Foster Friess was running late on July 4. A parade in Gillette had run long, and the gubernatorial candidate was slow to reach Lander for the annual Rotary Club Buffalo Barbeque where some of his rivals for the Republican gubernatorial nomination were already mingling with voters.
Friess’ private plane touched down on the runway at Hunt Field Airport in Lander shortly after 1 pm. An imposing height even with his shoulders slightly hunched descending the stairs from the plane’s door, the white haired campaigner greeted a reporter with a warm smile and one of his trademark jokes.
“I always tell reporters you can ask me any question you want, and I can give you any answer I want,” he said.
Friess had arrived with his wife and a pair of aides, his frequent companions on the campaign trail. A driver waited with an SUV to ferry the team to the waiting cookout.
Along the way the candidate answered questions about his life in conservative politics and his interest in the governor’s mansion — an aspiration that had surprised many in Wyoming. He pushed back on assertions by other candidates that he was “out of touch” or perhaps lacked empathy with hardscrabble Wyomingites by saying he believed a key plank of his platform — government transparency — was resonating with voters.
The interview first concluded, but then an aide called the reporter back. Friess had something to add.
The suggestion that he might lack empathy was “offensive” to him, Friess said. Counting on his fingers, he listed numerous disaster recovery efforts to which he had donated large sums of his personal wealth — million dollar donations to help victims of Hurricane Katrina and an earthquake in Tibet among them. Friess’ donation largesse has boosted causes from the arts to healthcare.
But disaster relief isn’t the only way Friess spends his money.
He’s spent broadly over the years to advance his political agenda. Now, during his first run for public office, the renowned financier is spending returns on some of those investments in Wyoming. An endorsement in Sunday’s Casper Star-Tribune from Donald Trump Jr. is the latest example of support from national conservative causes Friess has backed intersecting with his bid for the governor’s mansion.
When discussing his positions Friess points readily to his Christian faith, and touts “kindness,” civility and an end to “nastiness” as important parts of his political philosophy. His refusal to utter a negative word about his competitors has earned him the affectionate nickname of “Uncle Foster” among some of the candidates.
The politicians, PACs and causes Friess has given to, however, don’t always reflect that interest in civility. Some of those associations raise questions about Friess’ vision for Wyoming and whether his championing of kindness is also a request for fewer hard questions and more lenient scrutiny of behavior — including that of his inner-circle.
Friess has touted his connections to the business community, politicians in other states and the Trump administration as part of what he can give to Wyoming. Without deep experience with Wyoming’s current challenges, and seeking to overcome voters’ distrust of a wealthy Jackson resident, perhaps he’s had to.
In a recent text message to WyoFile, Friess wrote about facing “the prejudices that exist among people against those who live in Jackson or are rich… It has been amazing to me how some would assess the key criteria for governor is how long you have lived here in Wyoming or being a rancher.”
At a candidate forum in June, he referenced his text message exchanges with former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. Pruitt resigned in July in the face of ever-widening ethics scandals. Like Friess, Pruitt often cites his faith in explaining his public service and politics.
In July, Friess brought former Pennsylvania senator Ric Santorum, another politician who often cites his Christian beliefs, to the state to stump. Santorum was the recipient of large sums of Friess’ money during his 2012 campaign for the White House.
In a text message to WyoFile this week, Friess cited more endorsements, including one from conservative and Christian activist Ralph Reed and Chuck Norris, action star of the television show Walker, Texas Ranger.
Reed, too, has been dogged by ethical questions over a lengthy political career, most notably for his connections to the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who went to federal prison for fraud and corruption. Today Reed is the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, an evangelical Christian group that backed Trump during the 2016 elections and plans to spend heavily in the upcoming midterm elections, according to a report in The Hill.
Since Trump secured the Republican nomination in 2016, Friess has backed the president broadly, despite his famed incivility. In a televised interview with CNBC last August, Friess was one of few to come to the president’s defense following Trump comments about a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that drew outrage from both sides of the aisle.
“He’s become a victim,” Friess said, “and he’s being bullied.”
On the campaign trail, Friess has been accompanied by a former Trump administration official whose success as a conservative political operative has been shadowed by accusations of sexual assault in college. Friess pointed to the consultant, Steven Munoz’s, past affiliation with Trump as evidence of his innocence and as reason for WyoFile to drop the story.
“If the president Of the United states can put the issue behind him,” Friess said, “I would encourage you to follow the presidents [sic] lead and encourage you to do the same.”
