Questions arise over COVID-19 grants received by state senator’s son

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SouthDakotaNewsWatch This story is reported by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit news organization. Find more in-depth reporting at www.sdnewswatch.org.

 


(SDNW) — The son of a South Dakota state senator received more than $1 million in COVID relief funding for a business he says is located in Union Center, S.D., but which public records and other data indicate actually operates in Texas.

Chris Cammack, son of Senate Majority Leader Gary Cammack, received more than $700,000 in state coronavirus relief funds designed to help businesses in South Dakota recover losses suffered during the pandemic. Rules of the program require that small businesses “must be physically located in South Dakota” in order to qualify for the funding.

Chris Cammack owns Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios, a business he started more than a decade ago in a building on the Cammack family ranch in Union Center, a town of 400 in Meade County.

Cammack received $709,792 in state coronavirus relief funds in early 2021 to cover losses he reported at the Union Center business during the pandemic. Cammack also received more than $300,000 in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans from the federal government to keep 10 workers at the Union Center location employed.

However, a News Watch investigation using tax and property documents, source interviews, website information and a public statement from Chris Cammack indicates that Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios is run from a site in Cypress, Texas, where Cammack owns a 7,300-square-foot studio building and he and his wife Felicia own an $880,000 home.

Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios was merged with Brush Country Studios of Cypress, Texas, in late 2014 or early 2015, and Chris and Felicia Cammack now own and operate the combined Brush Country/Prairie Mountain business in Cypress, according to the company website and Texas property records.

The taxidermy studio in Union Center still exists, but a nearby business operator, Brian Walker, said there had been no recent commercial activity there. News Watch visited the site three times in 2021 and saw no activity or people present. Sen. Cammack, in an interview, told News Watch that his son’s taxidermy studio is located in Texas.

Chris Cammack did not respond to phone calls or an email seeking comment for this article, and state officials overseeing the coronavirus relief program declined to comment on individual grant applications or recipients.

State and federal records show that Chris Cammack owns this taxidermy studio in Union Center, S.D., and has received more than $1 million in COVID relief grants or forgivable loans for pandemic-related losses at this address. This photo was taken on a weekday afternoon in June. Photo: Bart Pfankuch, South Dakota News Watch

The state Coronavirus Relief Fund program was started in 2020 as a way to distribute federal Cares Act funds to help South Dakota businesses remain viable by covering some of their cash losses incurred during the worst of the pandemic.

As of September 2021, the South Dakota relief program had distributed more than $490 million in payments to 5,833 applicants. Grants were awarded under several separate programs, including small businesses, small nonprofits, acute healthcare providers, community providers, safety-net organizations and startups.

The small business portion of the program, in which Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studio received two payments, distributed the largest portion of funds. As of September 2021, the small-business program had distributed more than $302 million to 4,760 applicants.

Applications for state relief funds and federal PPP loans both require signed statements that all information submitted is true and accurate, and applicants are notified that providing false information can be considered fraud.

To date, no fraud has been uncovered by two firms hired by the state to audit the coronavirus relief grant payments, according to Colin Keeler, director of financial systems at the South Dakota Bureau of Finance and Management. About a dozen complaints of potential fraud and abuse are being investigated by the state and its contractors, Keeler said. Also, mistakes have been found on several dozen grant applications that are under review or have been fixed, Keeler said.

Cammack testimony, websites reveal Texas ties

In March 2020, before the pandemic landed hard in South Dakota, and several months before he would receive more than $700,000 in state coronavirus relief grants, Chris Cammack told a legislative committee why he moved his family and business to Texas a few years ago.

Cammack testified by phone before the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on March 3, 2020, in favor of a bill that would allow non-residents of South Dakota to get a special license to hunt on land they own in the state. Cammack’s father, Sen. Gary Cammack, R-Union Center, chaired the committee during the hearing that day.

Chris Cammack told the committee that he had been interested in taxidermy since he was a boy, and later, while living and working on his family’s ranch in Union Center, he started Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios.

Cammack told lawmakers that as the business flourished, he and his wife, Felicia Cammack, took on a big job building a museum in Austin, Texas, and while there, found a taxidermy business for sale near Houston.

Cammack told the committee that his South Dakota taxidermy business “outgrew” the Union Center location and that he and his wife were doing so much taxidermy work in Texas that “we ended up purchasing a taxidermy shop in Houston, Texas, which is where we reside, where our home mostly is now,” according to an archived tape of the hearing.

Cammack added: “I still own cattle, I still own land in South Dakota, I still come back to South Dakota every chance I get, but work calls me to Texas.”

Chris Cammack

Cammack testified that the non-resident hunting bill, which passed and was eventually signed into law, would help him keep family ties to South Dakota.

