(UPDATED, 2:58 p.m., to clarify the reason for the Ybarra campaign’s payments to Tyler Kelly.)
Sherri Ybarra’s campaign manager and an Ybarra campaign donor have landed jobs at the State Department of Education since her Nov. 6 re-election.
Meanwhile, a Nampa media company worked on Ybarra’s campaign, then landed taxpayer-funded work with Ybarra’s SDE, then went back to working on her campaign — all in the same year.
Ybarra won re-election by running a bare-bones race, heavily outspent by Democratic challenger Cindy Wilson. Yet there are numerous links between Ybarra’s campaign and Ybarra’s SDE, a 140-person agency responsible for overseeing Idaho’s K-12 system.
That’s an established pattern. Top Ybarra aides have been among Ybarra’s donors. And in several cases, Ybarra supporters have become members of her inner circle at SDE.
Phillips is a familiar figure in Idaho Republican circles. He is a former state GOP executive director. He has worked for State Controller Brandon Woolf and then-Gov. Jim Risch, among others. He also worked on former U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador’s unsuccessful run for governor in 2018.
In October, he made two contributions to the Ybarra campaign, totaling $330.06.
At the same time, Phillips was working for SDE on a contract basis. His main job was to help get the word out on Ybarra’s Keep Idaho Students Safe initiative — her $20.7 million school safety plan, which was also a key talking point in her re-election campaign. The KISS initiative was zeroed out in Gov. Brad Little’s 2019-20 budget request.
Ybarra’s KISS plan might be dead. But Philips got his money: $20,362.50 from Oct. 3 through Nov. 26.
Phillips also scored a permanent job. On Nov. 27, he started as the SDE’s stakeholder communications officer.
The post itself is still a work in progress, with no job description written.
“The superintendent is working to develop a new strategic communications plan, and the job description will be part of that process,” SDE spokeswoman Kris Rodine said Wednesday.
Clearly, Phillips will play a high-profile role within the SDE. He was hired one week after Ybarra parted ways with Allison Westfall, a communications director who had directly reported to Ybarra. Phillips will also be among the SDE’s highest-paid employees, making $90,188 per year.
Rodine did not provide a copy of Phillips’ resume. She also said she could not answer campaign-related questions, so she could not confirm that Phillips contributed to Ybarra’s campaign.
But Phillips did refer Idaho Education News to a copy of his resume on LinkedIn. The resume outlined Phillips’ background in media relations, speech-writing and political campaigns. Phillips’ resume also lists a street address — identical to the address that appears, next to Phillips’ name, on Ybarra’s campaign finance reports.
From July through October, Kelly received four payments from the Ybarra campaign, totaling $2,000, for campaign “management services.”
The four payments correspond with Kelly’s time as Ybarra’s campaign manager. According to Kelly’s LinkedIn profile, he began managing her campaign in June.
On Nov. 19, less than two weeks after Ybarra’s re-election, Kelly began work as an administrative assistant at the SDE. An administrative assistant performs a variety of functions, such as scheduling, staffing phone lines, making travel arrangements and editing training manuals.
Kelly will receive $33,966 per year.
A mixed track record
It’s not uncommon for campaign staff or campaign donors to get jobs working for winning candidates.
It’s not even unprecedented within Ybarra’s SDE.
In 2014, Tim McMurtrey and Dan Goicoechea were among Ybarra’s earliest campaign donors.
McMurtrey — a former superintendent in the Mountain Home School District, where Ybarra worked — joined the SDE in 2015. He remains in Ybarra’s inner circle, as deputy superintendent.
Goicoechea lasted barely a month on his job.
Hired in August 2017 as Ybarra’s liaison on the State Land Board and primary media contact, Goicoechea lost his job the same day he was publicly accused of harassment, discrimination and physical intimidation. The graphic claims, later settled, stemmed from Goicoechea’s time in the controller’s office, as Woolf’s chief of staff.
On May 3 — less than two weeks before Ybarra won a contested Republican primary — the Nampa-based Peppershock received $1,247.06 from the campaign. Peppershock’s job was to secure airtime for campaign ads.
Come summer, Peppershock received another job, this time from the SDE. The company produced a 30-second public service announcement touting Ybarra’s KISS initiative and traveled to American Falls to shoot video of Idaho teacher of the year Marc Beitia.
Peppershock received $7,200 in taxpayer money, mostly to produce the KISS public service announcement and purchase airtime.
In October, Peppershock was again working for Ybarra’s campaign, producing TV and radio spots and again buying airtime. Peppershock received $11,975, constituting about three-fourths of the money the campaign spent in the final weeks leading up to Election Day.
When one project ended, another began, said Drew Allen, Peppershock’s co-owner and creative director. The company tracked each project separately. Emails about the election ads went to the campaign, not to SDE. And, he and Rodine said, no taxpayer dollars went into campaign ads.
“We understand that there could be a conflict,” Allen said.
Peppershock has no current contracts with the SDE, but the agency has “a long and satisfying history” with the company, Rodine said. Peppershock’s work with SDE dates back to Tom Luna’s two terms as state superintendent.
“We’re basically here when they need us,” Allen said.
Hiding in plain sight?
These money trails are all a matter of public record.
Campaign finance reports have long been available online through the secretary of state’s office.
And on Tuesday, the SDE unveiled a new “transparency portal” on its website. The site includes a roster of staff positions and salaries, and an online checkbook, updated daily, that tracks department expenditures — such as contract work performed by Phillips and Peppershock.
In a news release Tuesday, Ybarra touted the new transparency page.
“Education represents the single largest category of state spending,” she said. “Citizens have a right to know how their tax dollars are spent to help schools prepare students for college and careers.”