Employee questions whether Hill, others, tampered with public records

2013-08-25T00:00:00Z 2013-11-19T16:34:06Z Employee questions whether Hill, others, tampered with public recordsBy LEAH TODD Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
August 25, 2013 12:00 am  • 

CASPER, Wyo. — A Wyoming Department of Education employee told state investigators she saw three members of department leadership, including state Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill, discard random pages from an agency response to a public records request made by the Star-Tribune more than a year ago.

Hill, who submitted her own public records request for some 80,000 state email correspondences last month, maintains she has always granted unfettered access to her department’s records. The alleged incident, she said, never occurred.

“It didn’t happen,” Hill said Friday. “We’ve asked the state to investigate (the employee’s) actions.”

John Masters, the state’s deputy superintendent of public instruction, who is also alleged to have intentionally interfered with public records, said the same.

“I don’t have a recollection because it did not happen,” Masters said. “The state will investigate that and make the determination of whether there is any truthfulness. ... I don’t know what (the employee) observed.”

Sheryl Lain, the third state employee alleged to have been involved, did not return the Star-Tribune’s request for comment late Friday afternoon.

Hill was stripped of many of her duties earlier this year when legislation signed into law by Gov. Matt Mead transferred the majority of tasks once carried out by the elected superintendent to a governor-appointed director of the Department of Education.

The employee’s account of the alleged public records incident is among dozens of previously confidential interviews with state employees. The interviews were used to compile a state inquiry into alleged behavioral and fiscal misconduct in the department under Hill’s leadership.

The employee, federal programs manager Kenya Haynes, told investigators she was working late one evening when she saw Hill, Masters and Lain “randomly pulling out pages” from a stack of public documents meant to be provided in response to a Star-Tribune records request.

“She states they were laughing as they were throwing the pages away and were remarking ‘(L)et’s see how they can make sense out of this,’” investigators said in the report.

Haynes declined to comment further on the alleged incident, except to say it occurred while former Star-Tribune education reporter Jackie Borchardt was working for the newspaper. Borchardt said she worked for the Star-Tribune from August 2009 until February 2012. Hill was elected in 2010.

“If there was another way to get (information) besides (the Wyoming Department of Education), I went that route,” Borchardt said Friday of her public records work with the department. She estimated she made about six formal public records requests of the department during her time with the Star-Tribune, and recalled several instances in which the department’s responses to her requests were incomplete.

On May 24, 2011, Borchardt requested all financial records related to the costs of producing videos for the department.

“I received back from them a response explaining how great the video was, but not telling me why they couldn’t give me the records,” Borchardt said. She revised and resubmitted her request, she said, and ultimately received travel records and a department estimate of video costs 107 days after her initial request.

But the response was lacking key information, which Borchardt said she learned after a resulting article was published. The department called Borchardt to say she had missed at least one important detail that hadn’t been included in the department’s original response, Borchardt said.

“It was very clear to me at that point that they weren’t giving me what I was asking for,” she said.

In the fall of 2011, she requested records relating to a reading project on the Wind River Indian Reservation. When Borchardt arrived in Cheyenne to examine the department’s records, contracts for some employees working at schools in Arapahoe — in which Borchardt said she was particularly interested — were missing.

“I don’t remember thinking they did this on purpose,” Borchardt said, adding that an employee at the department retrieved the contracts as she asked for them individually.

In January 2012, Borchardt received a public records response from the department that included only the odd-numbered pages of documents relating to bullying policies, she said.

After viewing the records the department released for review, Borchardt said she alerted the department that the even-numbered pages were missing. Within about an hour, she said, the department emailed electronic copies of the missing pages.

The department had initially declined to release the public records in electronic form, saying the records were not kept electronically and had to be copied individually for inspection, Borchardt said.

“(Hill) said she felt like she could answer our public requests in a more timely manner if she felt like she could trust us,” Star-Tribune Editor Darrell Ehrlick said Friday. “It certainly felt and appeared to us at times that ... they were putting up roadblocks to getting information.”

Wyoming statutes say any person who knowingly or intentionally violates the provisions of the Wyoming Public Records Act is liable for a penalty not to exceed $750.

Hill and Masters said Friday they requested investigations from the state’s Human Resources Division into Haynes’ story, among other employee allegations included in the more than 1,800 pages of now-public testimony collected by state investigators.

Mead’s spokesman, Renny MacKay, declined to confirm whether any requests for investigation had been received Friday, stating it is the state’s policy to not comment on personnel matters.

Dean Fausett, administrator of the state’s Human Resources Division, was unavailable for comment Friday afternoon.

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