t have concrete plans to run again in 2024. Crabtree has been battling cancer since May, and while his prognosis is good, he said he wants to focus on getting his health back.
Crabtree said he wanted to speak out about what happened during the primary because he didn’t think these types of tactics happened at a local level.
“I thought that was for national elections, I didn’t realize it was something that would go on in Idaho,” he said. “I just hadn’t seen it, and I’m disappointed in it.”
Crabtree ran for office and won in 2016, narrowly defeating incumbent Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood. He was re-elected two more times.
Woodward said he’s going back to focusing on his small business, but he hopes people understand the effects of Idaho’s primary elections and how the closed Republican primary — which only allows registered Republicans to vote — is shifting the state’s politics further and further to extremes.
Agenbroad said he plans to get more involved in voter education efforts at the community level in Nampa. He also wants to advocate for more transparency on a campaign level, as he did during his time at the Legislature, where he was a member of the Campaign Finance Reform Interim Committee and pushed for legislation that would strengthen Idaho’s election laws.
“I want sunshine shed on anything that influences Idaho politics, including where the money’s coming from and how it’s getting there, and the motivations behind it,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s bad — it just should be transparent. I think people have the right to know who is influencing Idaho policy.”