THE BUZZ: Battle Royale

By on September 6, 2016

Jackson mayoral candidates both find themselves under the microscope as the November election nears.

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – The Town of Jackson is getting a taste of big city politics. Mirroring, perhaps, campaigns playing out on the national stage, the race for mayor of a 102-year-old mountain town has taken on negative undertones. The mayoral campaign mudslinging may not be intentional but the race is hardly short on accusations. The incumbent has had to answer to allegations she is too cozy with former and current clients of her PR consulting firm, Flitner Strategies. Her opponent, meanwhile, finds himself under investigation for a potential felony circa 20 some years ago for writing bad checks.

With two months to go in the mayoral campaign, things have escalated, or devolved, into a political street fight.

For Pete’s sake

Pete Muldoon, 43, was riding high after a strong performance in last month’s primary. The political activist/musician pulled down 780 votes, besting sitting mayor Sara Flitner by 28 tallies. Displeasure with the status quo was augmented by Muldoon’s social media militia—working class followers marching to the beat of his “people first” message. As the valley’s housing crisis intensified, Muldoon co-organized the housing advocacy group Shelter JH and has made housing a key component of his campaign.

Then the hammer dropped.

Dirt on the challenger surfaced last week. His personal history includes a possible felony conviction from 1996, which per Wyoming law prohibits him from holding office in the state. Muldoon insists a felony for writing bad checks in Louisiana is not on his record. According to Louisiana State statute, first-time felony offenders are entitled to an automatic pardon for certain non-violent crimes with the completion of their sentence. Muldoon, however, believes the case was dismissed. “It was more than 20 years ago, my recollection is that I had deferred adjudication, which means you do not get the sentence, so there is no pardon,” Muldoon said. “The way it works, if you get a deferred adjudication, they suspend the judgment of the court. If you agree to the terms then they dismiss the case.”

That the investigation made front-page news blindsided Muldoon, and he says he is none too thrilled with the reporting.

“This story is not about an investigation into my eligibility to run for office. If it was, it would not have included a list of misdemeanors which [the News&Guide] knows have absolutely no bearing on my qualification to run for office,” Muldoon posted on the Jackson Hole Daily’s website. “There is zero public interest served by publishing this story prior to getting the facts right, but as the editor told me yesterday, while it may not be in the public interest, the public is interested—which means it sells ads.”

Muldoon is mostly miffed that a story about a 20-year-old bad check case in Louisiana, if newsy enough to warrant headlines questioning his eligibility to run for mayor, should not have included a “piling on” of irrelevant misdemeanor arrests in Teton County. Muldoon also suggested the paper look into his opponent’s personal life as well.

The mayoral corner

Flitner acknowledged in 2014, while running for mayor, that she would have to artfully balance her day job with the high office. As a consultant and lobbyist for her own company, the 47-year-old says she has turned away numerous clients to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Bear Development is a Kenosha, Wisconsin, real estate development company headed by SR Mills—a former client of Flitner’s. In 2007 Mills attempted to redo the Painted Buffalo Inn into a 156,000-square-foot luxury hotel. That plan was scrapped after a lawsuit.

Mills recently petitioned the town council during its finalization of land development regulations for Jackson’s downtown core. He provided spreadsheet formulas that showed how restrictions were handcuffing developers. The council eventually permitted short-term rentals in certain zones of District 2 including a property dubbed “Jackson’s Hole” (McCabe Corner, 185 N. Glenwood) owned by Mills.

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That move was met with some criticism. A referendum, resulting in the upcoming special election September 20, was launched by the nonprofit Save Historic Jackson Hole. [Reporter Jake Nichols is the executive director of Save Historic Jackson Hole — Ed.]

Rich Bloom also cried foul. The certified financial planner and member of the Town/County Blue Ribbon Panel for Workforce Housing says he has spent more time on the 2012 Comp Plan than any other citizen in the valley. He considers the short-term rental addition a considerable concession in favor of Mills.

Bloom believes the council handed Mills a $3 million gift. Indeed, in Mills’ report to town leaders he stated that tweaking the LDRs would change the project’s profit margin from $29,692 to approximately $3 million during a June 20 Jackson Town Council meeting.

