WyoFile joined a lawsuit today with three Wyoming newspapers seeking records involving the demotion of former University of Wyoming president Laurie Nichols — records the press alleges are being improperly withheld by the university.
WyoFile joined Casper Star-Tribune, the Laramie Boomerang and the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle in petitioning a district court judge for access to what the press believes are public records under law. The university has denied several requests for access to UW Board of Trustee records pertaining to Nichols, who was demoted earlier this year and has since left the institution..
The news organizations seek records of an evaluation they believe was conducted into Nichols performance as well as records of any investigations conducted into the president’s leadership or behavior.
Lee Publications publishes of the Casper Star-Tribune while APG Media publishes the Laramie Boomerang and the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle. Those companies are the official petitioners, along with WyoFile, a nonprofit, public-interest, web-based news outlet.
The records requested through a court petition were initially sought in records requests filed by the Casper Star-Tribune and denied wholly or in part by UW.
WyoFile joined the suit to protect Wyoming’s right to understand the actions of its governing bodies like the UW board of trustees, said chief executive and editor Matthew Copeland.
“Access to public records — the public’s right to examine the evidence of how officials and institutions behave under their authority, in their name and with their money – is too fundamental to our democratic system to let unwarranted denials go unchallenged,” Copeland wrote in a statement.
UW is trying to block the public’s access to records by claiming privacy over personnel matters said Cheyenne attorney Bruce Moats, who represents the media organizations. It’s a cloak of secrecy often invoked by Wyoming government entities, he said.
“Courts have said the difficulty with the personnel exemption is government entities act through their employees,” Moats said. “So if you take that really broadly, everything is going to involve an employee and they could apply the personal exemption to everything.
It’s really much more narrow than that,” he said of the exemption.
The Board of Trustees needs to publicly explain its decision about Nichols, said Dale Bohren, publisher of the Casper Star. “These good folks are not running their own private business, but rather one of the largest and most public institutions in Wyoming outside of state government itself,” he wrote in a statement.
Nichols had come to the school at a difficult time and earned the state’s trust, Bohren wrote. Her demotion surprised many and should be explained given the importance of UW to Wyoming public life, he wrote.
“Nichols was a trusted leader, and what she did or did not do that makes her unfit to be president is relevant to the public in ways unrelated to a typical personnel situation,” Bohren wrote. “The fact she was deemed unfit to be president but still fit to educate students makes this demotion even more odd.” Nichols was demoted to a faculty position, but she has since decided to leave Wyoming and take a job leading a South Dakota university.
“We think it appropriate and helpful for a judge to review the university’s use of personnel policies as a shield to keep the public from learning the truth, and we look forward to this judicial review,” Bohren said.
UW spokesman Chad Baldwin said the University had no comment.
Journalists seek insight into demotion
In late March, the UW Board of Trustees announced the demotion of Nichols, catching the university campus and the state off-guard. Neither trustees or the university have offered a public explanation for the decision. Nichols has reportedly said she was never given a reason for her demotion by the board of other university officials.
In April, the Casper Star-Tribune requested documents related to “any investigation into the performance or conduct of Nichols.” UW denied the request without acknowledging whether the documents exist.
If any investigation was conducted, UW said, the agency wouldn’t disclose documents because they would involve personnel files the institution is allowed to keep secret. The court filing says UW cited the “the so-called ‘personnel files’ exemption to public disclosure.”
The press petition to the judge argues that under Wyoming public records law if UW is going to deny access to records, it must name the records, describe their nature and provide reasons for denying each record.
In addition to its first request for records, the Casper Star later filed others, which were subsequently denied. UW rejected a request for records “setting forth the terms and conditions” of hiring an investigator. The press court filing suggests there was such an investigation.
“Upon information and belief, the University hired a third party to investigate President Nichols in response to a complaint,” the petition said.
Under new rules allowing government agencies to charge for access to public records, UW charged the Casper Star $540 for a request for two years worth of communications between trustees discussing Nichols, along with a number of other topics. Two months after filing the request, UW provided some of the records and denied others. UW told the Casper Star it would cost another $720 to continue with the request.
Independently, WyoFile filed its own request with UW in April seeking communications regarding Nichols between members of the Legislature and Gov. Mark Gordon’s office, starting in January 2019. The broad request sought communication involving the president or her office. WyoFile paid $180 in search fees, $55 of which was subsequently returned.
UW completed WyoFile’s request on May 29, producing just one email in response to the request for communications between trustees, lawmakers and the governor’s office regarding Nichols. Two other emails were withheld because they involve legislators. The Wyoming Legislature exempted itself from Wyoming Public Records law.
“The University is withholding two private communications dated March 25-28, 2019, and April 10-11, 2019, between a legislator and Trustees Scarlett and Brown,” UW general counsel Tara Evans wrote in the response to WyoFile’s request. She then cited a statute:
“Private communications of or to a legislator in his official capacity including but not limited to communications with constituents are confidential until otherwise disclosed by the legislator or the individual who is party to the communication.”
The university has fulfilled other records requests to WyoFile made in relation to the Nichols’ demotion.
Petition challenges personnel exemption
The lawsuit challenges UW’s use of the “personnel files” exemption to deny release of any records of investigations into Nichols. The exemption only protects records where publicity would constitute a “clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy,” the press filing argues.
“Public access to an investigation into the conduct or performance of the leader of the state’s only university is clearly a matter in which the public has a legitimate interest,” the petition reads. “Therefore, the exemption does not prevent public access to any investigative report or related documents.”
The suit asks a judge to direct UW to disclose the records responsive to the Casper Star’s request for the alleged investigative report.
Alternatively, it asks the judge to have UW provide information about the records withheld, and why their release was denied. In conjunction with this option, it asks UW to submit the records to the judge for a closed-door review and “appear before the Court to show cause why they should not permit public access to the records.”
The judge could also order UW to submit documents for review and then the judge could decide which records be released to the public, the petition says. The petition also asks a judge to declare the fees UW charged the Casper Star Tribune as “unreasonable.”
This story was updated ten minutes after it was filed to include Baldwin’s comment. —Ed.
Read the full petition filed today in the Albany County District Court below: