They Seemed Like Democratic Activists. They Were Secretly Conservative Spies.

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The young couple posing in front of the faux Eiffel Tower at the Paris hotel in Las Vegas fit right in, two people in a sea of idealistic Democrats who had arrived in the city in February 2020 for a Democratic primary debate.

Large donations to the Democratic National Committee — $10,000 each — had bought Beau Maier and Sofia LaRocca tickets to the debate. During a cocktail reception beforehand, they worked the room of party officials, rainbow donkey pins affixed to their lapels.

In fact, much about them was a lie. Mr. Maier and Ms. LaRocca were part of an undercover operation by conservatives to infiltrate progressive groups, political campaigns and the offices of Democratic as well as moderate Republican elected officials during the 2020 election cycle, according to interviews and documents.

Using large campaign donations and cover stories, the operatives aimed to gather dirt that could sabotage the reputations of people and organizations considered threats to a hard-right agenda advanced by President Donald J. Trump.

At the center of the scheme was an unusual cast: a former British spy connected to the security contractor Erik Prince, a wealthy heiress to the Gore-Tex fortune and undercover operatives like Mr. Maier and Ms. LaRocca who used Wyoming as a base to insinuate themselves into the political fabric of this state and at least two others, Colorado and Arizona.

In more than two dozen interviews and a review of federal election records, The New York Times reconstructed many of the operatives’ interactions in Wyoming and other states — mapping out their associations and likely targets — and spoke to people with whom they discussed details of their spying operation. Publicly available documents in Wyoming also tied Mr. Maier and Ms. LaRocca to an address in Cody used by the former spy, Richard Seddon.

What the effort accomplished — and how much information Mr. Seddon’s operatives gathered — is unclear. Sometimes, their tactics were bumbling and amateurish. But the operation’s use of spycraft to manipulate the politics of several states over years greatly exceeds the tactics of more traditional political dirty tricks operations.

It is also a sign of how ultraconservative Republicans see a deep need to install allies in various positions at the state level to gain an advantage on the electoral map. Secretaries of state, for example, play a crucial role in certifying election results every two years, and some became targets of Mr. Trump and his allies in their efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

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Sofia LaRocca and Beau Maier were in Las Vegas last year for the Democratic primary debate. They had insinuated themselves into the fabric of progressive movements in the West.

The campaign followed another effort engineered by Mr. Seddon. He aided a network of conservative activists trying to discredit perceived enemies of Mr. Trump inside the government, including a planned sting operation in 2018 against Mr. Trump’s national security adviser at the time, H.R. McMaster, and helping set up secret surveillance of F.B.I. employees and other government officials.

Mr. Prince had set Mr. Seddon’s work in motion, recruiting him around the beginning of the Trump administration to hire former spies to train conservative activists in the basics of espionage, and send them on political sabotage missions.

By the end of 2018, Mr. Seddon secured funding from the Wyoming heiress, Susan Gore, according to people familiar with her role. He recruited several former operatives from the conservative group Project Veritas, where he had worked previously, to set up the political infiltration operation in the West.

Project Veritas has a history of using operatives with fake names to target liberal organizations and make secret recordings to embarrass them.

The endeavor in the West appears to have had two primary goals: penetrate local and eventually national Democratic political circles for long-term intelligence gathering, and collect dirt on moderate Republicans that could be used against them in the internecine party battles being waged by Mr. Trump and his allies.

Nate Martin, the head of Better Wyoming, a progressive group that was one of the operation’s targets, said he suspected that its aim was to “dig up this information and you sit on it until you really can destroy somebody.”

Toward the first goal, operatives concocted cover stories and made large campaign donations to gain entree to Democratic events such as the Las Vegas debate and a Washington fund-raiser attended by Democratic lawmakers.