Friess’ wealth has done more than buy a lot of television advertisements and name recognition across Wyoming. It has, in part, defined his candidacy, whether to his advantage in national politics or to his self-proclaimed disadvantage with some skeptical Wyoming voters.
An examination of Friess’ giving and the connections it has brought him along with how he has addressed inquiries about employing Munoz offers insight into the folksy, faith-oriented GOP megadonor who would be Wyoming’s governor.
Endorsed for character, faith and timely donations
Trump Jr., the author of an infamously candid response to a Russian businessman’s offer of Russian-government dirt on Hillary Clinton, isn’t known for his subtlety. In keeping with that trend, his endorsement of Friess in the Casper Star-Tribune this weekend touted timely donations to his father’s campaign among the Jackson businessman’s qualifications to lead the state.
Friess gave $100,000 to the Trump Victory PAC and another $33,400 to the Republican National Committee in October 2016, according to filings with the Federal Elections Commission. Though Trump Jr. called Friess an “early adopter” of the candidate in his letter, filings show he started the election cycle giving instead to most of Trump’s opponents.
Friess gave money to the presidential campaigns of Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky. He also donated to governors and former governors seeking the Republican nod in that crowded primary — Chris Christie of New Jersey, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Jeb Bush of Florida and John Kasich of Ohio.
But, “Foster was right there when we needed him and helped open the door to other early adopters in the donor community,” Trump Jr. wrote in Sunday’s letter.
The nod to Friess’ financial support is echoed in other endorsements. Friess is the only gubernatorial candidate in the nation currently endorsed by the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, a political action committee formed in 2013.
The PAC’s endorsement references his giving.
“When Tea Party Patriots was first launched, Foster was instrumental in helping us establish a firm financial foundation,” the endorsement quoted the group’s chairwoman as saying.
Funding social conservatism and controversy
At a late June debate in Sheridan, Wyoming PBS producer Craig Blumenshine asked Friess if Wyoming was inclusive enough of the LGBTQ community to diversify its economy in the modern age. He was also asked if he would support a statewide nondiscrimination ordinance that prohibits discrimination based off sexual orientation or gender identity. Blumenshine noted that a more local ordinance in Friess’ hometown had secured the support of the Teton County Republican Party. The ordinance has since been adopted by the Jackson Town Council.
“If you look at Wyoming how can you find a kinder, more inclusive group of people?” Friess asked, referencing the Wyoming Territory’s adoption of the women’s vote in 1869. He did not support the ordinance. Instead, he said, “I’m much in favor of the whole idea, of the approach of trying to accept each other in a spirit of kindness.”
Along with the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund endorsement, Friess’ website also lists an endorsement from a political action arm of the Family Research Council, a Washington D.C. group that opposes abortions and is “pro family.” The group’s president, Tony Perkins, is a Trump ally, according to Politico.
“Family Research Council believes that homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large, and can never be affirmed,” the group’s website says. “It is by definition unnatural, and as such is associated with negative physical and psychological health effects.”
Friess’ endorsement comes from the group’s political arm, a PAC called FRC Action. Again, the endorsement cites Friess’ generosity.
“Throughout Foster Friess’ business career, he has used the resources with which God has blessed him to make a difference in the world,” said Jerry Boykin, the PAC’s vice president. “He recognizes the preciousness of life, that religious freedom is a sacred right, and that healthy families are the bedrock of any society. If elected Governor of Wyoming, we believe that Mr. Friess will fight for these cherished values at the Governor’s Mansion in Cheyenne.”
WyoFile did not find a direct donation from Friess to the Family Research Council or its PAC. But the Friess Family Foundation has been a consistent large donor to the National Christian Foundation, a nonprofit funding arm for Christian causes globally and nationally. NCF, in turn, has given millions to the Family Research Council. Friess’ foundation gave the National Christian Foundation at least $9 million from 2015-2017, according to tax filings.
The National Christian Foundation’s 990 tax return, which lists its grants, is thousands of pages long, demonstrating the broad reach of gifts like Friess’ foundation’s. In 2016, however, the group granted more than $2.2 million to the Family Resource Council for social, civic and public policy, according to the filings. That followed a gift of $1.29 million in 2015.
Though Friess has spent heavily on his own campaign recently, he’s continued to distribute the largesse that helped build his profile in conservative circles. Since announcing his race in late April, he has spread more than $45,000 in individual donations to candidates in other states, including to three politicians known for divisive comments.
