Officials: Hill report might spur federal response

2013-06-20T00:05:00Z 2013-07-17T07:30:07Z Officials: Hill report might spur federal responseBy KYLE ROERINK Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
June 20, 2013 12:05 am  • 

CASPER, Wyo. — State lawmakers and agency officials are keeping quiet about the next chapter in the Cindy Hill narrative.

No one would say specifically what actions -- if any -- might be taken in response to a scathing report from Gov. Matt Mead’s inquiry team that alleged Hill misused federal funds, intimidated employees and abused her privileges to use a state-owned airplane as state superintendent of public instruction.

Hints of possible impeachment proceedings surfaced from lawmakers after the report was released, and the question of whether the state or federal government would prosecute Hill or others in the Wyoming Department of Education also surfaced. But members of the Legislature are saying that they need to “digest” the report before they possibly take action.

“The report highlighted a high level of dysfunction," said Rep. Matt Teeters, R-Lingle. “It went far beyond what I thought.”

The Legislature in January approved Senate File 104, which stripped Hill of much of her duties. It also created a governor-appointed director position for the Education Department.

Interim Director Jim Rose said Wednesday that state employees have been trying to "clean up" the agency's issues.

Fears of action by the federal government stem from a reported misuse of funds for the Special Education Literacy Training program, also known as SpLit. The report alleges that the funds allotted for special education programs were instead used for a teacher training program, 3+8=Reading Success.

“There’s a potential that the feds will step in with respect to the federal grants that were used for some programs,” said Rep. Tim Stubson, R-Casper.

The state Department of Education contacted the federal Department of Education to ask for guidance on how it should move money around to avoid backlash from Washington, D.C., said Dianne Bailey, finance director for the state body.

The state’s general fund dollars have been used to fill some of the gaps, Rose said. But they may not be enough.

Rose said he wouldn’t be surprised if the federal government took action.

“The federal future is cloudy,” he said.

Rose said a forensic audit that was mandated by the Legislature is on its way. “That is one more piece that hasn’t even surfaced yet,” he said.

Teeters co-sponsored SF104. He said he was aware of the department’s misuse of public funds in the month before the bill became law. He said the workings of the department became a liability for the state, which is one reason why he pushed for the legislation to pass both chambers of the Legislature.

Lawmakers and agency officials aren’t saying what will happen next, except that there will be further investigation.

Teeters said the Legislature will have deliberate conversations about the next step in repairing the damage that the report alleges. “We’re going to have to make a determination as to what we’re going to do with that info,” he said.

After the release of the report on Tuesday, Speaker of the House Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, said it would take time to decide the proper course of action for the state. He said that he wouldn’t rule out the idea of impeachment.

The federal Department of Education received the report Wednesday and said it wouldn’t be ready to comment until later this week.

The report also hints at possible nepotism in the department during Hill’s tenure. The deputy director of the department’s special education unit, Stephanie Weaver, terminated an employee, it says. Weaver's sister, Stacy McFadden, was hired 18 hours later, according to the report.

State statute says no public employee shall advocate or cause the employment, appointment, promotion, transfer or advancement of a family member to an office or position of the state.

Other employees interviewed McFadden, she was qualified for the position by the state Department of Administration and Information, and was approved for hire by an Education Department division administrator, according to the report. The records indicate that McFadden was the only person who was interviewed. There is no indication Weaver interviewed or participated in the decision to hire her.

That wasn’t the only time Weaver’s name came up in the report. Weaver and another special education unit employee, Suzanne Lilygren, purchased more than $8,000 worth of goods from a store of which their husbands are part owners, according to the report.

Mead has been on a weeklong trip to Canada and hasn’t been able to carefully review the report, said Renny MacKay, his spokesman. The governor will confer with state Attorney General Greg Phillips on the matter, MacKay said. Phillips declined to comment on the likelihood of a civil case being brought against Hill or the state Education Department. Criminal cases would be in the jurisdiction of the district or county courts. The Laramie County district attorney did not return a call from the Star-Tribune.

If the audit and the report warrant legal action from the state or federal government, the dozens of people, including current and former employees, who were interviewed by Mead’s four-person inquiry team could be called to testify or give depositions, Rose said.

The release of the report has opened old wounds for some department employees, Rose said.

Six employees developed health issues requiring medical attention and/or medication because of the working environment in the department, the report stated. Two of those employees reported seeking medical treatment shortly after interactions with senior leadership during Hill’s tenure, according to the report.

Rose said he hasn’t fostered a utopian work environment for all department employees since he started as interim director in February, but he said morale has improved.

“There are still significant challenges,” he said.

The investigation into Hill's tenure spanned four months. It started Feb. 19 and ended Tuesday, MacKay said. The cost came out of the attorney general’s current budget. The total cost of the investigation has not been determined, he said.

More than 60 people were interviewed for the inquiry. Some were whistleblowers who had reached out to legislative leadership in the beginning of the session, which started in January. Others were asked to participate. Hill and her closest aides gave testimony as well.

The investigators were Catherine MacPherson, a private attorney from Rawlins; Norm Bratton from the Department of Audit; Joyce Hefeneider from A and I’s budget division, and Joe Simpson, a Health Department employee who formerly worked in the Education Department, MacKay said.

Hill said that the people deserve to hear the entire story behind the report. Her office issued a media release Tuesday that said the vast majority of allegations raised in the report were never brought to the her attention or that of her senior staff.

Hill was giving a presentation on education accountability at the National Conference on Student Assessment in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

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