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Nate Martin always thought there was something a little off about the new couple in town. Beau Maier and Sofia LaRocca had shown up in Wyoming in 2019 with thin resumes and few references and quickly began immersing themselves in the state’s small but dedicated community of progressive activists. Maier, a burly Army veteran, expressed interest in a cannabis legalization effort supported by Better Wyoming, the advocacy group where Martin served as executive director. LaRocca, the new executive director of a group called Wyoming Progress, which sought to flip the nation’s reddest state, hoped to land a job with Martin’s then-fiancée, Karlee Provenza, who was running for a seat in the state legislature.

There was the way Maier and LaRocca seemed to mimic them—claiming to own a Belgian Malinois, just like them; getting engaged, just like them. And there were their wild ideas, schemes that seemed more at home in the world of black ops than grassroots organizing. In private, Martin and Provenza joked that their new acquaintances were moles. But they were friendly enough. And besides, who would want to spy on Wyoming Democrats?

“I just kind of thought they smoked a lot of weed,” Martin told me.

Then one afternoon in the spring of 2021, Provenza, now a state representative, was walking down Grand Avenue in downtown Laramie when she got a call from her husband.

“Do you remember Beau and Sofia?” Martin asked. It had been months since they had heard from the couple, who had disappeared from Wyoming’s Democratic scene just before the 2020 election.

“You mean the spies?” Provenza replied.

“Yeah,” Martin said. “They’re actually spies.”

Martin had called because he’d just heard that the New York Times wanted to get in touch about a big scoop. Yes, Maier and LaRocca really had gotten engaged (they have since gotten married). And they really were dog owners. But they weren’t trying to turn Wyoming blue. They were undercover conservative operatives, the paper discovered, who had been trained at a ranch belonging to Blackwater founder Erik Prince by a former MI6 officer with ties to the right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe. Maier’s mother worked for Prince. His uncle was Glenn Beck. Alongside other moles, Maier and LaRocca had been attempting to collect dirt on Wyoming’s Democrats—and certain Republicans—for a couple years.

While the news jolted Martin and other activists who’d once welcomed Maier and LaRocca into their homes, the identity of the woman who had allegedly financed much of the operation was less surprising.

Susan Walton Gore, an 83-year-old scion of the Gore-Tex waterproof-fabric fortune, was both a ubiquitous and reclusive presence in her adopted home state—a prolific donor whose network of political organizations picked big fights, but who shirked the spotlight herself. For more than a decade, Gore had embodied a familiar genus of American power: the big fish in a small pond who had learned just how far a dollar can go the farther you get from Washington. An effort to block Common Core science standards from being implemented in state schools? Gore, a onetime backer of the Libertarian Party, led the fight. Stopping tax increases, blocking Medicaid expansion, and reforming the state’s asset-forfeiture laws? Gore’s think tank, the Wyoming Liberty Group, led the way. The legislature’s rightward creep? Gore helped bankroll dozens of candidates.

The espionage operation, reportedly targeting liberals and the so-called “Republicans in Name Only” who certain conservatives believed were allied, marked a jarring departure—one that challenged values long espoused by both Democrats and Republicans in the state. But Gore’s transition from dark money to dark arts was, in part, the story of the Trump era: As the party grew increasingly unmoored from democratic processes and ethical norms, and ensconced in its own paranoia, it was not enough to rely on the familiar tools of political advocacy. The opposition had to be exposed and defeated by any means necessary. Donors—some wealthy, many not—poured tens of millions of dollars into shadowy and unorthodox projects, and such schemes took on increasing prominence in conservative circles.

No place was safe from these impulses—not even America’s least-populated and least-competitive state. For a long time, politicians in deep-red Wyoming had been happy to keep their distance from Washington’s daily dramas. But recently the state GOP has come to mirror the party’s national crack-up—a tense and volatile climate of censure, threats, and purges, where the dominant Trump faction is on the warpath against anyone perceived as stepping out of line. It’s become the kind of place where Dick Cheney’s own daughter could find herself run out of the party. Gore’s efforts to target those RINOs have left lingering aftershocks. For years, she had shown how much influence one committed, wealthy individual could have on a state’s civic institutions; now she was demonstrating just how much damage someone red-pilled by Trump could do to a state’s political culture.

There is something both tragic and familiar about a think-tank founder turning to the guy from Blackwater to help save the democratic process. This was the underlying delusion of the Trump era: that people with the most power in American life acted as if they had the least, and that the absence of evidence was taken as proof that something was being covered up. Trump’s movement was full of people whose worst fears drove them to empty their wallets for lost causes—from the Publix heir who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the January 6 rally, to the supporters of the fraudulent GoFundMe border wall, to the people still desperately giving money to a billionaire so he can spend it at his private club. There was never a better time in conservative politics to be a hustler, and never an easier time to be a mark.

