Steve Bullock letter helped solicit Chinese EB-5 visa investment in resort for ultrawealthy
Steve Bullock wrote a letter that was used to solicit Chinese investment in a club for the megawealthy through the controversial EB-5 visa program.
The letter from Bullock, Montana’s Democratic governor since 2013, is part of a Chinese document obtained by the Washington Examiner pitching an investment opportunity in the Yellowstone Club, a private ski resort for the megawealthy outside of Yellowstone National Park in southwestern Montana.
Membership at the elite club reportedly requires owning property on the resort grounds (ranging from condos to ranches and custom homes anywhere from $3 million to more than $20 million) and an annual membership fee of around $36,000. High-profile members include Bill and Melinda Gates, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and Justin Timberlake.
CrossHarbor Capital Partners took ownership of the Yellowstone Club in 2009 and has since utilized EB-5 investment visas to expand the property.
The EB-5 visa program, which has attracted bipartisan criticism, allows foreign investors to fast-track their green card and citizenship applications.
The 2014 letter from Bullock addressed to Sam Byrne, managing partner and co-founder of CrossHarbor Capital, is included in the Chinese pitch document about the Yellowstone Club as part of a section on “government support” for the investment.
Bullock wrote, “Although no business endeavor comes without risk, I believe that the EB-5 Program can be executed successfully in Montana to deliver high-quality projects that are compatible with our state’s strengths and economic development goals.
“The creation of new jobs in this targeted employment area (TEA) is important to the development of the economy in southwest Montana. Current operations at the Yellowstone Club have allowed it to become a major employer in the area and additional investment will allow for its continued growth.”
Former longtime Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who was the U.S. ambassador to China from 2014 to 2017, and former Montana Department of Commerce Director Meg O’Leary also each wrote a letter in support of the project that was included in the pitch document.
The revelation of the document follows a video of Bullock, first reported by National Review, in which the governor told Chinese investors, “When you invest in Montana, you have the full support of the state.”
At the time, the governor’s office told National Review that the video was shown to a delegation of Chinese companies considering purchasing Montana exports. The video was uploaded to a Chinese website with a caption that suggested it was in support of EB-5 visa investment. The governor’s office did not respond to the Washington Examiner’s request for comment.
Bullock is now running for Senate in a closely watched primary race against Republican Sen. Steve Daines. Both men have received large campaign contributions from Byrne of CrossHarbor Capital.
Byrne contributed the maximum allowable amount of $1,260 and $1,320 Bullock’s 2012 and 2016 gubernatorial campaigns. Bullock’s leadership PAC, Big Sky Values, has received more than $31,000 from Byrne since 2017.
Since 2016, Daines’s Senate campaign received $2,800 from Byrne and $5,400 from his wife, Tracey Byrne. Tracey Byrne in 2016 also gave $10,800 to a campaign committee that benefited both Daines and former Montana Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, who later became interior secretary under President Trump.
Created in 1990 with the intention of attracting foreign investment to create jobs, the EB-5 visa program has received bipartisan criticism for being ripe with fraud and corruption, making immigrants susceptible to scams, for mostly benefiting urban areas and rich corporations, and for being one of the only legal ways immigrants can essentially buy their way into the country.
The EB-5 program distributes around 10,000 visas per year, available to those whose investments create or preserve at least 10 full-time jobs.
The Trump administration instituted rule changes to the EB-5 visa program in 2019, raising the minimum amount for a standard investment to $1.8 million, up from $1 million, and the minimum amount for a targeted employment area investment to $900,000, up from $500,000. The rule changes also altered the process of how high-employment targeted employment areas are designated, curbing the potential for state and local governments to gerrymander an investment area that meets the technical requirements, among other modifications.
Bullock thinks that for rural areas, the minimum required investment should be lower. In his policy plan for rural America from his short-lived presidential campaign last year, Bullock proposed lowering the minimum investment for rural targeted employment area investments to $350,000.
A 2016 Government Accountability Office report found that only 1% of EB-5 petitioners sought investment in a nontargeted employment area. The vast majority, 97%, sought investments in high-unemployment designated areas, while 3% sought investment in rural target employment areas.
“Throughout his time in office, the governor has supported Montana businesses competing in the national and global economy. Gov. Bullock believes the EB-5 program is deeply flawed, and unlike Sen. Daines, he would take steps in the Senate to reform and restrict the program to better serve rural states and Montana communities,” Bullock campaign spokeswoman Olivia Bercow told the Washington Examiner.
Daines has not been vocal about his position on the EB-5 program and has not co-sponsored recent legislation to reform the program.
In 2016, Daines voted in favor of two consolidated appropriations measures that extended the EB-5 visa program without reforming it despite a bipartisan push from Republican Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and Democratic Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy to institute an EB-5 reform measure that year or let it expire. Leahy voted against the same two measures, citing the lack of EB-5 reform, among other objections. Grassley, like Daines, voted for the two measures.
The donations from Byrne of CrossHarbor Capital to Daines came after his appropriations measures votes that extended the EB-5 program.