“We’re on the road most always, whether it’s in Texas or everywhere, all over,” Cammack testified, noting that he had a daughter he someday wanted to take hunting in South Dakota. “It’s so important to me that I’m able to bring my daughter back to my own personal land in South Dakota and let her hunt.”

That taxidermy studio … it outgrew Union Center. I still own cattle, I still own land in South Dakota, I still come back to South Dakota every chance I get, but work calls me to Texas.

Chris Cammack in 2020 legislative testimony

CLICK TO HEAR CHRIS CAMMACK’S 2020 LEGISLATIVE TESTIMONY

Property records from Harris County, Texas, and other documentation appear to support Chris Cammack’s legislative testimony that he lives and works in Cypress, a suburb of Houston.

The combined Brush Country/Prairie Mountain studios in Texas performs taxidermy and also constructs elaborate trophy rooms, which can include dozens of animals, murals, water features and animatronics.

After Chris and Felicia Cammack bought Brush Country Studios, Texas tax records show the business was registered with the state on Dec. 30, 2014 under ownership of Chris Cammack. On Feb. 5, 2015, a limited liability company called PM Wildlife Studios at the same address in Cypress was registered with the state of Texas under ownership of Chris Cammack.

Property records from Harris County show that Chris Cammack owns adjacent properties in Cypress — a 7,341-square-foot building at 16526 Cypress Rosehill Road, which Google maps lists as the Brush Country taxidermy studio; and a 4,415-square-foot single-family residence at 16522 Cypress Rosehill Road owned by Chris and Felicia Cammack.

A satellite view of the Cypress address for Brush Country Studios on Google Maps shows a long building with several cars in the parking lot. A large home sits just south of the studio building.

This image from Google Maps shows the Cypress, Texas properties owned by Chris Cammack. The Brush Country/Prairie Mountain studios building has a red roof at the top of the image, and the home just to the south has a gray roof. Photo: Google Maps

On their company website, Chris and Felicia Cammack tell how Brush Country and Prairie Mountain were merged.

“After ten years of running a successful taxidermy shop in South Dakota, Chris and Felicia acquired a taxidermy shop in Cypress, Texas called Brush Country Studios where they continue to produce world class pieces of taxidermy. Chris and Felicia partnered their companies together to build world class trophy rooms all across the world to create two companies with one goal,” the website states. “Brush Country Studios Taxidermy, in Cypress Texas, and Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios have joined forces to offer World Class custom designed Trophy Rooms.”

On the Brush Country/Prairie Mountain company website, the address for the business is listed as 16526 Cypress Rosehill Road in Cypress, Texas, and separate Facebook pages for Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios and Brush Country Studios both list the Cypress address. The Facebook pages and business website have phone numbers with area codes in the Houston area, and the salesman for the company lists a cell number on the website with a Texas area code.

Texas state tax records show Chris Cammack as the owner of Brush Country Studios in Cypress and another business called PM Wildlife Studios, also located at the business address in Cypress.

Felicia Cammack also has a LinkedIn page where she lists her job as taxidermist/mural artist for Brush Country Studios in Houston.

Chris Cammack did not return an email or multiple phone calls from News Watch to the business in Cypress, Texas and to his cell phone seeking comment. The business card of a News Watch reporter was given personally in July to Gary Cammack, who said his son would call the reporter, though his son never did.

A call seeking comment from Jim Peterson, a Spearfish taxidermist who lists himself on his LinkedIn page as general manager of Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios, also was not returned.

Chris Cammack’s business in Union Center, S.D., received two separate grants from the state Coronavirus Relief Fund for financial losses reported during the pandemic in 2020. Photo: Bart Pfankuch, South Dakota News Watch

Questions about activity at Union Center site

In South Dakota, Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios is listed as an LLC in good standing under ownership of Chris Cammack. State records show it has a physical address at 16970 Highway 34 in Union Center, and its mailing address is a post office box in Union Center.

The PPP loan documents estimate that in 2019, Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios in Union Center, S.D., had 10 employees and an annual payroll of about $775,000, according to Small Business Administration information on the website Federalpay.org.

In Union Center, there is a sign for Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios at the entrance to the Cammack family ranch on the north side of Highway 34. The ranch property has a house on one side, and to the east sits a white, barn-like structure that has a small apartment on the second floor. A large hoop building is attached to the building.

A News Watch reporter visited the Union Center site twice in June and again in mid-July and saw no activity at the site.

During the July visit, the reporter knocked on the door of the studio building and apartment and got no answer; the studio contained some taxidermy animal heads on the wall but did not have obvious signs of work being done. No people were present.

