This California brine shrimper bankrolled a pro-Mike Lee super PAC

Simon Goe, and his business Ocean Star International, gave more than $300k to Liberty Champions, a super PAC that attacked Evan McMullin in Utah’s 2022 midterm elections.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Republicans, including Sen. Mike Lee and Attorney General Sean Reyes, have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from a California businessman and brine shrimper.

The month after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Utah Sen. Mike Lee criticized House Democrats for what he called a mischaracterization of an accidental phone call meant for Sen. Tommy Tuberville that then-President Donald Trump made to Lee’s cell phone while the president’s supporters were overtaking the U.S. Capitol.

The Republican senator temporarily derailed the impeachment hearing by publicly objecting to statements made by a House impeachment prosecutor, a Democrat who’s accused Trump of inciting the insurrection. The Democrat’s comments were removed from the Jan. 6 committee’s record — as Lee requested — and the hearing went on.

The following day, Lee and several other Senators — jurors to the president’s impeachment who would ultimately acquit the twice-impeached president — met with Trump’s lawyers. Local and national media reported the meeting moments afterward.

And on that same day, Feb. 11, 2021, according to Federal Election Commission records, Lee received a $2,500 contribution to his campaign fund from one of his most prolific supporters — a California man named Simon Goe.

Goe, who owns a brine shrimping company in Snowville, has donated millions of dollars of his wealth to GOP politicians, with most of those contributions happening since Trump rose to fame and power in the party.

The out-of-state donor with an outsized pocketbook largely stays out of the public eye — a sweep of the internet results in no photos of the multi-company executive, and he has dodged repeated requests for comment. But his political contributions, particularly in Utah, speak volumes.

Who is Simon Goe?

Snowville, a little town of less than 200 and tucked amid mountain passes on I-84 between Salt Lake City and Boise, is quiet beyond the buzz of the freeway and the occasional lowing of cows. But the seemingly humble pitstop before the Idaho border is more than a watering hole for travelers — it is the source of massive amounts of money being fed to politicians both in Utah and throughout the country.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Snowville, on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022.

Just beyond the town hall is a cluster of red-roofed buildings, where workers process brine shrimp eggs scooped from the Great Salt Lake. The laborers are employed by Ocean Star International, a nearly four-decade-old company owned by Soul-Sun Goe — who goes by Simon.

“Of all the varieties of (brine shrimp) out there, those from the Great Salt Lake are the most hearty, heavily pigmented, and protein rich,” Ocean Star International’s website says. According to the company, Utah’s most famous lake is the only commercial source of brine shrimp eggs in the country.

Although Goe has built his family home — referred to as a “mansion” by locals — within the wrought-iron fence surrounding the main portion of the company’s property, the Chinese immigrant’s primary residence is in the Bay Area of California. And his businesses go beyond I-84 — Goe also owns a pharmaceutical company based in Beijing, which is registered in Utah as Goegoe Pharmaceutical Company.

The little-known businessman, whose international fortune began by selling food for farm-raised fish from the town that’s dubbed itself “Utah’s Outback,” has given millions of dollars to conservative politicians in recent years, and has taken a special interest in the politics of the Beehive State.

Where Goe’s money goes

Goe and his wife, who is referred to in public records as both Nadejda and Nadja and is listed as a “homemaker,” have been giving to political campaigns here and there since the mid-1990s.

But after taking more than a decade off from contributing to political causes, according to FEC filings, their contributions shot up in 2015 as Republicans geared up for the next year’s election.

Prior to 2015, Goe’s donations appear to have not surpassed $15,000, with the last being made in 2003. His largest donation was a $4,000 check to the Republican National Committee in 1995, the year before GOP-nominee Bob Dole and Reform Party candidate Ross Perot were defeated by then-incumbent President Bill Clinton.

Twenty years later, Goe gave $34,000 to joint fundraising committees supporting the late Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, and another $30,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Goe gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in the four years that followed.

But when the 2020 election cycle rolled around, the businessman’s contributions once again multiplied, surging to over $1.5 million in total. And Brett Kappel — a campaign finance attorney in Washington, D.C., who has represented politicians, political action committees and super PACs across the political spectrum — took notice when he came across one of Goe’s larger donations.

“I’m like, wow, I’ve never heard of this guy. And since I read so many of these things, I am familiar with the names of many of the major donors,” Kappel said. “Then I searched through the FEC website and found out that his usual contribution is $250 or $500. And then all of a sudden, he jumps to $100,000. That’s unusual. People don’t usually do that … unless you have a reason — something that you want done and you want people to get elected to do it.”

Goe did not respond to numerous interview requests over the last several months, beginning in July.

The Salt Lake Tribune left voicemails with the brine shrimper, sent emails and relayed messages to him through a secretary and the vice president of the company, who both recently said he was overseas in Asia. Journalists also traveled to Snowville and twice knocked on the door of a building labeled “office.” Although there were cars parked outside, no one answered.

