The ‘Cowboy Catholics’ and federal funds

In 2015, tiny Wyoming Catholic College made a big splash on the national education front by refusing to participate in federal student-aid programs, claiming that accepting federal money would impinge on the school’s academic and religious freedoms.

“We really didn’t want the federal government meddling in our lives here,” Wyoming Catholic College board member David Kellogg told a New York Times reporter. “The federal government hands you money and then threatens to withdraw that money if you don’t do what they want.”  

The college “refuses to be beholden to anything from the federal government,” wrote WCC board member and Wyoming newspaper columnist Bill Sniffin in 2019.

The school’s independent stand is regularly celebrated on the conservative opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal and other publications.

But when COVID-19 hit, the Catholic College’s Chief Financial Officer, Paul McCown, applied for and received more than $1.2 million in federal relief moneys in three separate loans and grants according to court documents, including a $739,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan, since forgiven, and federally funded grants worth $460,815 and $92,236.

So far, the transactions have sailed through the federal bureaucracy without problems. However, some at the college have expressed concern that unrelated fraud allegations facing McCown and problems with his personal enterprise’s federal loans might prompt the government to reexamine the claims McCown made on the loan applications he filed for the college.

On the Wyoming Catholic College PPP loan, McCown listed the number of employees on the college payroll as 187. The amount loaned under the PPP program is largely determined by historic payroll headcounts. Federal prosecutions in PPP fraud cases are often related to inflated payroll claims.

According to Wyoming Catholic College spokesperson Joseph Susanka, the college has only 60 full-time and five part-time employees. But, Susanka said, the difference may be explained by the number of students who are also engaged in part-time work for the college. Susanka said he couldn’t speak for McCown, but he noted that the college employs 120 to 130 student workers out of a total enrollment of about 200 full-time students.

If that is the case, the college is legal under PPP rules as long as each student “received wages and got a W-2 form at the end of the year,” Small Business Administration Regional Communications Director Christopher J. Chavez said. WCC filed 303 W-2s in 2020, Susanka said.

Dr. Kevin Roberts architected Wyoming Catholic College’s policy against accepting federal money during his 2013-2016 presidency. Roberts now heads the influential Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin where he has continued the practice, refusing even to apply for PPP and other coronavirus relief funds even though he estimates the conservative foundation was eligible for “seven figures.”

“In our case, we didn’t want to go and testify in front of the Legislature with our fiscal conservatism and then get busted in the chops for taking the money,” he said.

Roberts has steered clear of making any public comment about the current situation at Wyoming Catholic College, although he returns to Wyoming every summer to visit old friends. Roberts said he met McCown only once, when both men were dining at Lander’s Cowfish restaurant in the summer of 2020.

Their meeting was brief but, in retrospect, prophetic. Roberts had heard that McCown was applying for federal money for the college under the Paycheck Protection Program.

“‘That’s going to come back and bite y’all,’” Roberts said he told McCown.

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