As the News Watch reporter was leaving, Sen. Cammack drove up and gave a brief, taped interview in which he indicated that his son’s business is in Texas but that his son lives in Union Center. The reporter informed the senator that inquiries were being made about COVID relief grants made to South Dakota businesses.

“He’s in Texas, but this is where he lives, here,” Sen. Cammack said when asked how his son could be reached. “Most of the time he spends on people’s job sites.”

Cammack said his son spent almost three years living in a camper on a job site in Texas, where he built a large wildlife gallery. Cammack said one job included outfitting of a 48,000-square-foot building with 95-foot ceilings.

Gary Cammack

Asked about Chris and his wife listing a Texas address on the state taxidermy association website, Sen. Cammack replied: “They go there once in a while because of his business being there,” adding, “this is home here … this is where he lives; his mail comes here, he votes here.”

Sen. Cammack later added: “That [Texas] is where the studio, the business is. This is the home address; the studio, like I told you, is the address down there.”

When asked, “So that’s the actual business down there [in Texas]?” Cammack replied, “Yeah, yeah. He was doing the taxidermy and he still manufactures a lot here, but right now they’re not because like everything, you can’t get materials.”

Other than the main home on the Cammack family ranch, the other residential structure is a 640-square-foot loft above the taxidermy studio, according to Meade County property records. The records show the taxidermy studio is 1,280 square feet and has a 3,360-square-foot hoop building attached.

Meanwhile, Brian Walker, a 15-year resident of Union Center who manages the CBH Co-Op Cenex convenience store across the highway from the Cammack ranch, said in July that he had not seen recent activity at the studio building on the ranch property.

“I haven’t seen Chris for a long time, so I don’t know that he’s living or working here; it’s been a year, probably two years,” said Walker, who noted that he is often at his convenience store business seven days a week. “As far as I knew, I thought he [Chris] moved to Texas five years ago.”

In late September, News Watch called Walker again and was told that after the News Watch reporter’s July visit with Sen. Cammack at the ranch, activity at the Union Center studio had picked up.

“It was very shortly after you came around, we started seeing them over there, and they’re actually building things there,” Walker said. “It was kind of a weird coincidence, it was shortly after you came around that we started seeing more people over there, and Chris has been around and they’re back to building things.”

These separate reports from the website Federalpay.org show that companies owned by Chris Cammack with nearly the same names in Texas and South Dakota received forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans from the federal government in January 2021. Photo: Bart Pfankuch, South Dakota News Watch

COVID payments received in South Dakota and Texas

In Cypress, Texas, the studio building owned by Chris Cammack at 16526 Cypress Rosehill Road is valued at nearly $1.2 million, and the home owned by Chris and Felicia Cammack at 16522 Cypress Rosehill Road in Cypress is valued at $881,471.

Harris County, Texas, property records also show three listings for business properties owned by Chris Cammack, including one for Brush Country Studios and two for PM Wildlife Studios, at the 16526 Cypress Rosehill Road address.

Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios in South Dakota received $424,214 in state coronavirus relief funds on Jan. 15, 2021, and $285,578 on Jan. 22, 2021, according to state records.

Chris Cammack’s businesses also received forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans from the federal government during the pandemic totaling almost $800,000 for two taxidermy businesses that have nearly the same names in both South Dakota and Texas.

Federal records show that Chris Cammack’s companies in both South Dakota and Texas received PPP loans at the same time in 2020 and 2021 totaling $798,217 to pay employees at both locations. PPP loans were designed to help companies suffering financial losses during the pandemic to keep employees paid and working. PPP loans can be forgiven if certain conditions are met, and records show that Cammack’s applications likely have allowed for or will allow for full forgiveness of the loans.

Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios in Union Center received a $153,600 PPP loan as a “male-owned” business in April 2020 under the “Miscellaneous Store Retailers” section of the program. That loan was to protect 10 jobs with an annual payroll of $737,280 in 2019, according to Small Business Administration information on Federalpay.org.

Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios of Union Center received a second PPP loan of $161,417 in January 2021 as a “female-owned” business under the “Specialty Trade Contractors” section of the program. That loan was to protect 10 jobs with an estimated annual payroll of $774,802, SBA records show.

At the same time, Cammack’s LLC in Texas, PM Wildlife Studios, received a $241,600 PPP loan in April 2020 as a “female-owned” business under the “All Other Personal Services” section of the program. That loan was to protect 25 jobs at an estimated annual 2019 payroll of $1.16 million.

PM Wildlife Studios in Texas then received a second PPP loan of $241,600 in January 2021 as a “female-owned” business under the “Support Activities for Animal Production” section of the program. That loan was to protect 27 jobs at an estimated annual payroll of $1.16 million, according to Federalpay.org. 

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