They also took aim at the administration of the Republican governor of Wyoming, Mark Gordon, whom hard-right conservatives considered far too moderate and whose candidacy Ms. Gore had opposed in 2018. They targeted a Republican state representative, now the Wyoming speaker of the house, because of his openness to liberalizing marijuana laws — a position Ms. Gore vigorously opposes.

Using her Democratic cover identity, Ms. LaRocca got a job working for a consortium of wealthy liberal donors in Wyoming — the Wyoming Investor Network, or WIN — that had decided to back some moderate Republicans. The job gave her access to valuable information.

“Getting the WIN stuff is really damaging,” said Chris Bell, who worked as a political consultant for the consortium. “It’s the entire strategy. Where the money is going. What we’re doing long term.”

Mr. Seddon, Mr. Maier and Ms. LaRocca did not respond to requests for comment about the operation or the campaign contributions. Cassie Craven, a lawyer for Ms. Gore, also did not respond to emails or a voice mail message seeking comment about the operation, nor did Ms. Gore herself.

When The Times reached out to political activists and politicians who had come to know Mr. Maier and Ms. LaRocca, informing them of the couple’s true agenda, some said the news confirmed their own suspicions that the pair might not have been on the level. Others were stunned and said they regretted any part they had played in helping them gain entree to political circles in the West.

George Durazzo Jr., a Colorado businessman and fund-raiser who coaxed the large donations from Mr. Maier and Ms. LaRocca and shepherded them around Las Vegas before the debate, said he was both angry and embarrassed. He had planned, he said, to take them to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee before the pandemic turned it into a virtual event.

“If they are indeed Benedict Arnold and Mata Hari,” he said, “I was the one who was fooled.”

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Credit...Ryan Dorgan for The New York Times

Ms. LaRocca first met Mr. Seddon in 2017, when he ran training for Project Veritas operatives at Mr. Prince’s family ranch in Wapiti, Wyo. Mr. Seddon taught them how to work undercover, build aliases and recruit sources. Mr. Prince, who had recruited Mr. Seddon, is the brother of Betsy DeVos, Mr. Trump’s education secretary.

Mr. Maier, 36, a brawny and tattooed veteran of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division who fought in Iraq, also trained at the Prince ranch that year. His mother is a baker and was the cook at the ranch, and he is the nephew of Glenn Beck, the conservative commentator.

At one point, Ms. Gore came to watch the training at the ranch.

The next year, Mr. Maier and Ms. LaRocca lived in a luxury house in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington that Project Veritas rented for undercover sting operations against government officials that tried to expose “deep state” bias against Mr. Trump.

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Credit...Jacob Byk/The Wyoming Tribune Eagle, via Associated Press

People who worked for the conservative group identified the couple and linked them to the Georgetown house. Others confirmed Ms. LaRocca was pictured on the website Project Veritas Exposed, where she was identified as “Maria.”

Mr. Seddon left Project Veritas in the summer of 2018. He lured Mr. Maier, Ms. LaRocca and others to work with him in Wyoming on a new venture — one that would more closely model his time as a British intelligence officer working overseas. Mr. Seddon wanted to run a classic espionage operation in which undercover agents would burrow into organizations and potentially recruit others to help collect information. As in his days at MI-6, the goal was to spy on potential adversaries or targets without getting caught and then quietly use the information to gain an advantage. If conducted correctly, such operations can last for years.

And he found someone to pay for it: Ms. Gore, the Gore-Tex heiress who for years had supported conservative and libertarian causes.

Hints of Mr. Seddon’s project surfaced recently in a memoir by Cassandra Spencer, a onetime Project Veritas operative. In the book, she describes being called in June 2018 by an associate of her former colleague, Richard, who was trying to secure funding for a new initiative. The man, whom she calls Ken, told her it was a “pay for play” operation — where clients would put up money for an undercover effort.

Ms. LaRocca, 28, first approached the Wyoming Democratic Party in January 2019, fresh off her attendance at the Women’s March in Cheyenne, with an offer to help raise money. Her goal, she told people, was ambitious: help “flip” one of America’s most conservative states into a reliable victory for Democratic presidential candidates — as Colorado had become over the past two decades.

