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Eye on Boise: Smear flier targets GOP lieutenant governor hopeful

By Betsy Russell Idaho Press-Tribune

A campaign flier that landed in Idaho voters’ mailboxes late last week attacks GOP lieutenant governor hopeful Steve Yates, claiming that the former Idaho Republican Party chairman is “a highly paid registered foreign agent.”

It also claimed he has “agents funneling cash to his campaign to buy power in Idaho,” featuring a photo of him appearing to be spattered with mud in front of a Taiwanese flag, and asking “What ELSE is Steve hiding” under excerpts from an email that his wife sent a close, now-deceased friend three years ago talking about financial worries.

Eastern Idaho GOP circles are abuzz over the full-color, two-sided mailing, which was sent out by a PAC called “Idahoans Fighting Corruption,” whose sole funding sources, according to its campaign finance report, are Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith, a construction company owned by Idaho Falls GOP activist Doyle Beck, and GOP activist Mike Duff.

Spiking the interest, the email from Yates’ wife in 2015 was to the late Sheila Olsen, a revered figure in Idaho GOP politics and a close friend and confidante of Steve Yates and his wife, Diana; Sheila Olsen died in February at the age of 79.

Nathan Olsen, Sheila’s son, said his sister, Maria Nate, is the source of the email from their late mother. “My sister Maria forwarded it. … I can confirm that she’s the origination of this,” he said. “My mother was very sick, so she wasn’t aware. … Her health was declining.”

Maria Nate is married to state Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, and is active in far-right GOP politics; she’s a prolific online commenter on matters political.

“The main thing I want to make clear is that my mother held her friends very closely, their relationships, their confidence,” Nathan Olsen said. “She would be mortified if she knew this had happened. I’m just very sorry that this happened, very sorry. My mother just had the utmost respect and admiration for Steve and Diana Yates. They were good friends.”

Yates is in a hotly contested five-way GOP race for the nomination for lieutenant governor; the election is Tuesday.

In 2015, when Yates’ wife sent the email to Olsen, Yates was working as the unpaid state GOP chairman, and his consulting firm had recently lost a major client; however, the firm recovered and still operates today, despite the suggestion in the mailer that his business had failed.

An Idaho Falls businessman who worked in the past at the Department of Defense, the Heritage Foundation, and as Deputy National Security Advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, Yates is fluent in Mandarin and has worked with Taiwan for years, starting when he served there as a Mormon missionary as a young man. The flier – and online ads placed by the same “Idahoans Fighting Corruption” PAC – highlight the Asian names of some of Yates’ campaign donors. A headline atop one side of the flier blares, “Steve Yates is funded by hundreds of Republic of China supporters. What’s in it for them? A corrupt bargain exists.”

Steve Taggart, an Idaho Falls attorney, said, “They’re trying to turn Taiwan into China. It is the ‘Republic of China’ but nobody calls it that.”

Taggart added, “Republicans back Taiwan – that’s generally been the history. … When the communists displaced the Taiwanese, the idea was we will stand behind them to protect them from the People’s Republic.” He added, “I haven’t seen that phrase in, oh, gosh, forever. Nobody calls it the ‘Republic of China.’ It’s just Taiwan.”

In 2005, when Yates left the White House, he worked for 11 months for a GOP lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. with international clients including Taiwan and India. The firm registered everyone on its international staff as a foreign agent; he hasn’t been registered since.

Yates has clashed with Smith and Beck since the two claimed there was a “secret society” working within the state Republican Party, and Beck secretly recorded a conversation with Yates when he was party chairman in an attempt to prove he was part of the society.

Smith challenged 2nd District GOP Rep. Mike Simpson in 2014, losing to him in the primary with 38.4 percent of the vote to Simpson’s 61.6, despite outside spending of more than $850,000 in the race by the Club for Growth, backing Smith.

Yates issued this statement in response to the mailing:

“Shame on Bryan Smith, Doyle Beck and Mike Duff for violating the privacy of my wife’s personal communication from 2015 with a church friend, Sheila Olsen. She is embarrassed and hurt by this. Many small business owners know the ups and downs of business. The violation of my wife’s confidence in talking with a church friend is completely unacceptable.

“Shame on them for engaging in the worst form of racism and McCarthyism in the 21st century. All who have supported my campaign are Americans. They are not Chinese, in fact many are descendants of victims of Chinese Communist aggression. Many of them are Christian conservatives that I and others have engaged over multiple decades to bring them into the Republican Party and encouraged them to support conservative causes. Calling them Chinese agents is more than ignorant – it is racist.”