Gore was in many ways a natural conduit for an effort such as this—someone with a lifelong penchant for misadventure. A onetime Transcendental Meditation activist, she spent millions on businesses and philanthropic ventures that drained her inheritance and left her on the brink of bankruptcy. In a scheme too strange for Succession, she had once legally adopted her ex-husband in a bid to gain advantage in an estate dispute. Underpinning this new scandal was an echo of a more personal story. Wyoming, it turned out, was not the first state Susan Gore tried to transform. And it was not the first time her plans had gone wildly awry.

The product that made the Gores one of America’s wealthiest families was invented almost by accident. Wilbert L. “Bill” Gore, a chemical engineer and avid outdoorsman, left DuPont in 1958 to experiment on polymers in the Delaware home where he and his wife, Vieve, raised their five children. It was a “slipshod operation,” Susan later told students at Liberty University, with kitchen appliances standing in for lab equipment. Then one night in 1969, her older brother, Bob, was tinkering when he yanked a piece of Teflon. Instead of tearing, the substance transformed into a new, breathable, and waterproof material—Gore-Tex. By 1986, W.L. Gore & Associates was doing $300 million in annual sales, with factories on three continents.

But in the eyes of the family, the company’s biggest breakthrough was ideological. W.L. Gore eschewed the traditional organizational pyramid for a “lattice” system. Employees, known as “associates” no matter their salary, owned company stock and operated with near-total autonomy. Instead of bosses, they had “sponsors”—senior colleagues who acted as mentors. “We don’t manage people here,” Bill Gore said in 1982. “People manage themselves.”

The family patriarch wasn’t simply disrupting corporate bureaucracy. What Inc.magazine called “un-management” was an entire way of living—a philosophy of deconcentrated power and individual responsibility. In one early manifesto, Bill traced the lattice system to tribal societies. He gave talks about rejecting “authoritarian hierarchy” and doubling the capacity of the brain. It was possible to see in the company’s style a vaguely lefty notion of worker power, but while the Gores could be crunchy in their ways, the vibe was more libertarian. Bill described himself as a “radical progressive conservative.” He was a free-enterprise evangelist and fierce critic of welfare who counted Ayn Rand as a friend. He believed smaller was better and that the best decision-making existed far from centralized power. That extended to the ownership of the company itself; in a book-length history of W.L. Gore, Bob emphasized his parents’ belief in the importance of using trusts to circumvent “death taxes”—allowing the family to stay in control, free from outside interference.

Susan never matched Bob’s involvement in the lab, but her father’s ethos shaped her in its own way. At Middlebury College, she studied the psychological behavior of rats and married a classmate named Jan Charles Otto, who would briefly work for W.L. Gore. They eventually bought a farmhouse outside Montpelier, Vermont, where Susan taught special education at a school they founded with other parents. She sold shares of W.L. Gore stock to pay the bills, while Jan held a series of odd jobs and collected motorcycles—until finally, after three kids and one bitter divorce, she decided it was time to do for human consciousness what her family had done for the raincoat.

Gore first began meditating in the spring of 1973, after returning from a life-altering trip to Nepal. “I had seen that just as there are millions of shades of color, so there are millions of shades of human perception,” she later wrote, “and that all humanity, no matter of what perception, moves toward expansion of life.”

Transcendental Meditation, originally a destination for counterculture seekers after its founding by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, took on a more professional hue in the ’70s, as studies touting the benefits of the relaxation ritual found their way into sources as mainstream as The Merv Griffin Show. In a 1975 letter to the editor of her local newspaper, Gore wrote that she was “something of a closet meditator.” But she wanted readers to know it wasn’t a “religious” undertaking, as detractors alleged. She compared the practice to getting a good night’s sleep, and said it sharpened her guitar playing.

As her marriage frayed, Gore grew more invested in TM’s potential. “It offers the ultimate in terms of versatility of application,” she wrote in an essay. Using W.L. Gore’s culture of experimentation as a “reference point,” she looked for “a way to use the TM technology to improve the quality of life in my home state.” In California, a TM practitioner named George Ellis was running a pilot program at San Quentin Prison. Early results suggested that the technique might reduce inmates’ stress levels. Gore invited him to Montpelier, and with the support of the movement and promises to bankroll the program, persuaded the state to let her teach TM to a trial group of 310 inmates and 100 corrections staffers.

Gore pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the effort and produced a documentary that she hoped would convince other states to copy Vermont’s model. “Anyone with vision can change society for the better,” she says in the film. “It doesn’t matter where he or she is located in society. One single person who comprehends the usefulness of certain actions can improve society.”