Mr. Seddon appears to have directed Ms. LaRocca’s outreach to the Wyoming Democratic Party as a safe first step toward building up her bona fides for future operations. Democrats in the state are vastly outnumbered, have little political clout and are eager for volunteers. Ms. LaRocca quickly declared her candidacy for vice chairwoman of the Wyoming Young Democrats, obtained a contract position at the party as a fund-raiser paid by commission and had meetings with the state party’s top two officials, Joe Barbuto and Sarah Hunt.

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Credit...Chet Strange for The New York Times

Her behavior raised some suspicion. Ms. LaRocca and Mr. Maier lived in Fort Collins, Colo., only about 45 miles from Cheyenne, Wyoming’s capital, but their residence prompted some Democrats to ask how they planned to organize a grass-roots campaign to flip the state while living in Colorado. Ms. LaRocca told others she could not rent a home in Cheyenne because she had a dog, an implausible explanation.

Ms. LaRocca had also introduced herself to party officials as Cat Debreau. She eventually told a story about why she later went by the name Sofia LaRocca: She had been the victim of an online stalker, she said, but decided to once again use her original name because the police had told her that her stalker had reformed.

“Her story from the start rang very untrue,” said Nina Hebert, who at the time was the digital director for the Wyoming Democratic Party. “The police don’t call you and say, ‘Hey, your stalker is better.’”

Ms. Hebert said she began to restrict Ms. LaRocca’s access to the party’s email system in the summer of 2019.

At the same time, Mr. Maier was making connections of his own around the state, meeting with Democrats and Republicans on the issue of the medicinal use of marijuana, which he said was particularly valuable for war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In August 2019, the couple volunteered at a Democratic Party fund-raiser at the Old Wilson Schoolhouse, a community center in the shadow of the Teton mountain range near Jackson. Ms. LaRocca had her picture taken with the event’s headline guest: Tom Perez, the former labor secretary and then the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Months later, Ms. LaRocca secured a spot in a program training young progressives in the state on the basics of political and community organizing. She dashed off an email to Mr. Martin, the head of the group running the program, saying how thrilled she was to be receiving the training.

During the course, she paired up with Marcie Kindred, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Wyoming Legislature; Ms. LaRocca later gave $250 to her campaign. Ms. LaRocca used a picture they took together for her Facebook profile.

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“It was kind of odd she put it on Facebook,” Ms. Kindred said. “We weren’t really that close. Now it makes total sense. She was playing the long game, trying to be my friend in the hopes of me getting into the legislature.”

Ms. LaRocca also told Ms. Kindred that she wanted to work on the campaign of Karlee Provenza, a police reform advocate who ultimately won a seat in the legislature in one of a few Democratic districts in the state.

She and Mr. Maier eventually began going on double dates with Ms. Provenza and Mr. Martin, the head of Better Wyoming who was then her fiancé and is now her husband.

Over dinner one night at Sushi Jeju in Fort Collins, Ms. LaRocca and Mr. Maier made a big announcement: They, too, were engaged. Ms. LaRocca flashed a large diamond ring. Mr. Maier paid for dinner.

But the relationship began taking strange turns. Months later, meeting with Ms. Provenza and Mr. Martin in Laramie, Mr. Maier told them to turn off their phones.

He then proposed a plan to target Republicans — using some of his contacts who could befriend politicians and dig up dirt on them. Mr. Maier said he had friends in military intelligence who could run background checks on people and suggested he had been on a “kill squad” while serving in Iraq.

“This is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what they can do,” Mr. Martin recalled Mr. Maier saying, adding that the conversation danced around who would fund the operation.

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Credit...Chet Strange for The New York Times

During the meeting, Mr. Maier described the purpose of the operation, saying they would collect the damaging material and hold it quietly until the person they targeted mattered — a philosophy that seemed to reflect Mr. Seddon’s view on long-term infiltration efforts.

