CHEYENNE — In his early days as Wyoming secretary of state, Max Maxfield received calls from USA Today, Forbes magazine, Money magazine and U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
They weren’t the congratulatory, wish-you-well-in-office kind of calls.
Thousands of corporations had been established in Wyoming, some nefarious, thanks to lax laws on business registration, which the secretary of state’s office oversees.
Among the more interesting business interests discovered in Wyoming, according to Maxfield: evidence that the Russian mafia was laundering money through Wyoming corporations, and a scheme in which Turkish airline employees siphoned $1.6 million from their employer to an address on Dell Range Boulevard in Cheyenne.
In Casper, a place on Second Street was the listed headquarters of 2,000 corporations.
But Maxfield, a Republican, said he worked with the Wyoming Legislature to toughen state laws. By 2008, 7,000 corporations had been dissolved.
While he can’t promise that all fraudulent companies have been eliminated from Wyoming, he believes most have been. His office's relationship with federal law enforcement and prosecutors is tight, he said.
The history of the fraud and legislation is lost on some of the candidates who want to be the next Wyoming secretary of state, he said.
On the walls and cabinets of Maxfield’s office at the Wyoming State Capitol are illustrations of his beloved golden retriever, a humanitarian of the year award from a local animal shelter, an anti-domestic violence advocacy award and a framed newspaper clipping with the headline: "Go sue yourself."
The story, published in the Star-Tribune in January 2012, was about Maxfield’s legal challenge of the constitutionality of term limits, in which the attorney general told Maxfield to name himself as a defendant in the suit, in which he was the plaintiff.
Maxfield won the suit. But now he isn’t seeking a third term, having decided to spend more time with his wife.
“This is my dream job, and stepping down from it was probably the hardest decision I ever made,” he said. “I guess I say that leaving the job I love for the lady I love is the bottom line, and once I made the decision, I haven’t once thought it was a bad decision. But I have grieved and mourned the fact that I’m leaving.”
Maxfield isn’t surprised that four Republicans and one Constitution Party candidate are vying for his position.
“I expected a wide turnout,” he said. “One, it's the second-highest office in the state, and it's also the lieutenant governor. That has appeal to people for different reasons. And so it's not often that you have an open seat in the five electeds' offices.”
For all of Wyoming
The “five electeds” in Wyoming are governor, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor and superintendent of public instruction.
In addition to the administrative duties of their respective offices, they serve on boards that make critical state decisions, such as the State Loan and Investment Board, the state Building Commission and the state Board of Land Commissioners.
Maxfield, 69, is fond of saying he’s the “secretary of state for Wyoming, not the secretary of state for Cheyenne.”
What he means is that he doesn’t hide in his office. He travels around Wyoming and immerses himself in communities throughout the state. He has literally stuck his head down manholes to understand communities’ challenges, he said.
Recently, the town of Afton, near the Idaho border, needed $3 million from the loan and investment board for public infrastructure such as sewer work and street widening. The Wyoming Business Council approved only $600,000.
Town leaders were desperate. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is building a temple — Wyoming’s first — in the town. The town has just 2,000 residents and a low tax base.
But visitors to the regional worship center are expected to travel from as far away as Rexburg, Idaho, and Casper, said Hyun Kim, the town administrator.
When Maxfield read Afton’s application materials, the importance of the Mormon temple didn’t completely register.
“But they came in and gave me all the details, and it made all the sense in the world to join a partnership with them to go ahead and fund them at $3 million,” he said.
Maxfield “asked very good questions of us,” Kim said. “And in fact, (during) the questioning, we had to pause and reflect and consult with our engineering group. He asked engineer questions — the promises we were making in our request. He very much wanted to make sure we followed through.”
Maxfield has also made tough decisions not to fund projects, simply because they were not ready for state funding or because there weren’t sufficient state funds, he said.
Republicans Ed Buchanan, Pete Illoway, Ed Murray and Clark Stith and Constitution Party member Jennifer Young want to be the next secretary of state.
Maxfield has not seen them at any of the board and commission meetings that the "electeds" serve on since campaign season began, he said.
"I’m not being critical, but if I were running, I'd attend those meetings just to get a better idea,” he said.
He also would be willing to meet with any candidate prior to a meeting “to try to get an idea what's coming up, what are the hot issues and why for the meeting, because I think that would give them kind of an overview of what's going on at the meeting.”
Otherwise, Maxfield is mum on whom he will vote for. He will not publicly support or contribute to any candidate, he said. He also plans to stay away from the Capitol for a year to let the new secretary forge his or her own path. He will be available by telephone if there are any questions, he said.
Maxfield wears cowboy boots to work each day. He’s lived in Wyoming for about 30 years. His strong Midwestern accent illuminates his Wisconsin roots.
In 1980, he moved to Casper from St. Louis, Missouri, to direct the YMCA. He had been with the Y more than 20 years when he moved to Cheyenne in 1987 to lead Wyoming Parks and Cultural Resources.
Since he had a management background, he was impressed with the various entities the secretary of state managed, elections and business being the highest-profile ones.
"I know it's going to sound mushy, but since the 1980s, this is the job I’ve wanted,” he said.
He ran and lost in 1994. Then he became state auditor for two terms before running again for secretary of state.
“And I got my dream job: this,” he said.
A feel for the job
Including Maxfield, there are 30 employees in the Secretary of State’s Office. The Legislature provided funding for a new position this year.
Maxfield reorganized some divisions after the corporations problems early in his tenure. The Legislature also passed a law requiring that registered agents for businesses have a physical location.
The Elections Division is probably the office most Wyomingites associate with the secretary of state, he said, and faith in fair elections is essential to democracy.
“It’s that perception,” he said. “If somebody doesn’t think elections are going well, then we’ve got a real problem. There have been places in the country where the secretary of state has made a difference in an election. The way we have it set up in Wyoming, I couldn’t influence one vote. Not even my wife’s.”
Walking through the compliance and business divisions, Maxfield described the differences between old law and today’s law: “You can’t use drop boxes,” he said. “You had to have regular hours. And you had to be able to receive process," meaning a physical body must be present to receive court papers.
Maxfield didn’t mention any candidates by name, but he vaguely criticized plans to reduce the office's staff size.
Stith has said he would cut positions by creating an online system for business registrations. Currently, it’s all done by paper, but other paperwork such as annual reports can be filed online.
That’s not possible, Maxfield said.
“We’ve looked at (online) registration in Colorado, and the system they put in in Colorado has been between $8 (million) and $11 million,” he said. “So I find it difficult to comprehend the Legislature investing $8 (million) to $11 million in this. The other thing is if you put in a system like this, it still takes staff to run it.”
On Thursday, Stith outlined a plan to reduce staffing levels. It is called the Small Government Toolkit.
Maxfield, who plans to continue living in Cheyenne after he leaves office, says candidates should be open to realities on the ground being different than they imagined.
"When you look at the office from the 10,000-foot view, it's a lot different when you're sitting in this chair,” he said.
After all, many aspects of the corporations scandal problems caught him by surprise.
“If I knew in 2006 what I know now, I would have campaigned a lot differently,” he said. “I allowed the race to be driven by (the topic of) elections, and if I had it to over again, it would have been also fraud in Wyoming, it would have been the job we do on registering businesses, it would be our investigations with securities.
"It would be all sorts of different areas. And I would have tried to steer the conversation in a wider spectrum.”