 

Lively Scout

But of course, it helps if that person owns a fortune in W.L. Gore stock. As Gore’s involvement deepened, she offered to build a TM halfway house and spend as much as $6 million on a 150-bed prison in Vermont to be operated by a team of TM teachers. The state balked. (So did the Maharishi’s organization, which believed meditators should empty jails, not build them.) But Gore found other opportunities. In the early 1980s, a few years after the Maharishi issued a call for practitioners to move to Fairfield, Iowa, the home of his new university and meditation center, Gore packed her things, and eventually bought a million-­dollar home outside of town.

Rick Archer, who moved to Fairfield around this time, and who remembers Gore as “kind of a star” in the movement, said the thinking was that “if large numbers meditated together as a group, it would generate an influence on the collective consciousness” of the region. Meditators flocked to nations plagued by conflict or political upheaval, like Israel, South Africa, and Iran; Gore herself began spending heavily on programs in Central America.

Not long before Bill’s death in 1986, he and Vieve flew to Guatemala to see what she was up to. Susan rented out the top floor of the Camino Real Hotel and chartered helicopters with private security to show off her operations in the countryside, Ellis recalls. There was an agricultural initiative, a training program for TM instructors, and another jail project. In a government filing, Gore’s new philanthropic organization—S.W. Gore & Associates—explained that it was in the business of “enlivening the full potential of the human mind.”

“She really had a lot of integrity, and she was extremely intelligent and very compassionate,” says Ellis, a close friend and adviser during these years. But Ellis also feared she was “easily influenced” and that she needed protection “from her own generosity.”

And TM could entice a lot of generosity. The Maharishi encouraged wealthy benefactors, dubbed “the om percent” by one ex-member, to devote more resources to various TM programs. When meditators started their own political movement, the Natural Law Party, and began nominating candidates for federal office, Gore made a large donation. The party’s platform envisioned a strike force of “Yogic Flyers” who would solve systemic problems through meditation—and the elimination of the Electoral College.

But by the mid-1990s, Gore would later say, she was “in very, very bad shape.” She had developed a serious long-term illness that she blamed on TM, according to court records from her family’s estate dispute, and she came to believe that if she didn’t get out, she would die. Gore quit the movement and hunkered down at a Franciscan retreat center and a Cistercian monastery. For three years, she did almost nothing.

Wyoming was a natural place for Gore to start over. Her mother had grown up there, and members of the family would go on long hiking trips in the Wind River Range. She arrived in Cheyenne in 1996, and not long after, two of her sons followed, using a holding company named for their mother to purchase a horse-and-cattle ranch outside Lander.

As Gore recuperated, one of the first things she had to figure out was her finances. In addition to what she’d spent on TM projects, she had also burned millions on her sons’ businesses. By 1999, according to court records, she was nearly bankrupt.

Gore wrote to her mother and asked for a bailout from a family trust so she could enjoy, as she put it, her “rightful abundance.” Her mother acquiesced. Soon, Susan was back to living comfortably—summering in Europe and paying upward of $12,000 a month to a woman who worked as her spiritual adviser. But there was still the matter of her children. When Susan hired her youngest son, Nathan Otto, to analyze her estate, he discovered that he and his brothers were set to inherit a lot less money than their cousins.

Bill and Vieve’s estate divided a key trust by the number of grandchildren in each family, with larger families getting more shares per grandchild. Susan had three children. Each of her siblings had four. The assumption had been that grandchildren with fewer siblings would each inherit more stock from their parents—except that Susan had already disposed of most of hers. Susan and Nathan approached Vieve at her 90th birthday party, hoping to persuade her to change the formula. Instead, her mother threw a “demonic tantrum,” as Susan recounted to her spiritual adviser. Unable to change Vieve’s mind, Susan decided to adopt a fourth son.

According to court records, she first tried to pay one of her sons’ friends $30,000 to serve as a “space filler” in the trust, with the understanding that he would be de-adopted once a new agreement was struck. But when she got to the courthouse she called the adoption off. When Jan Charles Otto heard about the predicament, he emailed Nathan.

“You might as well adopt me,” he wrote.

It was a joke. Susan and Jan had barely spoken in decades. He’d remarried. And there was the complication that adopting one’s ex-husband would be, as Susan put it, a “mind blaster.” But lots of things that will blast your mind are still legal in Wyoming. Nathan wrote back within hours to tease the idea out.

“I have to say that this all has an Alice-­in-Wonderland quality to it,” Jan replied. He was willing to go forward but offered a bit of fatherly advice: “I worry that it might backfire against the three of you, and just make a bad situation worse. I am not concerned for myself—but just be damned sure there aren’t any serious unintended consequences.”

“P.S.,” he added. “Does this mean I will become your step-brother?”