“I have said from the outset of the campaign that I will respect anyone making the strongest positive case for his or her public service. I am committed to waging a campaign based on issues, not insults – even knowing that I would likely be on the receiving end of these blatant attacks. Sadly, Idaho politics have reached a new low thanks to this smear campaign, funded by Bryan Smith and Doyle Beck. Idaho deserves better than this. Voters deserve better than this.”

Duff called the Idaho Press-Tribune on Friday to say he believed Yates’ campaign donations from out-of-state Chinese-Americans with sympathy for Taiwan – a U.S. ally – were “very suspicious,” and said, “They can’t have an interest in Idaho’s government … because they don’t live here and they’re not from here.”

The Post Register in Idaho Falls reported Friday that Maria Nate called in to a local talk radio show that day and apologized to Yates, her family and her late mother for forwarding the email without her mother’s knowledge. “I disavow it,” she said. “This is not appropriate. We should not be campaigning like this.”

Talk show host Neal Larson decried the mailer, and said, “I feel icky.”

Who funded ‘The Idahoan’?

Campaign finance reports filed last week showed that Matt Rissell and Brandon Zehm of Eagle, co-founders of the time tracking software company TSheets, donated $100,000 each to a political action committee that passed along part of the money to produce and distribute “The Idahoan,” a 48-page newsprint mailer sent out statewide, endorsing far-right candidates in Tuesday’s primary election.

But GOP campaign consultant Lou Esposito, who listed himself and Patrick Malloy as the editors of the typo-riddled “newspaper,” said the two donors covered only “a third or less” of the cost, with the rest funded by unnamed “investors.”

Esposito said there also were a series of “in-kind donations” for advertising in The Idahoan between other PACs he works with: Idaho Chooses Life, Gun PAC and Land PAC.

The two high-tech executives are “not partners in this,” he said. “They had no control of content or anything else.”

The $200,000 the two gave was split, he said, with $100,000 going to The Idahoan and the rest going to other uses including his own fees, “a significant amount of survey research that was done during the session,” and “some other grassroots activity,” including social media and website work. “One hundred thousand of it had nothing to do with The Idahoan,” Esposito said.

“I do have some folks that put money into this and invested,” Esposito said, with plans for three issues a year – one each before the primary and general elections, and one before the legislative session to lay out “what the conservative agenda items should be for the session.”

Esposito said he won’t reveal who his “investors” were. “As the business entity, I don’t need and I’m not required to divulge that because that’s my business,” he said. “That’s the whole point with that – it’s my business.”

The Idahoan is currently under investigation by the Idaho attorney general’s office after the Idaho Democratic Party filed a complaint alleging the publication was really a cleverly disguised campaign mailer, masquerading as a newspaper in order to avoid campaign finance disclosure requirements.

Two of 3 in treasurer race announce endorsements

The race for Idaho’ state treasurer certainly isn’t the highest-profile among the many statewide races on Idaho’s Tuesday ballot, but two of the three candidates have announced some high-profile endorsements.

Republican Tom Kealey, a retired CPA, Boise businessman and 14-year member of the state’s Endowment Fund Investment Board, has been endorsed by state Controller Brandon Woolf; Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder; fourteen other current GOP members of the Idaho Legislature; former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne; the Idaho Association of Realtors; the Idaho Association of General Contractors; the Associated Loggers of Idaho; and the Idaho Retailers Association, among others. The lawmakers lining up behind Kealey include Sens. Agenbroad, Guthrie, Harris, Keough, Lakey, Lee, Lodge, Rice and Siddoway; and Reps. Anderst, Hartgen, Malek and Youngblood.

Meanwhile, GOP hopeful Vicky McIntyre, the current Ada County treasurer, has posted endorsements on her campaign website from current state Treasurer Ron Crane; Ada County Highway District Commissioner Sara Baker, who also is a former Boise city councilor; and Kim Blough of Markim Investments LLC, a Las Vegas firm.

Crane said, “Vicky McIntyre’s eight years of proven experience working for Ada County taxpayers can be directly applied to the same position at the state level.”

The third candidate, former state Rep. Julie Ellsworth, R-Boise, hasn’t announced any endorsements; when asked, she said she’s been endorsed by Idaho Chooses Life.

No Democrats are running for the post.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press-Tribune and Adams Publishing Group.