In June and July, Friess gave between $1,000 and $2,700 to Reps. Steve King of Iowa, Mark Green of Tennessee and Louie Gohmert of Texas.
King is known for wanting to eliminate the federal income tax, but also for a history of derogatory comments about immigrants.
Green was nominated by Trump to serve as the U.S. Secretary of the Army. He withdrew from the nomination process, citing attacks on his “life of public service and [his] Christian beliefs.” The criticism stemmed from Green’s categorization of transgenderism as a disease and transgender service members as “transvestites in uniform,” according to a CNN report.
Gohmert has compared homosexuality to bestiality and cosponsored a bill to question Obama’s citizenship, according to a report in the Texas Tribune.
Friess has also given $2,700 to U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney for her reelection effort, and $2,500 to the Barrasso Fischer Victory Fund, a Senate fundraising committee.
In a text message, Friess said he was unaware of the statements attributed to the candidates above. “Remember I am a business guy not a political junker reading every blog and commentary,” he said. Google searches of the candidates’ names bring up easy references to their controversial statements.
Friess referred WyoFile to a video promoted by the Mutual Bank of Omaha. The video describes how two longtime ideological foes in Iowa — a gay rights activist and the director of a Christian “pro-family” organization — began meeting for coffee and became friends.
The video, Friess said, “will reveal my approach.”
In August of last year, Friess was promoting a “Return to Civility” initiative encouraging people to get a cup of coffee with someone they disagree with, according to a report accompanying the video on The Stream, a Christian news site.
A consultant with an impressive but troubled past
Friess has been giving to political candidates for decades. An October WyoFile report found he had donated $42,992 to Wyoming politics since 1992. He’s been even more generous outside the state. In 2012, he supported Santorum’s bid for the White House with more than $2 million in contributions. In July, Santorum joined Friess in Wyoming. The two derided Obamacare together at a Casper steakhouse, according to a report in the Casper Star-Tribune.
Through Santorum Friess came to know and employ Steven Munoz, a young but accomplished conservative political operative.
In May, 2017, the investigative news outlet ProPublica documented allegations that Munoz sexually assaulted or harassed five fellow students when attending The Citadel, a military college in Charleston South Carolina. In police statements accompanying the ProPublica report, the students accused Munoz of abusing his power as a superior in The Citadel’s rigid military-style student hierarchy to perpetrate and cover-up the sexual misconduct.
Munoz is not employed by the campaign but works for Friess in relation to his other policy initiatives, Friess told WyoFile. Previously John Spina, a spokesperson for Friess, had said Munoz plays an important role in managing the campaign and is with Friess’ “every minute of every day.”
Friess, however, walked back Munoz’s level of the involvement in the campaign. “I don’t know why it’s relevant to my campaign if he’s just [one of] a number of guys working on the campaign and doesn’t work for the campaign anyways,” Friess said of the ProPublica report.
Munoz has been on his personal payroll for years and largely works with him in relation to his policy initiatives on stopping school shootings and health care initiatives according to Friess. “He’s extremely well connected in Washington,” Friess said of Munoz. When WyoFile met Friess on the runway at Hunt Field on July 4, Munoz was with Friess and contributed to the interview.
At the time of ProPublica’s report, Munoz was employed by the state department, where he had received a political appointment in January, 2017. The appointment followed his work helping to organize Trump’s presidential inauguration ceremony. Munoz left the state department a few months after the article was published.
The accusations documented by ProPublica were not all new to the press. Some had first surfaced in South Carolina media reports in 2012, when Munoz was working on Santorum’s presidential campaign.
A police investigation requested by the school compiled statements from the five accusers. The students were willing to press charges, according to ProPublica. The police investigation was handed to a prosecutor, who declined to bring charges. The prosecutor said there was no probable cause “he committed a crime prosecutable in General Sessions Court,” according to a copy of her letter to police that was also published by ProPublica.
Andy Savage, a South Carolina attorney who has represented Munoz, denied the allegations in an interview with WyoFile, but said he believed the news reports led to Munoz’s departure from the State Department. “That’s what stirred everything up,” Savage said. “I understand what they were doing,” he said of ProPublica’s story. “They were saying the Trump administration wasn’t thoroughly screening their appointments, so the emphasis of that [story] was to badmouth the administration.”