Susan had reservations about the adoption, telling Jan that she feared the “tainted karma” of playing “the grasping game” for money. But in the summer of 2003, she went ahead and signed the papers in Cheyenne. Rather than informing her siblings about her big news, she decided to keep the adoption secret until after Vieve’s death. While Jan had given his word that he would redistribute his inheritance to his sons and their cousins, Susan decided against putting anything in writing. Jan, anxious about his finances, fantasized in his journal about what he could buy if he kept his share. After Vieve died in 2005, Susan, panicking, asked her actual sons if she should “unadopt” their father. But before they could decide, the secret spilled out. Susan’s brother Bob, then chair of W.L. Gore, tried to push her off the company’s board of directors, and Susan took the issue of Jan’s adoption to Delaware court.

The case was ugly and dragged on for years. One grandchild testified that Vieve had said that the “vultures” were trying to get her to alter the family trust.

At the 2011 trial, Gore was soft-spoken and had a habit of contesting what she had already said under oath. While her sons bristled on the stand, Susan projected a mild amusement that made her sound more like an audience member invited onstage at a magic show than a witness under cross-examination. When an opposing lawyer pointed out one of her many inconsistencies, she replied, “You’re an amazing deposer!”

The adoption gambit failed. A judge ruled in 2011 that Jan Charles Otto (who died a few years later) was not a grandchild for the purposes of the trust. Bob, amid the estate drama, finally succeeded in jettisoning his sister from W.L. Gore’s board. But by then, she had found a new preoccupation. At the trial, one of the attorneys asked about her work history.

“I founded the Wyoming Liberty Group about a year ago,” Gore replied. “We are very proud of ourselves. We just were cited in a Supreme Court majority opinion. Citizens United.”

Aside from her dalliance with the Natural Law Party and writing a few checks to the Libertarian Party, Gore had never shown much interest in politics. Her primary contribution to the discourse during her first decade in Wyoming was a 1999 letter to the editor of a Cheyenne newspaper condemning the Pokémon movie. The “joyless” film was a form of “addictive indoctrination,” she wrote, that “features willful domination, the group as a source of meaning in life, the conformity to the group, darkness, imprisonment, machines, psychic warfare, and confusion.”

Gore’s gateway to deeper political engagement was Ron Paul. The Texas congressman’s 2008 presidential bid brought many formerly unaffiliated or third-party voters into the Republican fold—homeschoolers, gun nuts, goldbugs, Austrian economics devotees, and raw-milk enthusiasts—under the aegis of what they called the Liberty Movement.

Bill and Vieve had supported Republicans, though not in particularly extravagant ways. But Susan’s younger brother, David, had been more assertive; in the early 1990s, he’d started a libertarian-leaning nonprofit in Oregon called the Cascade Policy Institute, part of a constellation of conservative think tanks called the State Policy Network. With her brother’s outfit as a model, Gore launched the Wyoming Liberty Group in 2008. Because of the state’s size and proclivities, she would later tell a local paper, “Wyoming offers a real opportunity to be a real center of liberty.”

At her new think tank, Gore’s management style often reflected her father’s “people manage themselves” ethos. “She was a good boss, in the sense that she wanted the talent she brought on board to stretch their wings and work,” says Sven Larson, a longtime economist at the organization. Though the institution’s views naturally aligned with conservatives and libertarians, “it was an independent organization, in good part thanks to the fact that Susan Gore wanted to use this lattice principle.”

In the early years, Susan and other WLG staffers and board members participated in an annual gathering at her sons’ ranch called Liberty Fest, where attendees convened to shoot guns, talk policy, and rant about the government from atop a soapbox. Her middle son, Joel Otto, who ran for US Senate in 2012 as the nominee of Wyoming’s right-wing Country Party, and whose views had been hardened by his experience with regulators (secession was not a “terrible idea,” he said in a soapbox rant, before complaining about bureaucrats who wouldn’t let him sell goat milk), sat on the group’s board.

The Wyoming Liberty Group was emblematic of the way conservative donors influenced the democratic process in the Obama era—by organizing nationally to stretch dollars at the state and local levels. Corporations and rich Republicans showered organizations like the State Policy Network and the American Legislative Exchange Council with cash, while simultaneously funneling record amounts to local candidates who’d give them an audience. In a state like Wyoming, where 1,500 votes get a seat in the legislature and part-time lawmakers earn a few thousand dollars a year, a little went a long way. Gore’s group, which received funding from the Koch brothers-linked Donors Trust, hired lobbyists, published white papers, hosted forums, and filed lawsuits. To draft WLG’s brief in support of Citizens United, she enlisted an attorney named Benjamin Barr. Gore and Barr would eventually launch a spinoff legal organization called the Pillar of Law Institute, with another attorney, Steve Klein, that focused on challenging campaign finance rules they considered onerous. Klein and Barr also took on another client during this time: Project Veritas, the organization formed by James O’Keefe that conducts hidden-camera stings on journalists and campaigns.

