House should cut its losses in Cindy Hill probe
— January 28, 2014
Even though they had already taken away most of her powers, the temptation to investigate Cindy Hill’s bumbling two years as head of the Wyoming Department of Education was too great for legislators to resist.
After all, who wouldn’t want to know more about the time the embattled superintendent of public instruction allegedly waved a knife while cutting her birthday cake and told employees she would not be bullied?
Or why workers reportedly were told to stand in a circle, cult-like, holding and squeezing each other’s hands to indicate how much confidence they had in Hill? Or why some DOE employees told investigators they started bringing bear spray to the office and used baseball bats to protect themselves when they went to the bathroom?
Yet it’s clear now that House Republican leaders would have served the public much better by allowing other entities to examine the more substantive allegations of wrongdoing in Hill’s administration – especially the misuse of federal education funds – and letting the sensational but less important questions about behavior at the department sink into state lore.
Yes, there would be a benefit to the public learning what all that craziness in the department was about, if only to make sure there are procedures in place so behavior like this isn’t repeated and all employees can feel safe at work.
But the cost and length of the proceedings, which have dragged on for six months now and won’t wrap up any time soon, have many observers questioning the value of the entire process. What will the public get out of this when the Legislature is done?
Some lawmakers were still seething at Hill’s refusal to follow their directions for two years, but that alone can’t justify the Legislative Management Council’s unanimous decision last July to approve an investigation, or continue it now. Besides, the Legislature already took the most stringent action it could, short of impeachment, when it passed Senate File 104 and replaced the elected superintendent with a DOE director appointed by the governor.
A few members of the House warned the investigation could easily get out of hand, but they were rebuffed. House Speaker Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette) asked his colleagues to send him emails, and he received excellent advice from Rep. Keith Gingery (R-Jackson), Teton County civil attorney.
“I think for the good of the state we need to move on,” Gingery wrote. “If crimes have been committed let a federal or state prosecutor make that decision and bring the action in a court of law.”
For laying out the most reasonable option, Gingery was chastised by Majority Floor Leader Kermit Brown (R-Laramie), who sent out an embarrassing email to the entire House. “Keith, Respectfully: you need to stop driving the agenda and let leadership act on this matter,” he wrote.
Prior to the decision, Rep. Allen Jaggi (R-Lyman) told Casper Star-Tribune reporter Kyle Roerink, “I’m not sure there is enough substance to warrant another group to go through the [governor’s team’s] study. It’s political. I don’t think it’s worth it.”
Noting the Legislature had already taken away Hill’s power, staff and money, Jaggi asked the question every member of the House should have before taking on this mission: “Will it be in the benefit of the state to continue with the proceedings?” It’s clearer every day the answer is no, especially since Lubnau recommended putting the probe on hold while the Legislature uses its 20-day session to crank out the mandatory state budget.
Lubnau originally estimated the committee could finish its work by September. But in a Jan. 18 email to the panel, Lubnau said it would be very difficult to produce a “quality report” before the budget session starts Feb. 10.
“We received an 1,100-page transcript yesterday,” the speaker reported. “We have over a million pages of information, plus [the governor’s team’s 185-page] report to sort through.” The state allocated $150,000 for the study ordered by Mead, which was headed by Rawlins lawyer Cathy McPherson. Even Hill expressed surprise when she discovered the investigators weren’t directed to draw any conclusions or make recommendations; it was a “just the allegations, ma’am” report. If they wanted facts, lawmakers would have to get them themselves.
A million pages of information to sift through? How is it even possible that much paperwork has been collected?
Here’s how: Hill responded to the committee’s subpoenas for specific material with a massive document dump: a 118-gigabyte hard drive containing 165,000 separate files. In a sharp letter to Hill, Lubnau said it included such extraneous material as interviews with former Superintendent Velma Linford from the 1970s, and multiple photographs of John Singer Sargent’s painting, “Death and Victory,” at a Harvard library.
“The response you have provided is at minimum, feeble, or at its worst, a transparent attempt to hide relevant documents in a myriad potpourri of irrelevant jetsam,” the speaker charged. Of course, Hill claimed she simply gave the committee everything she had, because she has nothing to hide.
The Legislature allocated up to $100,000 for special counsel for the investigation. When all of the bills are paid and an assessment is made of what this entire ordeal has cost the state – including the document search and the cost of defending the Legislature’s removal of Hill as the head of the Education Department — the amount of federal money at issue will pale by comparison. That’s not to suggest that allegations of misuse of any funds should be ignored, but the federal government is perfectly capable of investigating those complaints without the assistance of the Legislature.
If impeachment is ultimately the result of the House’s work, the Senate would still have to hold a trial. If it takes until close to election day to reach a decision, then what’s been the point of this whole expensive experience?
In several ways, the Legislature has painted itself into a corner. After rushing to take away her powers in the 2013 session, launching their own investigation has always seemed like piling on; an attempt to justify what they already did. It plays into Hill’s contention that she’s being victimized by the state’s “good ol’ boy” system.
She plays the part well, but Hill is no victim. The Legislature had solid reasons to pass SF 104 and to restore order to a terribly mismanaged, out-of-control Department of Education, but some voters will never forgive lawmakers they are convinced politically punished a woman they had duly elected to one of the state’s five highest offices. The idea that politicians took away something they voted for is right out of the Tea Party’s playbook.
To this segment – a small minority that is nevertheless very vocal – every decision the committee makes is one more example of how Hill has been unfairly treated. When House members won’t listen to her witnesses or they delay their investigation so she’s waiting even longer for a resolution, it’s seen as a punitive overreach of its authority.
It won’t be easy to cut its losses and stop throwing money and time away on this exercise in futility, but that’s precisely what the Legislature needs to do. Federal investigations and audits will discover if any charges need to be filed relating to the administration of federal funds during Hill’s tenure at the department, and if so, the courts will make the final determination.
Now that they’ve put the probe aside during the budget session, House leaders should go back and ask themselves Jaggi’s fundamental question: “Will it be in the benefit of the state to continue with the proceedings?” At this point, how can they honestly answer yes?
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.
— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.