Mr. Maier had brought intelligence reports that appeared to be drawn mostly from public records. One was about the Wyoming attorney general, Bridget Hill, Mr. Martin said.

Why Mr. Maier proposed this operation is unclear.

“We knew something was fishy, but we couldn’t prove it,” Mr. Martin said.

Weeks later, Mr. Martin and a colleague hosted an advocacy training event at a library in Laramie. Mr. Martin was secretly videotaped, in what appears to be a sting operation tied to Mr. Seddon’s project.

Shortly afterward, a video clip appeared on a now-defunct website, showing Mr. Martin declaring that he had voted in the Republican primary race. The video’s publication served as an attempt to expose alliances between progressives and moderate Republicans.

Mr. Martin said he immediately suspected it was recorded by a woman who had attended the event and approached him afterward, claiming that her name was Beth Price and that she was from Michigan.

The woman, whose real name is Alexandra Pollack of Grand Ledge, Mich., acknowledged in a brief interview that she was in Wyoming at the time but declined to answer questions about what she was doing there, saying she had a nondisclosure agreement. Ms. Kindred, who had attended the Laramie event, recognized Ms. Pollack from a photo on her LinkedIn profile.

Ms. Pollack lived not far from Ms. LaRocca in Maryland when they were younger, and both are around the same age. She did not respond to an email asking whether she knew Ms. LaRocca.

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Credit...Calla Kessler/The New York Times

Democrats across the country began 2020 with twin goals: ensuring that Mr. Trump was defeated, and pouring energy into key congressional races that could flip the Senate and keep the House in Democratic hands.

Achieving those goals meant raising millions of dollars, and the large checks written by Mr. Maier and Ms. LaRocca opened doors for them into elite political circles.

In February, Mr. Durazzo, the Colorado fund-raiser, secured a pledge of $10,000 each from the couple to the Democratic National Committee. “We are all vulnerable to charm and hefty contributions,” he said later. “Ten thousand bucks, you definitely have me by the ears.”

Within days, they were in Las Vegas for the Democratic presidential debate, schmoozing with committee staff members and other donors during a party beforehand.

Before submitting their names to be cleared by security for the Democratic National Committee events in Las Vegas, Mr. Durazzo said he asked Mr. Maier whether any “surprises” might come up. Mr. Maier revealed that he was the nephew of Mr. Beck but said he did not share his uncle’s politics.

He said: “I’m a supporter of your causes,” Mr. Durazzo recalled.

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Credit...Chet Strange for The New York Times

Separately, Mr. Maier gave $1,250 to the campaign of Jena Griswold, a rising Democratic star in Colorado, for her re-election bid as secretary of state. The donation gained him and Ms. LaRocca an invitation to a Washington, D.C., fund-raiser, where they met Ms. Griswold.

A $2,000 donation to the campaign of Mark Kelly, then a candidate in Arizona for a U.S. Senate seat, got the couple on a committee for an April fund-raiser. The next month, Mr. Maier gave $6,000 to the Wyoming Democratic Party.

It was not clear where they got the money to make a flurry of generous campaign donations.

Under federal law, it is illegal to make campaign donations at the behest of another person, then get reimbursed. So-called straw donations have been at the center of numerous federal investigations.

“Sometimes when you’re looking at patterns of contributions, you start to see people with relatively limited resources making sizable political contributions,” said Brendan Fischer, the director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center and an expert on campaign finance law. “That can be a red flag.”

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Credit...Josh Galemore/The Casper Star-Tribune, via Associated Press

Wyoming is a rural state with a small population, a place where cities are separated by hours of open highway, vast prairies and jagged mountains. Statewide political campaigns can be won on a shoestring budget.

In this political environment, Ms. Gore has long been a mysterious yet influential figure — quietly using her large fortune to ensure the supremacy of conservative causes.