But Gore wasn’t content with just winning the war of ideas; she wanted to clean house. Politics in Wyoming had, for a long time, been less nationalized than in states with competitive partisan elections. With party affiliation more or less moot—just nine of 90 state legislators are Democrats—coalitions and fault lines formed largely around local interests such as minerals or ranching. But the line of polarization has increasingly hardened, not between red and blue, but between competing Republican factions. When Gore spoke at a tea party rally in Cheyenne in 2013, she did so behind a lectern featuring an image of a rhino with a red line through it. WLG produced a “Liberty Index” to rate legislators. With hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding, she launched an affiliated group that attacked Republican candidates who didn’t fill out her questionnaire or got low scores. She was a “zealot,” complained Alan Simpson, the state’s former Republican senator, who typified the old Wyoming GOP—not exactly moderate, but less absolutist.

And Gore was mingling with some true believers. Now devoted to Catholicism, in 2014 she spoke by video to a conference put on by the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a conservative Catholic organization based in Italy. (A few years later, the outfit would join forces with Steve Bannon to establish a training academy for right-wing European politicians at a converted 13th-century monastery near Rome—the Italian equivalent of a ranch outside Cody.) The institute credited the Wyoming Liberty Group with providing “generous support” for its Vatican City conference. In her speech, Gore warned that “collectivism” and government attacks on private property rights would ultimately “maim the mystical body of Christ, so as to destroy the very possibility of the salvation of man.” She was developing a worldview in which political adversaries were existential threats.

Gore and a small group of other right-wing donors, including investor Foster Friess, pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into races to swing Wyoming’s legislature away from the RINOs. In 2016, Gore supported Rand Paul in the presidential primary, and later Ted Cruz, but like most Republicans, she ultimately embraced Trump. After he took office, his demand of loyalty began to ripple back to Wyoming. Erik Prince, another wealthy donor whose family owned property in the state, flirted with a primary challenge to Sen. John Barrasso, whom Trump supporters such as Bannon had identified as a squish. Friess (who died in 2021) ran for governor himself in 2018 as an “unapologetically” conservative Trump backer. During the primary, some Democrats, including Better Wyoming’s Nate Martin, talked openly about changing their registration to vote for one of the more moderate Republicans, such as Mark Gordon, whom they believed would be easier to work with on issues like renewable energy. Gordon won, and his opponents cried foul. “Democrats have been able to control our elections [by] putting on a Republican coat,” Friess alleged.

The Liberty Group’s budget had grown fivefold since its founding, and its experts continued to churn out papers and lobby the legislature against tax increases and government spending. But after Gordon’s victory, one ex-staffer recalled that Gore would talk openly about going after “liberal Republicans and Democrats.” The public-facing advocacy and activism work began to take a lower profile. One day in the fall of 2019, Sven Larson learned he was being laid off. “I didn’t really understand why she did it at the time,” he says. “Before the end of the year the entire policy department was gone.”

By that point, according to records obtained by the New York Times, the secret operation Gore was funding to spy on elected officials, organizers, and donors in Wyoming had been underway for months. Prince, whose company was banned from doing business in Iraq after its contractors killed 17 civilians in Nisour Square (one security guard was convicted of first-­degree murder, and three others were convicted of voluntary manslaughter), had grown deeply involved in domestic politics during the Trump era. His sister, Betsy DeVos, served as Trump’s education secretary, while he forged a close relationship with Bannon, the president’s chief strategist. The evolving Republican Party had use for someone with his particular set of skills and connections.

In a memo to Bannon during the 2016 election, which federal investigators obtained as part of Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe, Prince urged the next administration to embrace the “dark arts,” including “covert action, sabotage, [and] information war,” in its dealings with foreign adversaries. Stateside, a new Watergatization of the conservative movement was well underway. Trump won the presidency with the help of a Russian government hacking operation and was later impeached for pressuring the government of Ukraine to launch investigations to kneecap Joe Biden. According to the Mueller report, Prince back-channeled with Roger Stone in the runup to WikiLeaks’ release of the stolen Democratic National Committee trove. Investigators detailed how he paid to test the provenance of another batch of emails that, falsely, purported to be Hillary Clinton’s State Department missives. Trump’s GOP embraced such work as a mainstream function of national politics, as legitimate as casting votes—and depending on who was casting those votes, more legitimate. The people operating in this murky realm were cultural icons. Stone, who cut his teeth working for Richard Nixon and has a large portrait of the disgraced ex-president tattooed on his back, wore a shirt that said “Roger Stone Did Nothing Wrong” when he was arrested for lying to Congress; you could find people wearing the same shirt outside MAGA gatherings. Project Veritas’ funding jumped fourfold during the Trump era, according to the group’s IRS filings. The dark arts weren’t so dark anymore; they were celebrated by the White House itself.

