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Support this bill or else: Idaho lawmakers cite pressure from ‘wealthy’ campaign donor

Idaho lawmakers recounted receiving a clear, straightforward threat: Vote against this bill, and I’ll bankroll your next opponent.

As a controversial bill to implement mandatory minimum prison sentences for fentanyl crimes made its way through the House last month, several key lawmakers reported having uncomfortable experiences with interested parties that amounted to a pressure campaign.

Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, told the Idaho Statesman she was approached by a “person with a lot of money” who told her he would help her opponent in the upcoming election if she voted against the bill, House Bill 406. House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said Republicans have been threatened by “a very wealthy individual.” They both declined to name the person.

“That is way over the top,” Boyle said of the threats. “One person is not the constituent of every single legislator.”

Two sources who work in the Capitol told the Statesman that one influential behind-the-scenes figure made at least some of those threats to lawmakers: Larry Williams, a wealthy Boise businessman who spends heavily on state political races. A third source corroborated those accounts.

The third source and a fourth — both elected officials — told the Statesman that Paul Jagosh, a lobbyist for the Fraternal Order of Police, suggested to lawmakers that the organization would try to unseat opponents of the bill. The sources said that Jagosh intimated that they could wield influence and money in the upcoming elections. All four sources spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Jagosh told the Statesman by text that he “absolutely” did not tell lawmakers the FOP would try to unseat people who voted against the bill. Williams did not respond to requests for comment.

Bryan Lovell, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, in an interview told the Statesman the FOP was not “involved in any of that.” Lovell said he has heard allegations that lobbyists were “badgering” legislators.

“We found ourselves wondering who exactly they were talking about; we didn’t participate in any of that,” he said, and denied that the organization has influence over campaign funds other than its own, the Idaho FOP PAC.

Idaho official warns of bribes, threats

As threats made the rounds in the Capitol last month, word got to Secretary of State Phil McGrane, who sent a letter to lobbyists warning them about the criminal penalties for bribes and threats. Idaho law on bribery prohibits any financial benefit offered on the condition of a public official’s decision, vote “or other exercise of discretion.”

McGrane told the Statesman that at least some of the “cryptic” complaints he received were about the fentanyl bill. The legislation had ample support from lawmakers, with 50 co-sponsors, and the backing of the state’s law enforcement.

Despite its wide support, a number of Republicans questioned the effectiveness of harsh mandatory minimum sentences and the potential of drug-induced homicide charges against teenagers in the bill, and advocates of sentencing reform lined up in opposition to it. The drug-induced homicide provision would allow a homicide charge against anyone who provides illegal drugs that cause a death.

It was the lawmakers who had questions about the consequences of expanding criminal laws around fentanyl who were subjected to the pressure campaign, Rubel said.

“A lot of Republican lawmakers have expressed fear to me that there is a very wealthy individual who will spend heavily against them if they oppose this bill,” she told the Statesman.

The bill cleared its final hurdle in the Legislature after it overwhelmingly passed in the Senate and would become law with Gov. Brad Little’s approval. A spokesperson for Little did not respond to a question about whether he plans to sign the bill.

Larry Williams influences political campaigns

Flyers in favor of the bill, distributed to lawmakers during a House debate, were linked to a political action committee Williams supports. The flyer, a copy of which the Statesman obtained, was paid for by the Gem State Legacy Fund, a nonprofit registered to Joseph Forney, who is also the treasurer of the Preserve Idaho Values PAC, a political action committee formed in November. Williams donated $100,000 to the PAC in December, according to state campaign finance records.

The Legacy Fund also paid for radio ads encouraging residents to reach out to their lawmakers and voice their support for the bill, and hired Sullivan and Reberger, a prominent lobbying firm.

In a statement through a spokesperson, Forney told the Statesman that the PAC and legacy fund are “two different organizations.”

Boyle said she “did not appreciate” that the flyers distributed about the bill declared that “you either back the blue, or you back drug cartels.”

“I am very opposed to drugs, but it’s not an either-or kind of thing,” Boyle said.

Williams has been linked to influential political campaigns in the past. Three state senators running for reelection in 2022 told the Idaho Capital Sun that their votes against a charter school bill had prompted the Boise businessman to make large donations to their political opponents. Those three senators — Jeff Agenbroad, Carl Crabtree and Jim Woodward — ultimately lost their seats.

In 2022 and 2023, Williams donated a total of at least $44,000 to Republican candidates for the Legislature, according to state records. In many instances, those donations were matched with another $33,000 from his wife, Marianne.

Four companies, which all have the same P.O. Box as Williams, donated at least a combined $34,000 to legislative candidates in 2022 and 2023. All four companies are registered to William Mulder, who has worked as a proxy for Williams at the Capitol.

Williams, his wife and companies associated with him altogether donated at least $111,000 to legislative candidates over those two years, plus the $100,000 given to the Preserve Idaho Values PAC. Other donations went to Republican candidates for statewide office, while more still went to other political action committees and the Idaho Republican Party. Idaho law allows maximum donations to candidates of $1,000 per person, per election, but donations to PACs are unlimited.

‘Incredibly intense’ pressure

The fentanyl bill was hotly debated publicly and received support from the Fraternal Order of Police and other law enforcement, as well as opposition from supporters of prison reform.

Lovell, the FOP spokesperson, said his organization supports the bill because it would bring state laws about illegal fentanyl into line with other controlled substances and deter trafficking. Studies have found mandatory minimums to be largely ineffective at deterring crime.

Once the bill got a hearing in a House committee, knowledge of the pressure around the bill reached the committee’s chairman.

“It’s reported to me by some of my committee members, though I haven’t experienced it myself, that lobbyists on both sides of this bill have been rude and somewhat threatening,” Rep. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, said at the hearing. “Stop that.”

Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, at the same hearing, described the pressure coming from the bill as “incredibly intense.”

“Members of this committee have been subjected to hints that some out there might run negative ad campaigns as early as October, before we even had bills in front of us,” she said.

Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, also told the Statesman that “some groups” informed him they would spend money against his campaign if he didn’t support the bill.

Rep. Marco Erickson, R-Idaho Falls, told the Statesman he also experienced inappropriate pressure from groups that opposed the fentanyl bill. He works in drug prevention and said one opponent of the bill told him they could introduce him to funders of drug prevention programs with “deep pockets.” He said they have since apologized.

“What happened on that bill was unacceptable on so many levels,” he said. “In this case we saw aggression and mean-spirited, rude behavior and threats.”

Boyle told the Statesman she understands emotions can run high in debates about bills. But she said pressure campaigns shouldn’t be tied directly to candidate donations.

“I will vote how I think is the correct way to vote, and I don’t want your money influencing me,” she said.