Investigators release bombshell autopsy of Cindy Hill-run Wyoming Education Department

2013-06-19T07:15:00Z 2013-07-17T07:30:07Z Investigators release bombshell autopsy of Cindy Hill-run Wyoming Education DepartmentBy JEREMY FUGLEBERG Star-Tribune staff writer The Billings Gazette

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The Wyoming Department of Education may have illegally used federal funds to pay for pet programs banned by state law, improperly used the state aircraft and bullied and drove out employees under state Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill, according to a lengthy report released Tuesday by state investigators.

The 185-page report -- released as raw data without comment by investigators -- provides the most in-depth, public look yet at the department under Hill's tenure since January 2011 and unveils details some legislators say could be grounds for impeachment.

The report is based on interviews with dozens of employees and members of the department's senior leadership, including Hill.

Gov. Matt Mead ordered the investigators to study the department after state legislators stripped Hill of her power over the department earlier this year and replaced her with a governor-appointed director.

Hill said she hoped her interviews would speak for themselves in a statement issued after the report was released. She also slammed a "handful of employees" who she said sought to undermine her. Hill said the report shows "this group" used "secret off-site meetings, code words and secret communications" in its efforts.

However, the report details a department division that held off-site meetings to allow employees to talk freely away from a workplace wracked with fear, code words employed to aid employees afraid for their physical safety at work, and a letter sent by a department employee to her state legislator after an odd Hill-run meeting during which employees were asked to demonstrate their trust in the superintendent by standing in a circle and squeezing each other's hands.

The letter galvanized legislators' work on the bill that ultimately stripped Hill of her power and led to the state investigators' report.

Misused funds, flouted laws

The report lays out troubling details of the Hill-run department. 

In it, current employees of the department describe how federal funds designated for special education and English literacy programs were re-routed to pay for teacher training programs that had been banned by state lawmakers.

In one case, the department paid for a teacher training program by shifting costs; invoices were sent to the Wyoming State Reading Council, which then billed the department -- a roundabout move that essentially masked what the money was paying for.

The money, a $40,000 contract for English Language Learners training, was removed from a contractor in July, moved in-house by the department, then used to pay for a teacher-to-teacher training program known as 3+8=Reading Success. Teacher-to-teacher training was effectively prohibited by the Legislature in its 2012 session, but employees told investigators the department instituted the training anyway. Investigators also obtained material from the training that verified the claim and appeared to be copied, possibly in violation of copyright law.

The department leadership "was still doing what the Legislature had told them not to do, which was doing the Teacher-to-Teacher," said one employee. Hill told investigators she had just learned about the contract a week prior to her interview with them, or the week of April 22.

In another case, the department flouted the state law by shielding its 3+8 training by describing it as a special education professional development program, a designation that upset teachers who attended the training and suspected the department was doing wrong. 

The Special Education Literacy Training program, also known as SpLit, was essentially identical to the 3+8 program. A number of department employees told investigators the masked program quickly raised red flags, since SpLit was funded through federal dollars specifically meant for programs aimed at those who work with children with disabilities.

The report says an employee called "Washington" -- likely the U.S. Department of Education -- and was told "no way can federal funds be used to pay for the SpLit program," another employee told investigators. 

Money from the budget for a department office in Laramie closed under Hill's watch was used to reimburse teachers who took the training.

According to the department's leadership, including Hill, the Legislature hadn't banned professional development, and in fact, the training that took place wasn't a teacher-to-teacher training program as defined by lawmakers, since teacher-to-teacher is instead a delivery method.

The federal funds designated for special education teachers was understood to be available for training for anyone who had direct contact with or an impact on special education students, agency leaders said.

But state House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, expressed shock at the department's moves.

“That means diverting funds away from our neediest students to run a program that the Legislature forbade,” he said Tuesday. “It shows a total disrespect for the law.”

Later, according to investigators, a federal oversight agency did allow some of the federal funds to pay just more than half the program costs by justifying the training for special education teachers. The rest of the training cost was covered by various state money sources, including the state's general fund.

The investigators also gathered numerous accounts of employees who were stunned to find parts of their budgets locked by department leadership for use elsewhere. The locked money would sometimes be freed, too late for it to be used for its intended budgeted purposes. Investigators also chronicled numerous attempts by the department to access restricted money -- often federal funds with very specific guidelines -- to spend on unrelated projects. In one case, an employee said she fought against department leadership's efforts to spend $8,000 of federal literacy program money on bookmarks. 

As investigators described it: "She objected to that expenditure, that it didn’t fall within the guidelines, but it is her belief the expenditure was made anyway. She felt the funds were spent on activities that didn’t align with the grant."

In response, Christine Steele, deputy superintendent under Hill, said some costs were distributed across the department, tapping numerous divisions. All division directors had some say in the decisions, she told investigators.

"Christine states that encumbrances upon budgets should not have been a surprise. Division directors were involved in the discussions; those were the persons the leadership had the most communication with," investigators reported.

State aircraft misuse

In September, Hill flew to Jackson on the state's airplane. With her were a number of employers who later said they were unsure why they had been asked to fly along with the superintendent. 

While in Jackson, Hill reportedly attended a lunch at a country club, while the others continued to wonder why they had been invited. Later, those who flew along found their budgets charged for the flight, they told investigators.

