A high-profile Democratic state senator turned down a job offer after University of Wyoming president Dick McGinity expressed worries about potential conflicts of interest that could arise from hiring a senior legislator.
In August Minority Leader Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) was offered a position as interim director at the University of Wyoming’s International Programs Office, housed in the Cheney International Center.
The university offered Rothfuss the job late last summer. There is no formal university policy for making such interim appointments, which are often handled quickly by Office of Academic Affairs officials and faculty committees.
Rothfuss accepted the offer and had his first meeting with International Programs staff on Aug. 10. The next day UW President Dick McGinity called him for a meeting to express his concerns about potential conflict of interest, before the human resources department processed the final hiring paperwork.
The two men’s accounts of the meeting differ. In an interview with WyoFile, Rothfuss said, “[McGinity] didn’t ask me to withdraw — he told me his concerns, and I said that I would withdraw.” However, McGinity told WyoFile, “I asked [Rothfuss] to withdraw his candidacy from the position.”
“I appreciate being selected for the position and was looking forward to serving in that capacity,” Rothfuss wrote in an Aug. 12 email to McGinity and other UW officials. “Yesterday I met with president McGinity regarding concerns that my prospective appointment to an administrative position at the University of Wyoming may result in, or be perceived as, a potential conflict of interest with my responsibilities in the legislature — particularly with my role in leadership. I am very sensitive to such perceptions and do not wish to proceed in a role where a conflict may exist.”
McGinity said in an interview with WyoFile he was uncomfortable hiring such a senior lawmaker for a highly paid job at UW. The job is at the associate dean level, reporting directly to the Dean of Outreach Susan Frye.
“My point,” McGinity said, “[is] having an individual of that political stature and leadership — regardless of party — also occupying a pretty senior administrative position in the university … was a bad precedent to set, and it would look bad to people across the state.”
Wyoming’s conflict of interest laws prohibit public officials from voting on measures in which they have a personal or private interest that would benefit them financially. They are also banned from hiring or managing family members in public positions, or accepting gifts above certain limits. A 1997 Attorney General’s brief also advises public officials to, “scrupulously avoid acts which may create an appearance of misconduct. … It is possible that the appearance of impropriety can undermine the public’s confidence in the lawmaking process just as effectively as an actual impropriety.”
In most cases, that means abstaining from voting on specific legislation. The law doesn’t apply to legislators’ actions in their non-legislative work, and nowhere in state law is there a prohibition against state employees or UW faculty holding state office at any level. Other UW faculty serve in the legislature. Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) currently serves on the Joint Appropriations Committee, and also heads UW’s Department of Gender and Women’s Studies.
“There is no problem with a faculty member being a member of the Legislature because we have them already,” McGinity said. The situation with Rothfuss was unique because of his seniority in the Senate, he said. The office houses programs for international students and those wishing to travel abroad.
Rothfuss accepted McGinity’s reasoning. “When we discussed it when we met, I had no problem with his concerns, because perceived conflicts of interest matter with regard to the credibility of an institution [the university], and as president it is well within his role to make those kinds of judgment calls,” Rothfuss said.
McGinity also said he believes the interim IPO job would be too demanding to be done effectively by a member of the Legislature, let alone a member of leadership. “A director’s job is very time consuming and intense, and I would assert that you can’t do a good job in both,” he said.
In 2012, former IPO director Anne Alexander ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for State Senate against incumbent Sen. Phil Nicholas (R), who was then chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee.
McGinity took over as UW president in early 2014. He declined to discuss the hypothetical question of how he might have handled the situation if Alexander had been elected.
Rothfuss is a UW alum who holds a PhD in chemical engineering, and is a former U.S. State Department nanotechnology advisor. He has worked for seven years as a lecturer in the Global and Area Studies Program, and is a half-time non-tenure track faculty member in the Honors Program. His main work is as a consulting engineer on advanced technology projects out of state. In 2008 he ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate against Sen. Mike Enzi (R), receiving 24 percent of the vote. He was elected to the Wyoming Senate in 2010.
Rothfuss coined the term “top tier” for the legislature’s $115 million project to remake the College of Engineering, and together with other lawmakers supported a separate $100 million investment in the core sciences at UW. His colleagues in the Senate often jokingly refer to him as “the senator from the ivory tower” because of his academic employment.
Rothfuss would have been the interim replacement for former IPO director Anne Alexander, an economist who moved up to be an associate vice president for Academic Affairs reporting directly to provost David Jones. Instead, the university appointed art history lecturer Mary Katherine Scott as interim director, and will conduct a national search for a director next year.
President McGinity said his decision not to hire Rothfuss was his alone. “It was my call,” he said. “I made the decision I thought should be made.”
At the same time, he voiced his appreciation for Rothfuss. “I think Chris Rothfuss is a terrific guy,” McGinity said. “He is a great teacher. I think he is a really great entrepreneur also, which I admire highly. I think he is just outstanding as a legislator. [This] has nothing to do with his qualities as a human being or faculty. I think very, very highly of him.”
Several faculty members had questions of whether the Dick and Lynne Cheney family had a role in McGinity asking Rothfuss not to take the job.
The former Vice President of the United States and his wife are lead donors to the Cheney International Center that houses the International Programs Office. Their daughter Liz Cheney sits on the International Board of Advisors, a volunteer group that supports the program.
Rothfuss publicly opposed Liz Cheney’s run for U.S. Senate against Sen. Mike Enzi (R) in a 2013 news story by the Associated Press.
WyoFile requested comment on this story from the Cheneys through their longtime assistant Kara Ahern. She directed all questions having to do with the leadership of the International Programs Office to UW president McGinity, who said the Cheneys did not affect his decision.
“Whatever the Cheneys may have thought or not thought about Chris as a candidate — that did not figure in my thinking whatsoever,” McGinity said.
While McGinity had been in touch with the Cheneys earlier in the summer about the hiring process, and about who should be on a hiring committee for the permanent IPO director in 2016, he said he made the interim director decision independently of the donors.
UW alum Dick Cheney and Lynne Cheney initially gave funds to the University of Wyoming in 2006 when they needed to sell some stocks while he was serving as Vice President, according to reporting by the university’s student newspaper, the Branding Iron.
By 2009 the Cheneys had given $6.4 million to the International Programs Office under former UW president Tom Buchanan. Of that amount, $3.4 million went to fund overseas experiences for students, and $3 million rebuilt part of the student health center into the International Programs Office.
“It’s very gratifying to us to see this wonderful facility and to know about the many projects Wyoming students are going to be undertaking around the world,” Dick Cheney said in a Sept. 2009 UW press release. Lynne Cheney added, “UW students have global contributions to make, and they will learn so much that they can bring back to our wonderful state.”
UW named the building the Cheney International Center and christened the Cheney Plaza in their honor in Sept. 2009. The dedication of the center brought out hundreds of students, faculty, and community members who protested Dick Cheney’s pursuit of the Iraq war and “enhanced interrogation” while vice president of the United States.
U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson (R) spoke at the dedication, calling Cheney a patriot and saying that a person who has served at such a high level always attracts controversy. He memorably told one Cheney heckler to pipe down, saying, “Silence that braying ass.”
Lynne Cheney remains active at UW. She will serve on the second-round committee UW presidential search committee that will select five finalists to forward to trustees.
McGinity has taken a strong interest in the International Programs Office because he wants more UW students to study abroad so they can compete in the global economy, he said. About 400 students each year study abroad, or 3 percent. Many of those students travel on scholarships gifted by the Cheney family.