The Planet obtained a document from the office of Flitner Strategies that may indicate the mayor’s work with Mills was still ongoing for a seven-month period beginning in April 2014—right up until the day she took office. The News&Guide was apparently in possession of the same document and pressed the mayor for details.

“The [News&Guide] has been calling and asking around. I’ve heard the rumors. This is getting out of hand,” Flitner said. “I want to be very clear and upfront. I have nothing to hide. I have given up work for the ethics of my role as mayor.”

As for the contract with Mills, Flitner said the 2014 document was neither signed nor executed. She added that the copy of the contract was stolen and leaked by a former disgruntled employee.

“There is no contract. There has never been an executed contract. And never a conflict,” Flitner said. “I could have worked through December of [2014] with ease. I just felt like it wouldn’t look right and I didn’t want to come into office, if I were fortunate enough to win, and have to explain things. I wanted it to be clean.”

Other relationships of the mayor’s have also been called into question. During a recent approval of a cell tower affiliated with AT&T to be constructed in a church steeple, Flitner’s findings and eventual vote caused additional consternation. Jackson town councilman Jim Stanford was frustrated by the rhetoric from AT&T representatives, which were echoed by the mayor, that public safety was the main concern in providing the town with adequate wireless coverage.

“I always get irritated when private business interests are cloaked as public safety concerns. Somehow we all managed to survive before the advent of the cellphone,” Stanford said. “This has nothing to do with bandwidth for emergency personnel. It’s about watching more cat videos.”

Stanford eventually flat out asked Flitner, “I presume you are no longer working for AT&T?”

Flitner said she wasn’t.

“As soon as I was elected mayor, as soon as I was sworn in, my work with AT&T was terminated,” Flitner told The Planet.

Flitner says she has done extensive work through her agency with many nonprofits in the valley. She has worked with the Teton County School District and helped facilitate the park’s attempt to purchase state school inholdings in Grand Teton.

Anonymous tip leads to probe

So who tipped off town and county officials as to Muldoon’s potential felony? Flitner says it wasn’t her.

“Absolutely not. I had nothing to do with it,” Flitner said. “I was as shocked to read to the news as anyone else.”

The Planet, however, managed to track down the origin of the current investigation into Muldoon’s alleged felony record. It came from the Chief of Police.

“During a regular weekly supervisor meeting, a supervisor in the department asked me if I was familiar with Mr. Muldoon, about his moving forward in the primary,” Chief Todd Smith told PJH. “Mr. Muldoon had been arrested by our department on a federal offense for commercial burglary. There was a question about a person holding office with a felony conviction.”

Smith recalled he was actually the arresting officer on the 2001 case but could not remember the disposition of the case, which was deferred after two years of supervised probation. Smith said the files also indicated an out-of-state conviction on a felony. He felt it his sworn duty to report the information to the town clerk.

Acting town clerk Roxanne Robinson said Smith informed her of a prior arrest and criminal matter regarding Muldoon. She personally delivered a handwritten letter to county clerk Sherry Daigle.

“Because Pete files his election paperwork with me I thought it was my duty to contact the county clerk and ask her to research it and see whether he was qualified,” Robinson said. “I asked that it be kept confidential because it could have a damaging impact on him as a candidate. I don’t know who spoke to the newspaper. I think it should have stayed confidential because if it turns out he is qualified to run, what good does that serve?”

Daigle said her office contacted no one in the press. Smith, too, said it wasn’t his department. In fact, he informed his officers they would be fired if he found out they leaked any information regarding the Muldoon investigation.

Deputy prosecutor Becket Hinckley said it wasn’t him, either. “[News&Guide reporter Emily Mieure] came in and asked if I could confirm or deny whether Pete Muldoon was a felon. I said I couldn’t talk to her about it. That was it,” Hinckley said. “I don’t know how they uncovered the Louisiana stuff because I don’t think it was on his original booking sheet and I’ve got the original reports in my office.”

As far as how the investigation made it to the newsroom of the News&Guide, no one is saying. PJH

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