She was one of several children to inherit the wealth of her father, who helped invent the waterproof fabric that came to be known as Gore-Tex.

After getting a divorce in 1981, she joined the Transcendental Meditation movement, according to court documents in Delaware, but she became gravely ill and left the movement to convalesce in monasteries for three years. In a bizarre turn two decades later, she tried to adopt her former husband in an attempt to increase their children’s share of the family inheritance.

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Credit...Dan Cepeda/Casper Star-Tribune

She has been a force in Wyoming politics since she moved to the state in the 1990s. In 2008, she established Wyoming Liberty Group, a nonprofit in Cheyenne that pushes libertarian and conservative causes.

In 2018, Ms. Gore opposed the candidacy of Mr. Gordon to become Wyoming governor. His main opponent in the Republican primary was Mr. Friess, the wealthy investor who was also a Project Veritas donor. Both Mr. Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. had endorsed Mr. Friess, with the president posting on Twitter that “he will be a fantastic Governor! Strong on Crime, Borders & 2nd Amendment.”

Mr. Friess lost, in part because a large number of Democrats switched parties to vote for Mr. Gordon. The outcome embittered Mr. Friess and his allies, who saw Mr. Gordon’s victory as part of a worrying trend of creeping progressivism in the state — and believed too many Republicans were part of that trend.

Mr. Friess died last month at age 81.

With months to go before the 2020 election, the biggest political fights in Wyoming were in the Republican Party, between hard-right candidates and more moderate politicians battling to represent the party in November.

Mr. Trump was eager to make all elections something of a referendum on his leadership, and in Wyoming, the battle lines hardened between the Trump loyalists and the candidates the right wing of the party derided as “RINOs,” or “Republicans in name only.”

Given the barren political landscape for Democrats, a consortium of wealthy liberal donors — the Wyoming Investor Network — made the strategic decision to quietly support certain Republican moderates. One regular donor to WIN is Elizabeth Storer, a Jackson millionaire and granddaughter of George Storer, who amassed a fortune in the radio and television industry.

By hiring Ms. LaRocca, the consortium put her in a position that gave her valuable intelligence about which Republican candidates the group was supporting with independent advertising. She took notes during a board meeting and had access to the complete list of the candidates WIN supported.

Mr. Maier began making contacts in the offices of moderate Republican legislators and befriended Eric Barlow, now the Wyoming speaker of the house. He told Mr. Barlow that he was passionate about the medicinal uses of marijuana, and the men met several times — including once when Mr. Maier and Ms. LaRocca had dinner at Mr. Barlow’s ranch.

In an interview, Mr. Barlow, a retired veterinarian who said he was open to decriminalizing marijuana and allowing it for medical use, labeled himself a “practical Republican.”

“For some people, that’s a RINO,” he said.

Mr. Barlow said that he believed he had met Ms. Gore only once, but that she usually gave money to his Republican primary opponents every election cycle.

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Mr. Maier and Ms. LaRocca often told her colleagues that they were committed to upending the political dynamics in the Mountain West — saying that even a deeply conservative state like Wyoming could eventually turn liberal. Ms. LaRocca said she wanted to continue working at the Wyoming Investor Network and other progressive groups.

But then, right before the November election, Mr. Maier and Ms. LaRocca disappeared. On Oct. 21, she wrote an email to her boss saying that she had to leave the country. “I have a family emergency and am going to Venezuela as my grandmother is gravely ill,” she wrote.

Others she had worked with — and befriended — over two years said they had not heard from her in months.

“She kind of dropped off the face of the earth,” said Ms. Hunt, the executive director of the Wyoming Democratic Party.

In fact, the couple never left the area. Mr. Maier and Mr. Seddon have also been working together on a business venture importing ammunition from overseas, according to a business document linking the two men that was obtained by The Times.

Last week, Ms. LaRocca and Mr. Maier married in Big Horn, Wyo. Mr. Beck, the conservative commentator and Mr. Maier’s uncle, delivered a wedding toast.

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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