In 2017, Prince invited O’Keefe and a group of Project Veritas trainees to his family’s ranch, where they were joined by an acquaintance from Prince’s Blackwater days—a former MI6 officer named Richard Seddon. Aspiring operatives piled onto the property near Yellowstone National Park to learn basic undercover work. With an actual spy on board—Seddon eventually served as Project Veritas’ interim field director, according to court records—Project Veritas took on more ambitious projects in Washington, including an operation to collect dirt on “deep state” officials. Seddon left the group in 2018, and that summer, according to the Times, he and Prince pitched Gore on a new undercover project based in her home state, to be funded by her and other donors. (Neither Prince nor Seddon responded to requests for comment.)

Seddon, who had worked for Project Veritas as an independent contractor, is something of a ghost. A Project Veritas official said in a deposition that he did not know Seddon’s age, nationality, or even where he lived. Nor did anyone else. A researcher with the American Federation of Teachers, tasked with tracking Seddon down so he could be served a subpoena, said in an affidavit that he searched for three years before turning up an address; Seddon had masked his location with mail-forwarding services and trusts. Even his car was owned through an anonymous LLC. And good luck trying to find a photo. The people he’d trained, however, were less proficient. When conservative operatives Beau Maier and Sofia LaRocca began infiltrating Wyoming’s small circle of Democrats in 2019, their behavior often raised eyebrows.

LaRocca networked her way into an unpaid gig running a tiny PAC called Wyoming Progress, which was founded by Olaus Linn, a graphic designer from Teton County who publishes a snowboarding magazine. One of the group’s projects was a voter-registration drive called Flip Wyoming. Aware of the long odds but caught up in Resistance fervor, Linn hoped to gain traction among the growing population of Democrats and transplants clustered around Jackson Hole. The PAC had no money, and LaRocca was brought on to try to raise some. She didn’t, Linn told me. And he remembered being confused about why the first email she gave him used a different name entirely—Cat Deabreu. She offered the true but not entirely satisfying explanation that it was a family name. She left the job after less than a year. By then, she had leveraged the role into a spot in Martin’s Better Wyoming Grassroots Institute, an eight-week organizing school for activists. Sofia Deabreu, as her new bio identified her, used the program to network with more activists and candidates, including Marcie Kindred, whose campaign for the state legislature she volunteered on. (When she met Provenza in the fall of 2019, she was finally using her real surname of LaRocca.) While Democrats were happy to talk, they were sometimes perplexed by what LaRocca and her fiancé wanted to talk about.

One day, when Provenza and Martin had gotten to know the couple a bit better, Maier requested a meeting with them at a co-working space in Laramie. Maier wouldn’t say what it was about. When they arrived, he told them to turn off their phones.

“He kind of pitched us on this operation where what he was describing was what he was actually doing to us,” Martin says. “He and his military friends would target up-and-coming Republicans and kind of do deep background intelligence work on them so that they could hold onto it and expose it when the time was right.”

Later, he suggested that the two couples spend a weekend at a cabin in the woods to hash out this plan. Martin and Provenza declined both offers, and their suspicions flared again when a group calling itself “Wyo RINO Hunters” posted a secretly recorded video of a Better Wyoming meeting, which, according to the Times, had been filmed by yet another operative.

Former state Rep. Sara Burlingame, the executive director of the LGBTQ rights group Wyoming Equality, got a similar pitch from LaRocca where she “skirted around the idea of ‘We need to take a page from their playbook, we have to fight back hard, and we should infiltrate their meetings and we should record them,’” Burlingame recalls. “I was sort of like, ‘Ohhhh, no we shouldn’t.’”

She found it strange when she learned that LaRocca was still living in Fort Collins, Colorado, while running a group called Wyoming Progress. (LaRocca claimed she couldn’t find a place that would allow her dog.) Burlingame says she offered the young activist a bit of political advice: “You have to be the thing you say you are.”

“Which is really ironic, in hindsight,” she says. “I don’t know if the Germans have a word for it when you don’t know when you’re being prescient. Maybe it’s called ‘being a dupe.’”

This wasn’t exactly John le Carré. If the undercover work of LaRocca and Maier, neither of whom responded to requests for comment, had anything going for it, it was that it was such an obviously bad idea that people would assume it had to be something else. Eventually, after enough of this awkward networking, people just stop asking why your bio reads like it was written by AI, or why you live in another state, or why you keep using different names. They think maybe you’re just a little weird and pass you on to the next person.

