Of all the assets Joe Ricketts has secured in his 77 years—and there are many—a ranch in Wyoming is particularly close to his heart. He refers to it as Yellowstone without the crowds: A band of property nearly the size of Manhattan, running straight through two alpine-covered mountain ranges, along a wide river.
Purchased for $15 million in 1998, Jackson Fork was the billionaire’s first property outside of Omaha, bought right around the time his stock trading company, which eventually became TD Ameritrade, went public. It’s where Ricketts first began raising bison—an endeavor that hasn’t made him much money, comparatively, but which remains a beloved hobby for a Nebraska-bred businessman who made most of his fortune sitting in boardrooms pushing numbers around.
“A person has to be rich to be a farmer or rancher,” Ricketts once wrote to an associate, “irrespective of how they may want to present themselves.” And Ricketts, who made his first million selling discount stocks in Nebraska, prefers to present himself as a job creator, not a rich man. The fabulously wealthy and influential tend to face scrutiny, and he would prefer to keep himself away from the public eye. The ranch at Jackson Fork acts as a buffer between the one-time libertarian and everyone else: A private piece of the American range where his visits can remain discreet and no one can tell him what to do.
Since making his fortune in the finance industry two decades ago, the conservative billionaire has been secretive about the extent of his wealth and how he spends it, going to some lengths later in life to prevent his name from appearing on the Forbes list of richest Americans. “I don’t want to ever be on that list,” he wrote to a friend in 2013. “However, I do want to make as much money as possible.”
Large sums of that money have gone to political candidates sympathetic to his anti-regulatory beliefs, as well as untold millions to causes more difficult to divine. A 2012 funding forecast prepared by one of his money managers, and obtained by Splinter, sets aside $12.6 million for “electioneering activities”—defined as “activities intended to influence public opinion”—and less than $100,000 of traceable funds to individual candidates or PACs. (On the details of these donations, and a long list of additional questions, Ricketts has declined to comment.)
Ricketts is not as wealthy or notorious as fellow ranchers like the Koch brothers or Jeff Bezos. It’s unlikely you would have heard his name. His business did not monopolize an entire segment of the retail industry; he hasn’t funded a vast, generations-long network of think tanks bearing his name. Accordingly, there have been no lengthy interrogations of his particular influence on the economy, or on democracy, though he clearly aligns himself with the people who have been scrutinized for doing so: In 2011, for example, he quietly considered a proposal to defend the Koch brothers against negative reports in the press.
Quietly is how Ricketts usually prefers to exert his power. It’s an insidious luxury available to people like him with the money to buy not just influence, but the kind that doesn’t put a person in the public eye. According to Google’s index of search terms over time, Ricketts’ moment in the spotlight came in 2012, when a racist anti-Obama ad campaign affiliated with his family leaked to the New York Times. Then his associates did some damage control, and his name faded back into obscurity. Meanwhile, he continued to pour money into the conservative PACs he founded, $100 million of which he has told his sons he will leave for them to continue his political activities after his death.
Ricketts depends on his relative anonymity to influence business and politics without interruption or unsolicited input. Since his retirement, he has used his fortune and low profile to evade an audience as he tackles issues as diverse as federal elections and land use. A lot of power in America is wielded by people who rely on the public to be disinterested in them and what they get up to amongst themselves. And if you have enough money in America, there are myriad ways to make sure no one knows—or really cares—who you are.
As a staging ground, Jackson Fork Ranch is an invaluable piece of political capital, perhaps more than it is useful as a bison-raising endeavor. There are at least three homes on the property, and the Ricketts family offers free luxury stays to business associates and potential allies. Serious meetings happen there over bison burgers and outdoor sport.
Before Joe Ricketts decided to donate $5 million to Scott Walker’s 2016 presidential campaign, the two spent time on the ranch together. John Boehner visited to go fly-fishing with the patriarch in 2012. And Ricketts guards his Wyoming residency intensely, making sure he logs enough days in the state to take advantage of the tax incentives it offers for him and his family’s network of trusts.
These extracurricular interests notwithstanding, Ricketts prefers to foreground his ranch as part of his legacy as a titan of business and an American in the most traditional sense. In 2012, in a rare interview, Ricketts allowed the TV show American Rancher to interview him and shoot B-roll of the animals he was raising at Jackson Fork.
“The United States is unique,” he told the interviewer towards the close of the half-hour show. “Hopefully we’re not getting into a situation where we lose that ... We’re the only nation that ever has said, the pursuit of happiness is important to our citizens. So people need to take advantage of that.”
Considering all of this, Joe Ricketts wasn’t pleased when the federal government proposed to issue oil and gas leases in his part of Wyoming in the mid-2000s, which would allow drilling in the vast wilderness surrounding his ranch. Ricketts was then worth about $2.3 billion; he owned, personally and through his various businesses, property in Aspen, Manhattan, London, and Cannes, in addition to stakes in a few private jets. But to protect his ranch—which didn’t sell its first bison until 2005—he did what any influential American might do in the pursuit of his own happiness: He spent money quietly to tug at various strings.
Some requests for intervention were made personally, in letters to politicians: According to former Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson, who was running against Ricketts’ son Peter at the time, Ricketts wrote a letter asking him to “take immediate action to stop” the leases granted by the federal government. “These developments would have direct and indirect impacts on my businesses at Jackson Fork Ranch,” Ricketts wrote. Around the same time, the billionaire began orchestrating less direct efforts—conservation initiatives, mediated by his representatives, that centered his interests though not initially his name.
Mike Knuth is a lobbyist for the Public Affairs Company. Recently, he’s been linked to flimsy awards for “Health Innovation” granted to congressmen by pharmaceutical companies. Ricketts retained Knuth to deal with the problems surrounding the oil and gas leases, which were being pursued by a now-defunct Houston company named Plains Exploration. Knuth met with representatives for Trout Unlimited, a conservation group with an interest in local waterways. In early 2007, a group called “Sportsmen for the Wyoming Range,” largely funded by Ricketts and anchored by Trout Unlimited, announced its formation in a press release. The slogan: “We are Mother Nature’s Bodyguards. And Yes, We’re Heavily Armed.”
Ricketts donated an initial $200,000 to Trout Unlimited for what Knuth referred to as “their part” of the campaign. By 2008 he had donated nearly $1 million, some of which was then paid out to Mike Knuth. Tom Reed, a conservationist with Trout Unlimited and the campaign’s central organizer, traveled across the state gathering support for legislation—passed in 2009—allowing for the private purchase and retirement of oil and gas leases in Wyoming, working with Knuth.
Concurrently, Knuth met with representatives of Plains Exploration, using Ricketts’ influence to threaten costly litigation should oil wells be located near Jackson Fork. Knuth and the oil representatives toured the area around Ricketts’ property, noting where wells could be seen from the billionaire’s home.
The governor’s office invited a select group to the table to negotiate with the oil company, away from more visible input. After all, Forest Service initiatives can get messy. With an issue as heated as this, the public comment period would have been full of competing interests. As the then-State Planning coordinator Ryan Lance notes, a lot of people with “large investments” in the area had concerns about where the company would drill. Of the four stakeholders at the table in early meetings at the governor’s office, two were associated with Joe Ricketts.
“Your funding of this campaign has bought you a seat at the negotiation table,” Knuth wrote to Ricketts in an email. “This arrangement offers you the best of all worlds in having representation/supervision of the process” while remaining unnamed.
Unimpressed by the level of commitment offered by the oil company as a compromise, Trout Unlimited eventually pulled out of the deal, though Reed is emphatic that Ricketts’ conservation efforts and his funding of the campaign left a lasting and positive legacy in the state. The ability to permanently retire lands from oil speculation is a big deal. (Mike Knuth has not responded to multiple requests for an interview.)
As the Forest Service naively drafted an impact statement and some environmental groups protested the oil company, at least two final settlements were drafted behind closed doors: One by a handful of local organizations; another confidential addendum between Plains Exploration and Joe Ricketts himself.
The latter agreement removed two wells in the vicinity of Ricketts’ property and ensured specific parcels across from his ranch would remain untouched. The road leading to his ranch would additionally be off-limits to the company’s trucks. When the settlement with the oil company was made public in 2010, a day after the Forest Service issued its report, it pledged support for the remaining 136 wells, and Ricketts’ name was nowhere to be found. Some were baffled by this surprise negotiation of a private deal.
Two years later, Ricketts donated, this time in public, $1.75 million out of the $8.75 million needed by the Trust for Public Land to buy out the remaining oil and gas leases in the valley. Today, Ricketts’ website highlights his conservation efforts in his adopted state, including loon restoration at his ranch. Wyoming still ranks fourth nationally for natural gas and oil production, just not in the area where the billionaire lives and entertains.
Reed is adamant that the work he did with Joe Ricketts was “not some NIMBY situation” weighted to give preference to the conservation of the areas surrounding the billionaire’s ranch. And it’s true that Ricketts’ personal interests were nestled deep within a broader and much rosier campaign. A year after the sale, motivated by the idea that the valley would be “pristine forever,” Ricketts began to explore a land exchange with the Forest Service to expand the boundaries of his property into the pine woods he’d helped save—the conservation deal, he wrote an employee, had inspired him to think about constructing a luxury spa and hotel.
The same year Ricketts signed the confidential settlement with the oil and gas company, he founded his own Super PAC, Ending Spending. As he told Trout Unlimited when they came looking for donations in 2012: “I am concerned with many things away from nature conservation at the current time and if Obama gets reelected I’m sure I will never be [concerned with conservation].”
He was thinking about becoming a citizen of New Zealand, he added. Ricketts went on to donate $12.5 million to the PAC he created, $10 million of which was spent towards the election of Mitt Romney, a candidate who didn’t have Ricketts’ conservation concerns and had promised to double the number of drilling permits issued for federal lands.
Romney lost and Ricketts never moved away. He remained in America, influencing elections.
An estimated 560 billionaires live in the United States, more than in any other country, and collectively they control a greater share of wealth than the bottom 60% of the American population. Only a handful of these 560-odd people do things that land them on the covers of magazines. Tom and Judy Love, the founders of the ubiquitous Midwestern Love Travel Stops, have a higher net worth than Jack Dorsey—but they don’t tweet.
Like many wealthy people who prefer to remain obscure, Ricketts sequesters himself in communities populated by like-minded people and negotiates perceptions of his influence through a team of PR professionals, lobbyists, and consultants. But to the important people—the people who desire the political capital his wealth can buy—he’s quite well known. Grover Norquist grovels for money and the Illinois governor invites Ricketts for cigars and motorcycle rides. The billionaire has taken enough meetings with Mitch McConnell to be friendly, and has given Paul Ryan his personal thoughts on the budget deficit over dinner.
During the 2016 election, Ricketts and his wife poured donations into anti-Trump Republican efforts, only to make a “stunning” about-face and pledge at least $1 million to the future president’s campaign. This endorsement was rewarded when one of his sons was offered a position in the current administration.
Ricketts doesn’t have to be the richest man in the country to influence policy. He just has to be one of the hundreds of people with enough wealth and motivation to purchase an amplified voice. In that way, and in his policy positions that favor his own interests, he is very much representative of the undercover donor class.
Ricketts doesn’t appear to believe American laws should inconvenience him, or that his actions should be of interest to anyone but himself. In emails to friends and associates he has centered his needs as a businessman, denigrating the “welfare society,” regulation, and taxation. When the IRS comes knocking, he serves them warm bison and mediates an agreeable deal; when his employees vote to unionize, he shutters the business the next week; when one of his smaller personal enterprises hires too many employees, he shuffles them around to avoid federal discrimination laws. Even the prospect of establishing a “family bank” for the personal use of his dynasty was scrapped when Ricketts discovered the entity might be subject to oversight from the SEC.
In a family document from 2009, produced as a prompt for discussion among his children—who include the Republican National Committee’s finance chairman, the governor of Nebraska, and the owners of the Chicago Cubs—Ricketts wrote that “wealthy people are a basic foundation” to a successful society, given their critical generation of wealth for charity and their role in creating jobs.
“These people are a necessary part to make societies function appropriately,” he wrote. Yet when I started reporting on Ricketts late last year, it seemed few people outside of the finance and media industries knew much about the patriarch who considers himself one of American society’s foundational figures. This is, of course, by design.
Joe Ricketts made tech money before tech money was fashionable, and he made it too late in life to get swept up by a press dedicated to boy wonders. His business, at the intersection of securities trading and the internet, grew directly out of the deregulation of brokerage firms in 1975. Until May 1, 1975, a fixed rate determined trading fees, but that May Day those rules changed, creating an entire industry of discount stock brokers. Ricketts’ business, First Omaha Securities, opened that year, promising cheap trades over a toll-free number. Ricketts’ $12,500 initial investment in the business was quickly recouped. He was 34.
Six years later, Ricketts bought out his partners and renamed the business Ameritrade. Over the next decades as CEO he would take advantage of new technologies to make his discount trades happen cheaper and at an ever-increasing clip. In the late ‘80s, Ameritrade offered automated phone trades. In the mid-’90s, it added an online trading option and bought the New York-based K. Aufhauser, the world’s first online brokerage. In 1997, the company went public and launched a national advertising slogan: “Eight bucks a trade.”
A year after, Ricketts’ firm handled 21,000 trades a day and the Nebraskan became, at age 57, an extremely wealthy man. He appeared on Forbes’ list of 100 richest Americans for the first time in 1998, in an issue that took particular note of the growing number of American millionaires under the age of 45. Ricketts, meanwhile, was nearing retirement age.
Omaha, NE, where Ricketts headquartered his company and where his family lived, is a good place to be rich and relatively unknown.
Ricketts rarely made the news outside of the financial press, though he did make one bizarre appearance with other Nebraska luminaries at the now-shuttered Omaha Press Club in 2000. In a taped appearance presented at a yearly press dinner, Regis Philbin of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire fame staged a mock show featuring Ricketts, Warren Buffett, and construction magnate Walter Scott Jr, all Omaha residents. Feigning offense at a mere million dollars, the billionaires walked off stage until the show was renamed “Who Wants to be A Jilliionaire.”
In a minor controversy around this time, Ricketts fought for nearly five years to drop the taxed appraisal of his vast mansion in Omaha, the most expensive ever sold in the city, appealing the county equalization board every year until it dropped the appraised value of the mansion he’d bought for $6.5 million to $4 million. The county was forced to pay Ricketts a $62,700 tax refund in 2003, a skirmish that would foreshadow his future conviction about what he owed for generating his wealth. “The State says that because I was financially successful that I should pay a higher rate of taxes,” he wrote many years later, in the thicket of his behind-the-scenes political career. “It is insulting as well as economically detrimental.”
In 2000, Ricketts started to pull back from his role as the sole CEO of Ameritrade (he remained as chairman) and joined the board of the American Enterprise Institute. He was estimated to be worth $1.8 billion, much of it in Ameritrade stock. He did not enjoy retirement, and soon looked for new ways to amuse himself.
In the early 2000s, Ameritrade acquired a number of other firms in an attempt to counteract the effects of the dot-com bust. Reportedly, this made the company more money in a few quarters than it had generated in the previous 28 years combined. Ricketts’ net worth, accordingly, continued to climb, swelling another 300 million by 2004, the year he turned 64. When Ameritrade took over TD Waterhouse, another firm, a year later, Ricketts received $536 million in dividends.
Even as chairman of now-combined TD Ameritrade, the fifth-largest online brokerage in the country, Ricketts professed boredom. “I wasn’t happy doing something that wasn’t productive,” he told an interviewer who sat with him at Jackson Fork Ranch, referring to a brief couple of years he’d spent in a mountain home with his wife. “I get my feeling of self-worth by developing businesses, developing jobs.”
That included an expansion of his bison business, which purchased an additional two ranches in the United States and Canada—selected using Ricketts’ Ranch Vitality Calculator (TM). The enterprise expanded, acquiring a processing business, opening a short-lived retail store, and launching an affiliated “health center” offering strength training classes and advice on a bison-based diet. (By 2007, two-thirds of bison production in the United States came from ranches operated by Ted Turner and Joe Ricketts, though the market was and remains rather small.)
In 2004, after a trip to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and an inspiring chat with a local teacher, Ricketts also founded a charitable educational initiative to fund schools in his area. His brother Jim eventually helmed the business. Over the years, Joe Ricketts appears to have considered offshoots of the original concept, including a program to bring conservative programming to “motivated students” in the “U.S. ghettos,” but the idea appears not to have gotten off the ground.
As Ricketts foregrounded his ranch and his livestock as his central business interest in public, he also quietly formed a company called Preeminent Global Experiences to buy up properties in luxurious destinations across the world. Around 2006, a company called CIEL sent around material to a small list of influential people announcing its soft launch. The Ricketts are longtime members of the Yellowstone Club, an exclusive Rocky Mountain ski and golf resort where homes start around $5 million. (The family owns two chalets there.) Initiation fees run around $300,000. Members include Ben Affleck, Bill Gates, and Justin Timberlake. Joe Ricketts embarked on a similar endeavor of global scale, promising life-altering vacation experiences to a member group capped at 100.
Aimed at clients who, like the Ricketts, were jaded by the simple prospect of global vacation properties (collectively valued at over $60 million, according to press materials) the company emphasized a rotating list of activities in mansions in France and England as well as opulent destinations across the United States. In Aspen, Snowmass, or at Jackson Fork, participants 12 and up could practice survival skills in the back-country: learning tracking, fire-making in wet conditions, and navigating by the stars before returning to their luxury estates. (“Roughing it will never be dangerous and rarely uncomfortable,” an early slide deck notes.)
The company only lasted in that form for a year, and Ricketts changed the name of his property development company not long after, buying an additional compound on Lake Ozark—formerly the Anheuser-Bush camp—to develop and sell. Two years after CIEL’s failure he moved into media, forming a film company to produce period pieces about early American history and starting what he referred to as an “information delivery company” that would eventually be called DNA Info, both in 2008. (He also invested in a series of IMAX films through a company called Giant Screen Films; they were about dinosaurs, mummies, and the sea.)
Between his media endeavors and his son Pete Ricketts’ foray into Nebraskan politics, the family name began to appear in the press with some regularity. In 2009, when Ricketts used a trust administered by his children to purchase the Chicago Cubs, the local press began to publish explainers and profiles on this family that had somewhat mysteriously appeared on the scene. Internally, the family agreed on tight talking points.
In the years following, Ricketts and his right-hand man, Alfred Levitt, used the transfer of wealth to his children for the Cubs to negotiate a lower valuation of his net worth for the public’s consumption. In what Levitt referred to in an email as an “annual discussion” with Forbes around Ricketts’ inclusion in its list of richest Americans, the Cubs and Ricketts’ wife’s stocks in Ameritrade were left out. He didn’t appear on the Forbes 400 again until 2014, after he’d garnered significant press for his role as a major donor to Republican federal causes.
The baseline net worth for entry onto the Forbes 400 has inflated nearly every year since it was launched in 1982. In 2006, the cutoff was a billion dollars. In 2018 the minimum net worth was $2.1 billion. Perhaps shielded by other, vastly richer billionaires with flashier endeavors, Ricketts continued his activities in relative obscurity. During election seasons, the political press gives the public a quick refresher on Joe Ricketts when a racist ad campaign his PAC considered leaks, or when Trump tweets about his donations. And despite his apparent wishes, he has appeared on the Forbes 400 for the last two years.
Joe Ricketts hasn’t given many substantial interviews in recent years; he prefers to direct curious parties to his website, in order to protect himself from “erroneous information,” as he once wrote a friend. On JoeRicketts.com he describes business investments in specialty food products and the low-fat, low-cholesterol bison burger, as well as the company Cloisters Domestic Products, which sells loaves of bread to offset the cost of his newest business, a silent religious retreat in Nebraska. The site also lists the Ricketts Art Foundation and restoration projects to benefit bird species. Blog posts written under his name address opioid addicts (“bankrolled by our tax dollars”) hamburgers (man’s “greatest invention”) and Trump’s stance on China (“a measure of strength and resolve”).
Little mention is made of Ending Spending, the PAC Ricketts formed in 2010, or of his political donations, which are difficult to tally given that the attending Ending Spending, Inc., a 501C(4), is exempt from disclosure. Ending Spending, now the ESAFund, presents itself as a nonpartisan organization formed to elect fiscally responsible candidates. But as Ricketts wrote to a friend the year the PAC launched, the billionaire was “spending a lot of money” to try to stop Barack Obama more than anything else: “He wants to change this country into something it has never been, more like Europe,” Ricketts wrote. “His programs will destroy our system of Free Enterprise, so he and his proposals must be stopped.”
Ricketts’ true feelings about politics, or nature conservation, are nearly impossible to divine from outside the tight circle he’s created, the parallel world of private chalets and Washington restaurants where people who make their own rules meet. With enough money, most anyone can launder their true feelings into something that looks innocuous or noble. Our country is full of people like Joe Ricketts, whose immense private authority evades public accountability by design. And really, the problem isn’t Joe Ricketts, whose ideas about business and government appear to come from the idea that anyone could, with less regulation and lower taxes, end up like Joe Ricketts himself. It’s that guys like him can exist at all, skirting laws and determining the country’s political future based on the hunch that the way they lived their lives was more correct.
In 2017, with oil wells permanently banned from the acres surrounding his ranch and a business-friendly president finally installed in the White House, Ricketts addressed the annual Finance Museum gala in New York. He opened with a story about a sociology teacher he once had in Nebraska in the ‘60s, who told him America was rich because of its vast natural resources. “When I got out of school into the real world,” he told the attendees, “I found out, you know, that really wasn’t true.”
“The thing that made us strong and prosperous was free enterprise,” he said. “If we eliminate regulation a good share of the time, we’re going to benefit greatly.”