CASPER, Wyo. — The Wyoming House of Representatives will form a special committee to investigate allegations of wrongdoings in the state Department of Education under Cindy Hill’s watch.
It could be the first step toward impeachment proceedings against the elected state superintendent of public instruction.
Tuesday’s announcement came a week after investigators from Gov. Matt Mead’s inquiry team released a report indicating Hill mismanaged public funds, improperly used public money to pay for trips on the state’s airplane and mistreated employees.
A majority of House members joined with House leadership to support spending taxpayer dollars on a committee to further investigate the allegations.
Speaker of the House Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, said that because the report only made accusations, the people of Wyoming have a right to know what really happened under Hill’s management.
“It is time to hear explanations from all parties,” he said.
Hill and more than 60 department employees were interviewed for the report. They are eligible to testify to the committee once the Legislature’s Management Council sets the rules, guidelines, dates and other parameters necessary for conducting a committee during the interim period. The committee will be divided into subcommittees.
“It will be a way to end this chapter in Wyoming history and bring it to resolution,” Lubnau said.
Lubnau said in addition to Hill being able to testify, there will be no discovery processes or depositions and she will have the right to ask clarifying questions regarding any witness testimony.
Lubnau chose the House Rules Committee to serve as the special committee. The committee will be tasked with examining the 185-page report and trying to subpoena an extra 5,800 investigation documents that have been sealed as “classified.” No lawmaker has seen the classified documents, Lubnau said.
Every member on the committee voted in January in favor of Senate File 104, the legislation that stripped Hill of much of her powers as the superintendent and created an appointed director for the Education Department. Six of the seven House leadership members sit on the committee.
“That’s no surprise,” Hill told the Star-Tribune.
She issued a media release after the House’s announcement with a dateline of Salem, Wyoming — a reference to the witch trials in Salem, Mass., in the late 1600s, to indicate she considers herself the subject of a witch hunt.
“The ‘independent’ inquiry team spent the last four months, hundreds of hours of employee time, and over $100,000 in outside costs investigating me,” Hill said in the release. “This was not the first legislator-directed-taxpayer-funded investigation of my administration. The audit of assessment accounts showed no findings, and by the account of the auditor, the audit results were remarkable ... In 2012, the Legislature paid two individuals about $250,000 to conduct an investigation. Nothing came of that.”
Meanwhile, emails between lawmakers this past week showed a division in the House about what to do with the allegations made against Hill in the report.
Those in the minority wanted to do nothing or let state or federal prosecutors bring charges against Hill.
Those efforts failed.
All of those who wanted the special committee were the same people who voted for SF104, said Rep. Tom Reeder, R-Casper.
He was opposed to the committee. He wanted to see prosecutors handle the matter.
“But since that’s not going to happen, it will just cost the state more money and more time,” he said.
Rep. Gerald Gay, R-Casper, said the committee process is pointless because of the effects of SF104.
“(Hill) is just a ceremonial entity at this point,” he said. “The people elected her, and she won her election fair and square. SF104 didn’t un-elect her, but it effectively did without due process.”
But a majority of the House disagrees with that viewpoint because of the severity of the accusations made in the report.
There needs to be more scrutiny of the allegations of financial mismanagement, said Rep. Tim Stubson, R-Casper.
“We owe that to the taxpayers and we owe it to the superintendent as well,” he said. “She should have an opportunity to air her position. The only way to do that is in an organized process that the speaker has proposed.”
The House’s announcement came to light on the same day that Hill’s office denounced the report in a chapter-by-chapter response.
Hill’s statement hinted that she and her staff had begun laying the framework for arguments they will make before the committee.
One of the hottest topics in the governor’s report focused on Hill’s use of funds designated for student testing and assessment. The report claims the money was used for training and development programs instead of where the Legislature demanded it go. In her release, Hill contended it was not a mismanagement of funds even though the Legislature barred her from running the program in the 2012 budget.
Hill said she and her staff had met with numerous state officials to determine what amount of funds should go where. Hill staffer John Masters said there was an agreement between state officials about how much money needed to go into the coffers for testing and assessment.
Hill’s interpretation of the budget amendment was that her office was following the law.
“The confusion created by the footnote regarding segregation and dedication of funding was the subject of review by (the state Department of Administration and Information) and the governor’s office, both of which agreed that the amounts set aside for education testing and assessment were properly calculated and properly applied throughout 2012,” according to Hill’s release.
Lubnau disagreed with the superintendent’s interpretation of the law. State law forbade her from running those programs, he said.
“Can the statute be any clearer?” he said.