“We had this strong suspicion that they were moles, but we could never figure out why,” Martin says. “Like, why would anyone go to the trouble of this elaborate program targeting Better Wyoming? It seemed frankly too absurd to be real.”

The answer, in some ways, was that Democratic candidates and cannabis activists weren’t the only targets—they were also a means to get to even bigger prizes. One reported conceit of the operation was to smoke out a hidden connection between liberal donors and voters, and more moderate Republicans—the alliance that conservative activists had blamed for Gordon’s victory in 2018. Gordon was reportedly a target too. So was at least one Republican legislator. There were plans to expand the spy operation beyond Wyoming. LaRocca and Maier—whose campaign contributions and networking got them access to a Democratic presidential debate in Nevada—were just two spokes of an operation that could, in theory, uncover damaging documentation about all sorts of people.

To the project’s defenders, the duplicity of Democrats—what Friess described as Democrats “putting on a Republican coat”—offered a twisted justification: If they’re allowed to influence our campaigns, why can’t we secretly interfere with theirs? But even then, the gambit didn’t make a ton of sense. For one thing, the stakes were comically low: Republicans hold a seemingly unbreakable supermajority in the Wyoming legislature, in a state with little national electoral significance.

If Wyoming Progress’ “Flip Wyoming” drive put a name to Gore’s and Friess’ fears, it also clarified how secure they were; Linn’s PAC had so little help that he unwittingly hired a spy. Some Democrats did try to help elect Gordon, but it is not unusual or especially nefarious for outnumbered constituencies to cross the aisle to advance their cause; “voting” is the foundation of the democratic process, not a corruption of it.

“It’s kind of funny—not funny ‘haha,’ but funny ‘sad,’” one Wyoming-based Republican lobbyist told me. “There’s so much fear, there’s so much concern about maintaining their power, that it shows up as paranoia and anger. And it doesn’t need to be this way—not in a state this small.”

“We have to live and work with each other all the time,” says Tom Lubnau, a former Republican speaker of the House. “There’s not a lot of room for subterfuge or lying. Everybody knows what everybody else is doing. You’ll lose your credibility very, very quickly.” His judgment of the operation Gore funded: “I just thought it was a fundamental misunderstanding about the state of Wyoming.”

Indeed, at various points in her life, Gore has struggled to vet such investments and to anticipate how they might go bad. She gave away a fortune in stock to a husband who, she testified in court, had already been planning to leave her. She blew through her own fortune on Transcendental Meditation and shaky investments.

At the Wyoming Liberty Group, a former staffer recalled, people asked her to write checks for their cause, tailoring their pitches to what they thought she wanted to hear. She was prone to “creative spurts,” the staffer said, but her ability to evaluate the merits of projects and stay on top of them could vary: “There were times where it was like she was super sharp on things, and then there were other times where she just lost interest…I’m still wondering if they preyed on her on this one.”

Ellis, her collaborator on the prison programs, believes people “would just take advantage of her because of her money.” The Gore fortune, he says, was also “a curse.”

Lively Scout

In early 2021, a few months after LaRocca and Maier ghosted on their new friends, but before their photos appeared in the Times, Gore showed up to a committee hearing in Cheyenne to testify against two proposals to legalize medical marijuana—one of which was co-sponsored by Provenza, one of the Democrats she’d been paying the couple to spy on.

After confessing that in the 1970s she’d “had the experience of inhaling and experiencing the dopamine rush,” Gore said that she was there “to plead for the brains of the children of Wyoming.” She told a story about a friend who had recently needed to find a babysitter at the last minute. “She called 30 mothers in the area,” Gore said. “Every single one said she was using marijuana.” She said it “rewired” children’s brains and warned that edibles were being marketed to kids. The chair, a Republican whose campaign Gore had supported, told her he was surprised she hadn’t sent a lobbyist. Eventually, he cut her off.

It would be Gore’s last public appearance for some time. Her patronage of the dark arts coincided with an almost complete disappearance from public view. The Wyoming Liberty Group, which did not respond to requests for comment, has produced little in the last two years beyond a few blog posts and a podcast series featuring still another son, Jan Peter Otto, co-founder of a Miami luxury rental car company, about election security. On the day the Times story broke, one of the group’s last lobbyists quit. The Pillar of Law Institute, the organization Gore founded with O’Keefe’s attorneys, has also gone dormant.

Weeks after the scandal broke, Gore finally released a statement saying that she was a victim of “disinformation.” The story was “much ado about nothing—like a hamburger that makes your mouth water, but when you pick it up for a bite, you discover that the bun is empty,” she wrote. “It’s a nothingburger. And as we all know, anything without substance doesn’t exist.” She did not elaborate on what, if anything, the story got wrong. She also did not respond to Mother Jones requests for comment.

