Wyoming releases confidential sections of investigation into former superintendent

2013-07-16T23:45:00Z 2013-08-07T08:32:13Z Wyoming releases confidential sections of investigation into former superintendentBy JOSHUA WOLFSON, LEAH TODD and
DAVID MAYBERRY Casper Star-Tribune
The Billings Gazette

Six employees at the Wyoming Department of Education suffered stress-related health problems while working under the leadership of state schools Superintendent Cindy Hill, according to a previously confidential report released Tuesday.

The document also includes allegations from two workers who claimed Hill touched them in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. Other staff made sexual-harassment complaints against a senior member of Hill’s leadership team and nearly a dozen current and former employees described professional problems during her tenure, according to the report.

The allegations were described within hundreds of pages of previously confidential documents produced during an independent investigation of the department under Hill’s leadership. 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.

Investigators released their initial report last month. It indicated that department officials may have improperly used federal funds to pay for pet programs banned by state law and flights on a state airplane. It also recounted how some workers told investigators they felt bullied and traumatized.

Lawmakers and media organizations, including the Star-Tribune, sought the release of the larger, more detailed report that was used for the basis of the earlier document. Those documents, which had more than 1,800 pages, offered more detail about Hill’s tenure, including more allegations of sexual harassment, poor treatment and a hostile work environment.

Several workers told investigators they developed health problems as a result of their jobs at the Wyoming Department of Education. The confidential report details interviews with six employees who reportedly traced their health problems back to a stressful workplace.

The health problems ranged from headaches and sleeplessness to spikes in blood pressure and panic attacks. At least two workers told investigators they sought emergency treatment for stress-induced symptoms while working for Hill. Four employees said they started taking antidepressants or blood pressure medications as a result of their workplace environment.

One employee, whose name was blacked out in the report, told investigators she sought treatment at an emergency room on the same night she and other employees were asked to join hands and show support for Hill. The employee called the activity “intimidating,” and said she sought help for a “stress related reaction.”

Another employee said she went for urgent care the day Hill moved out of the department, after a newly passed state law removed her from running the department, put an appointed director in charge of the department and relegated Hill to largely ceremonial roles. The employee’s blood pressure had spiked after reading an online post in which she understood Hill was “telling her off,” the worker told investigators.

Another worker said she developed sleeplessness, stomach problems and panic attacks — physical problems she had “never experienced before,” she said — during the more than two years she worked for Hill. She told investigators she lost some of her top eyelashes while working at the department.

When consulted about the panic attacks and eyelashes, the woman’s doctor questioned her about being under stress. On two occasions, the employee told investigators, she felt her heart beating fast and chest tightening in response to work situations. During one situation in October 2012, she called her doctor fearing she was having a heart attack. Working at the department, she said, “had been a real test.”

In an interview with the Star-Tribune, Hill said she didn’t know her employees were experiencing so much work-related stress that it led to health problems. She said she didn’t know what caused employees to be fearful.

“There seems to be a subculture within the department that I was unaware of,” she said.

Allegations of touching

The investigative team also uncovered allegations that Hill touched two employees in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. One man told investigators Hill would often grab his shoulders and get right into his face.

“Do you support me?” the worker recalled Hill asking him. “If I ask you to do something, will you do it?”

The man also claimed Hill began rubbing his back at a meeting. The touching continued “for a long time” and he tried to “move and get away,” according to the report. Another time, Hill came into his office late in the day and allegedly started rubbing his shoulders.

“He didn’t think that was appropriate either,” the report states.

The worker stated Hill on another occasion called him into her office and began rubbing his arm as she talked to him. None of the alleged incidents were reported to human resources.

Investigators also spoke with a woman whose boyfriend worked for the education department. The woman told them her boyfriend was a “good victim of sexual harassment by Cindy,” the report states.

The woman said Hill would come up behind her boyfriend while in the office and give him neck massages. The touching made him uncomfortable.

Hill denied touching workers in a way that would make them uncomfortable. She called the allegations absurd.

“Anyone who knows me knows that’s not true,” she told the Star-Tribune. “I’m not someone who goes around giving neck massages and grabs people … that’s just not me.”

Hill said she hadn’t read the latest report. Asked specifically about one of the men who made the allegations, the superintendent called him a decent human being, but insisted she didn’t know what he was talking about.

Hill acknowledged patting people on the back at times, but nothing more.

Other complaints

The report also indicates multiple education department workers made sexual harassment complaints against Kevin Lewis, a senior member of Hill’s leadership team. One woman complained about Lewis touching her arm in the spring of 2011. Lewis allegedly left her alone after that, but later barged into the women’s bathroom while she was inside fixing her shirt, according to her statement to investigators.

Lewis apologized and left, but the woman said she did not understand how he could have made such a mistake and felt the situation was “weird and creepy.”

Another employee reported being present in a room with Lewis and another female employee when the female, who was a nursing mother at the time, indicated to Lewis that she needed to do a “mommy thing.” Instead of leaving the office, the report said, Lewis rose to close the door and sat back down to continue a conference call. The employee reported the incident and others to human resources, according to the report.

The report indicates Hill tasked a human resources worker at another state agency in February 2012 with investigating a number of issues at the education department, including complaints against Lewis. During an interview with investigators, the human resources worker shared with investigators a typed document concerning various allegations against Lewis. But the substance of those allegations, and any conclusions, are redacted from the document released Tuesday.

A complaint against Lewis investigated by another human resources worker was determined to be unfounded, according to the report. The report isn’t clear who made the complaint.

During interviews with investigators, Lewis responded to inquiries about the sexual harassment allegations by saying “he didn’t think it would be smart to answer those questions,” the report stated. When asked whether he was aware that female employees felt uncomfortable in his presence, he indicated that “he didn’t want to respond to questions that might well end up in a public document.” He told investigators it was his understanding that “information such as this should remain confidential.”

In an interview with the Star-Tribune Tuesday, Lewis denied entering the ladies’ restroom while a female coworker was inside and denied staying in the room after a female coworker had indicated to him she needed to nurse.

He said he never sexually harassed employees at the Wyoming Department of Education, and was not aware that some female employees felt uncomfortable in the workplace because of him. The investigation process was biased, he said.

“This really wasn’t a very credible process,” Lewis said of the monthslong investigation, during which dozens of employees and members of the department’s senior leadership, including Hill, interviewed with state investigators. “Honestly, I find a lot of this to be people trying to be fairly vindictive.”

Personnel issues

Eleven current and former employees outlined professional problems during Hill’s tenure. All but one included direct conflicts with Hill. The exception was a human resources employee who was viewed as a “Cindy puppet.” She felt she was being bullied by other WDE employees.

The other 10 outlined similar encounters with Hill. They often involved yelling and sometimes included slamming notebooks on tables.

Some of the employees referenced Hill saying 500,000 Wyoming voters put her in office. To one longtime employee Hill added that she “told her that all the McBride people did was wrong.”

Jim McBride was a previous superintendent.

Other employees viewed some of the conflicts and were disturbed. Hill’s reaction “was not one you would expect” from administrators, and “nobody would stand up to Cindy because they were all afraid of her.”

In most cases, Hill denied the conflicts or didn’t recall the “drama.”

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

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