"They were asked to go along to Jackson so the federal programs' budgets could help pay for the plane. When they went to Jackson, Cindy left for a lunch at the country club or somewhere. They did go to the Jackson school; it really was not something that was beneficial to the [federal] programs," investigators reported from an employee interview.

Hill routinely subsidized her trips around the state on the government's airplane by essentially taking money from various parts of the state's education budget, investigators found.

Parts of the education budget have strict rules for how money is spent, requiring that if money is spent on travel costs, those traveling must prove the travel serves the program for which the money was set aside.

Yet those interviewed by the state's investigators said senior department leaders called around to find people from various education budget programs to fly on the plane to different locations, thus allowing the department to pay for the trip from each person's portion of the budget.

"The practice was to fill up the plane so they could call upon the budgets of the persons who filled seats to help pay for the trip," one employee told investigators.

In some cases, interviewees said, the department's leaders were turned down by those who were concerned the flight costs couldn't be justified under their budget conditions. 

Questioned about the Jackson flight, Hill pleaded ignorance.

"Relative to the Jackson trip, Cindy didn’t know how that was paid for," the investigators reported. "When it was indicated to Cindy that federal funds had been used to pay for Tori’s and Christine’s trips and there was no indication they did any work relative to those federal funds, Cindy stated that she didn’t check to see how the plane trips were being funded."

Workplace difficulty

Page after page of interviews in the report show many employees felt intimidated and traumatized while working in the department. 

In a particularly harrowing set of interviews, employees describe setting up code words to protect fellow employees afraid for their safety, particularly "young, pretty girls," against a threat never defined in the report. Employees would call fellow employees away for fake meetings to avoid the undefined threat.

One employee brought bear spray to work. Another brought a baseball bat -- as a joke -- to carry to the women's bathroom, but admitted other women carried the bat with them to the restroom as a genuine safety measure. Employees designed an informal buddy system to walk in pairs to their vehicles.

Employees reported numerous incidents that made them uncomfortable, particularly on Nov. 19 and Jan. 23. 

On Nov. 19, Hill and Steele checked an office wall for sound, fearing people could hear what was being said on the other side, an employee reported -- ostensibly in response to "something in the newspaper that had upset Cindy." Hill told investigators she was worried about confidentiality.

That same day, Hill's birthday, Hill cut a cake with a knife and, beset by a recent report critical of her and the department,  said something similar to "I will not be bullied" and said she knew how to deal with bullies because she worked in a junior high school, according to numerous employee reports. Some employees told investigators Hill waved the knife.

Hill told investigators she didn't "know how to respond to that . . . . Holy smokes.” She said she couldn't remember ever wielding a knife in her whole life. She couldn't imagine that happening. She did recall they ran out of plates during that birthday celebration.

Also that day, a number of employees were called into a meeting on short notice and asked to express their support for the leadership of the department of education by stepping forward, standing in a circle and squeezing each other's hands. Reported investigators: "When asked if this was a team-building exercise, employee stated, 'No, it was more like a brain washing session to get people on her side.'" Hill reportedly told employees at the meeting she wouldn't follow the Legislature's dictates regarding accountability, although she's continued to deny she made such a statement.

In the wake of the meeting, employee Beth VanDeWege wrote a letter describing the incident to the Legislature. The letter galvanized legislators already planning to closely examine the superintendent's position and duties, as well as address broader concerns about accountability in the department.

On Jan. 23, Hill called for a series of employees to undergo individual questioning about the bizarre Nov. 19 meeting. Employees lined the hall and were brought in for questioning -- questions that seem to focus on what they thought happened at the meeting. In a workplace seemingly already fearful, the line-up felt like a death sentence, according to the report. As one employee described it: “It literally looked like people being marched into the gas chamber.” That employee filed a formal complaint after the questioning.

After reading the VanDeWege letter, Hill told investigators she realized the meeting was uncomfortable. She said in the wake of the letter she decided the questioning -- conducted by someone from outside the department -- would be useful to gauge how employees were feeling. Said the investigators: "Cindy states team building is important to her and she has expressed that all along."

Road to impeachment

The report is still being read and digested by many around the state, including a number of state leaders. 

Gov. Matt Mead will review the report after he returns from a trade mission in Canada on Wednesday night, said his press secretary, Renny MacKay.

"This report will provide a baseline of information so that the superintendent's office, the Department of Education, the public and decision makers can move ahead,” MacKay said Tuesday.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, said that as voters read the audit report, they should remember that it is the result of the Legislature's reorganization of the Department of Education through Senate File 104 and the legislators' belief that education is the most important function of the state.

The Legislature believed that the Education Department under Hill's direction was obstructing efforts to fix the long-standing systemic problems within the department. The people also should read the report carefully and decide whether there is any misconduct or malfeasance, he said.

If they think there is, they have to decide, he said, whether the conduct is sufficient for impeachment "or is that something that belongs to voters at the next election."

"I recommend that nobody make a quick decision," Nicholas added.

With respect to members of the Wyoming House, Nicholas said he has heard talk of impeachment. The Wyoming Constitution gives the House the responsibility to start impeachment proceedings.

"I hope they would sit back and be very cool about it," he added.

Lubnau, the speaker of the House,  said it’s going to take some time to decide the next course of action.

“Any talk about the impeachment process before we digest the report is premature,” Lubnau said. “But it’s not something that I would rule out.

“Nobody wanted it to be like this,” he added.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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