Her son Joel Otto, a founding Wyoming Liberty Group board member, publicly defended the operation. “So what are the Democrats and other ‘targets’ really worried about?” he wrote in a comment at WyoFile, a nonprofit news organization. “Is there something they want to hide? I get that the ‘spies’ were misrepresenting their views to gain access. Not the first time we’ve heard about lies in politics. It’s a dirty business.” He noted that WyoFile itself received funding from a prominent Democratic donor—an open fact, but one he cited with an air of conspiracy.

This was a common refrain among conservatives in response to the scandal: Politics is messy, deal with it. But it’s not what spies might have unearthed that has their targets freaking out. Progressives in Wyoming, after all, don’t exactly feel pressured to self-censor. What’s shaken them is the invasiveness of it all, the projection behind the premise—that an increasingly paranoid notion of what politics is supposed to be has caused some irreparable fracture to what politics in their state actually is.

“I’m confident I don’t have anything to worry about—and it was still a violation. It was still an erosion of trust. If you don’t call it out, it’s an erosion of democracy,” says Burlingame, the former state representative. “There’s no such thing as a society or system that can have that much craven duplicity built into it and normalized. It just can’t. And the idea that that would be normal in Wyoming? We literally adopted the ‘Code of the West’ as our state official code. Other states don’t have codes!”

Burlingame isn’t exaggerating. Wyoming’s state code shares its name with a Zane Grey novel. The Code of the West came up again and again in response to the scandal. It is deeply ingrained in the state’s political culture—even the Wyoming Liberty Group’s lawyers exalted it. The last line of the code is “know where to draw the line,” and for decades, even as Wyoming Republicans ran up the score, election after election, there were still some lines they didn’t cross.

As Burlingame points out, the last time anti-LGBTQ legislation was signed into law was 1977—not because of some progressive notion of equality, but because the reflexive aversion to government intrusion was just that strong. “We’re conservative, but we’re kind of ‘leave-each-­other-alone’ conservative,” as Lubnau, the former House speaker, puts it. It was an intimate political culture—the kind of place where you could knock on the governor’s door and he might answer himself.

Meanwhile, Wyoming Republicans are in the midst of a public and volatile crack-up. An effort, started by Friess and backed by Trump, to end crossover voting failed in the legislature, but the state party has leaned into Trump’s rhetoric and become a major battleground in the fight for the future of his movement. After being censured by local officials last year for voting to impeach Trump, Rep. Liz Cheney faces a bitter primary challenge, with much of the state’s conservative movement mobilized against her. The state GOP voted to rescind her status as a Republican. The party chair was on the Mall on January 6, and his name appeared on a leaked Oath Keepers membership roster. A county Republican official told a Republican state senator she should kill herself, because she voted against a measure that would have banned vaccine mandates. The state GOP recently passed a resolution opposing the constitutional principle of “one person, one vote,” and stripped Wyoming’s two largest counties of almost all of their representation at the party convention.

For years, Wyoming conservatives have feared that what makes the state’s political culture unique is under threat from the insidious liberal forces of the Outside. The Wyoming Liberty Group warned that legal weed would turn the state into Colorado. Not far from the Prince ranch, you can find a billboard telling liberal transplants, “Don’t California Our Cody.” But the challenge to the state’s values right now isn’t coming from the left. Gore, who got into GOP politics to promote a new age of liberty, who exalted privacy and the autonomy of the home and local control and transparency as her group’s core principles, managed, by backing one keystone-cops operation, to challenge all those things. “Everything that we had done was sort of shattered at that point,” says Larson, adding he felt “betrayed” when he read about the operation. In the process, Gore accomplished something more profound than any of her previous political work has: She was so afraid of a plot to change her state that she didn’t stop until she’d funded one herself.

One Monday in March, Gore finally reemerged in Cheyenne, first at a town hall for Cheney’s Trump-endorsed opponent, Harriet Hageman, and later in the day to testify at the Capitol against a proposed nuclear power plant—her first speaking appearance since the scandal. When Provenza heard that Gore was in the building, she decided to drop by the committee room. After the meeting, the legislators mingled by the dais, and a Republican lawmaker who knew them both introduced Provenza to Gore.

“You paid over a million dollars to have spies sent to my home,” Provenza told her. (Gore’s actual contribution to the undercover operation has not been reported.)

“I know,” Gore replied, according to Provenza, shaking her hand. “I made you famous.”

With that curt admission, Gore turned and left.

The next day, the Wyoming Republican Party unveiled the keynote speaker for its upcoming convention—an activist who had embraced the state as a political training ground, and in turn been embraced by it. Tickets started at just $20, the party announced, for an afternoon with James O’Keefe.

More Mother Jones reporting on Dark Money

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