The prosecutor’s decision not to charge aside, The Citadel maintains that the alleged assaults and harassment “likely occurred.” The school reached the conclusion in a 2014 investigation that included interviews with the students who alleged the assaults and harassment and with Munoz, according to the letter. There have been no changes to that conclusion since the letter was sent, a spokesperson for the school said.
Munoz declined to comment for this story, citing ongoing legal discussions with The Citadel. In addition to Savage, he has retained Phil Byler, a New York attorney who specializes in Title IX law. Title IX law deals with sexual assault investigations on campus, as well as the more traditionally known governance over gender in college sports. Byler told WyoFile The Citadel’s investigation was conducted without “due process.”
WyoFile inquired about Munoz because of the public’s interest in the hiring practices and judgement of someone who would be the state’s chief executive.
In his response, over phone interviews and text messages, Friess turned to the teachings of his faith, his trust in Munoz’s own faith and character and his respect for the judgement of conservatives like Santorum and Trump. Over phone interviews and text messages, Friess alternated between dismissing the accusations and focusing on his own practice of forgiveness. He repeatedly asked WyoFile not to write about Munoz to protect his employee from “denigration.”
Friess has known about the allegations against Munoz since he first was introduced to him through Santorum, Friess said. He hired Munoz anyway. “It was a done deal,” Friess said. Friess cited his religious teachings and said that forgiving the past was part of his faith. “Every day we begin to start anew,” he said, “so it would be a completely hypocritical aspect of my faith if I don’t let everybody in my life start over.”
“How do we do better tomorrow, and how do we move past the mistakes we’ve made,” Friess characterized his philosophy in one phone interview. In another, he described how he might treat a young analyst in his investment firm who made a business error.
“My job isn’t to bury him in that hole,” Friess said. “It’s to reach down in that hole he’s in and pull him up, even if that means getting my hands a little muddy.”
If Friess was elected governor, Munoz would not be given a job in his administration, Friess said. Those posts would be reserved for people with Wyoming experience, he said.
Friess praised Munoz’s achievements, his relationship with Santorum — “he’s like a son to [him]” — and religious adherence. “I’m blessed to have him and impressed by his love of God,” Friess said.
In a series of text messages, Friess asked WyoFile to focus instead on the positives of Munoz’s life story.
“Think of what a far more interesting story to your readers that would also enhance your reputation as someone who can really spot newsworthy accomplishments of your fellow human beings,” he wrote. “Look at the real story about Steve … Of Cuban heritage … His father [a] truck driver … And forget what he might be accomplishing AS PART OF A LARGE TEAM AND AS MY PERSONAL EMPLOYEE in this governor’s race and go back a year or so to his most RECENT life experience.”
Munoz drove President Trump to the polling station where Trump voted as a candidate, Friess said. During his brief tenure with the State Department, Munoz assisted the president in his interactions with “numerous world leaders including responsibility for taking him to visit the pope in Rome and interfacing with the Japanese when their prime minister came to Mar-a-largo [sic].”
Friess dismissed the allegations against Munoz. He pointed to the prosecutor’s decision not to charge Munoz and said she had “decided to close the case.” Friess also alluded to security clearances Munoz needed for his work at the State Department, saying the agency would have reviewed and dismissed the charges during that practice. The State Department would neither confirm nor deny that Munoz received the necessary clearances or disclose the reason for his dismissal.
Like Savage, Friess called the allegations an overblown case of the “roughhousing” and hazing practices of a military school.
The statements given by the students allege more than roughhousing. In various statements students allege Munoz took advantage of roles in which he was given authority over them either through the school or through the structure of student hierarchies to touch them in unwanted and sexual ways and then warn them against complaining about it.
Friess criticized WyoFile’s inquiry on the allegations against Munoz as divisive and part of national “nastiness” in the political realm.
“What the nation hates as you maybe know is the nastiness that spews out of the Maxine Waters and the … what I call the Kingdom of D.C., as magnified by the press,” Friess said. U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, stirred controversy in June when she called on her supporters to create crowds and confront Trump administration officials when they see them in public. In response, President Trump via Twitter called her “an extraordinarily low IQ person.”
Friess prefers to focus on the positive, as he repeatedly said both in interviews and in his public comments.
“Let’s make Wyoming a beacon of positive thinking, uplifting others, and nurturing a culture of kindness in an environment and culture that has way too much nastiness in it,” Friess said in one text message.
In another text message, Friess directed WyoFile to the Bible verse Philippians 4:8:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”
The verse, Friess said, “could become a guide to our state.”