The vice president of Ocean Star International, Mark Lamon, said no one with the company could comment regarding its political donations because Goe, though semi-retired, is the owner.

The international mogul and his wife have given over a quarter of a million dollars to former President Donald Trump, and continued to donate to him after he lost the 2020 presidential election and in the days following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Other Republican politicians and organizations from throughout the country have benefitted from the couple’s money. During a pair of U.S. Senate elections in Georgia in 2020 that carried over into 2021, Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue were boosted by more than $50,000 from the husband and wife duo.

Most of the California couple’s contributions, though, go toward influencing electoral outcomes in Utah.

Between 2015 and 2017, the Goes gave Hatch received nearly $70,000. While Hatch’s replacement, Sen. Mitt Romney, doesn’t appear to have received any of the family’s money, his counterpart in the Senate may be the politician who has benefitted the most from their wealth.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) An Ocean Star International building in Snowville, on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022.

Ocean Star International was one of the primary funders of a super PAC created to support Sen. Mike Lee during the last election cycle as he ran in his most competitive — and most expensive — general election yet. Lee’s reelection was likely Utah’s richest Senate campaign in history.

Liberty Champions, the super PAC responsible for mailers and text messages that called Lee’s challenger, conservative independent candidate Evan McMullin, a “deadbeat” and a “Republican-hating puppet of the radical left,” received $300,000 from Ocean Star International, and $10,000 out of Goe’s own pocket. That super PAC shares a treasurer and P.O. Box with Lee’s principal campaign committee and his leadership PAC, and it paid for services from a fundraising consulting firm, of which Lee is listed as a client.

According to FEC filings, Lee’s campaign and leadership PAC received an additional more than $50,000 of support from the Goes. A spokesperson for Lee’s office, who also received consulting fees from the campaign, said it would be most appropriate to direct questions about the contributions to the senator’s campaign, and a spokesperson for the campaign said it did not have a statement immediately available.

In state-level elections, among Goe’s most prominent recipients are former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., and Attorney General Sean Reyes, who have accepted $100,000 and $55,000 in donations from the businessman, respectively.

A spokesperson for Huntsman’s 2020 gubernatorial campaign told The Tribune that the former governor was traveling and was not able to reach him to answer questions regarding the contribution.

In a phone call with The Tribune, Alan Crooks, a spokesperson for Reyes’ campaign, said the attorney general has a relationship with Goe similar to those he has with other businessmen throughout the state and pushed back on an assertion that Goe is not widely known in Utah.

“In business circles he’s well-known, and I guess political circles,” Crooks said. “But I mean he’s a successful person in our community, so he’s pretty well-known.”

The head of the state’s Republican Party, however, said he had never heard of Goe.

“Can honestly say, I have never met (Goe) nor do I know who he is,” Carson Jorgensen, the chair of the Utah Republican Party, told The Tribune in an email.

More to the man

In the years since Goe opened Ocean Star International for business in the 1980s, he has been working to grow his empire — both within the rural town named for a pioneer prophet, and around the world.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) O.S.I. buildings in Snowville, on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022.

He’s slowly bought up more and more of Snowville, making himself the largest landowner in town. On that land is a barn where he’s housed exotic animals, like a camel and a zebra, and sprawling vineyards Goe planted with aspirations of opening a winery (according to Utah business filings, Ocean Star International also does business as Purple Sky Winery).

“That place that he bought was kind of a rundown place, and he bought it, then cleaned it up. The land next to it he bought, cleaned it up, built a big mansion and just kept buying,” said Jackie Carter while seated at a table inside Mollie’s Cafe — a mid-century diner serving fresh pie with an exterior trimmed by neon signs — which she runs.

Businesses like Goe’s, Carter noted, keep small towns like Snowville alive. As it is, Carter in the last couple of years has had to sell the restaurant and shorten its hours to keep it open.

“(Ocean Star International has) kept a lot of people in town and they frequent other businesses, buy things,” Carter explained.

Goe’s involvement in Utah’s politics has likewise boosted campaigns’ competitiveness. In Huntsman’s case, for example, Ocean Star International’s tied for the single largest contribution he received in 2020 when those given by his mother are excluded. Huntsman was a close runner-up to Gov. Spencer Cox in the Republican primary election.

While much of the California resident’s millions of dollars in contributions are made to national political organizations, those that end up in the campaign accounts of Utah politicians are among the largest. And without the California resident’s intervention, Utah candidates — who typically receive little outside financial attention as races in the crimson red state are often seen as a foregone conclusion — would be out hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Editor’s note Jon Huntsman Jr. is a brother of Paul Huntsman, who is the board chair of The Salt Lake Tribune.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.