A civil complaint and petition for access to public records lawsuit has been filed against the former Interim Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder, the Wyoming Department of Education and a department staff member in Laramie County District Court.
Cheyenne attorney George Powers and Laramie attorney Rodger McDaniel claim that Schroeder paid for a private event held last fall in Cheyenne with state money and offered misleading statements when asked about it.
The lawsuit, filed Friday, also claims the department under Schroeder’s watch refused to provide public information about much of the planning behind the event when requested.
The plaintiffs are asking for financial penalties and a full and complete response to the public records requests.
Schroeder told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday he has no comment on the lawsuit as he had not yet seen it.
Wyoming Attorney General Bridgett Hill said her department has a policy of not commenting on active litigation.
Linda Finnerty, communications director for the Department of Education, also is listed on the lawsuit. Finnerty was in charge of releasing all records requests to McDaniel and Powers. Finnerty told Cowboy State Daily the Department of Education doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation.
The centerpiece of the lawsuit was Schroeder’s October 2022 “Stop the Sexualization of Our Children” press conference held at Little America in Cheyenne.
The event, which was to draw attention to allegedly indoctrinated and over-sexualized schoolchildren in Wyoming, drew some of the state’s top lawmakers and Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne.
Although billed as a press conference, it was more akin to a political rally as the press wasn’t given any opportunity to ask questions during the presentation portion of the event.
A flier for the event expressed a somewhat frantic urgency to attendees, asking for “all hands on deck” and for a show of force “so your school district knows this is a dire situation.”
In 2022, the issue of certain school library books with sexually graphic content became a major talking point around Wyoming.
State Money Paid For Political Event
Schroeder told Cowboy State Daily he had started planning the event more than a month prior, but the lawsuit says that only information provided to McDaniel and Powers from their records request dated back to two weeks before the press conference.
Documentation provided in the complaint shows that Schroeder initially authorized Wyoming Department of Education staff to use state money to develop, organize and stage the planned event.
He later said he tried to arrange for private donors and himself to cover and reimburse the expenses.
The complaint includes evidence that Schroeder “specifically authorized” Department of Education staff to use state funds for members of No Left Turns In Education, a conservative leaning organization that advocates for schools to teach without partisan bias on either side of the political aisle, to attend the event at a state facility.
The complaint makes no arguments to prove whether the press conference as held should have been considered a Wyoming Department of Education event and if so, whether or not state money could legally pay for it.
However, Powers indicated to Schroeder in one email that he believed the event was equitable to a campaign or political rally, and state money cannot be used to support those types of events.
Schroeder had already lost his race to become the elected holder of his office at the time of the conference.
Evolution Of Planning
Schroeder’s original plan was to hold the event at the state-owned Emerson Building.
Upon learning about the event, McDaniel submitted a public records request for all available information on it, and Powers also submitted an informal inquiry, according to their lawsuit. Powers later submitted a formal public records request after receiving no response from the Department of Education.
McDaniel said the state’s response to his record request was “inadequate, incomplete and non-compliant,” with weeks of event planning left out from the information provided.
Although Schroeder told Cowboy State Daily he had organized the event with the assistance of the Moms For Liberty organization at least a month prior, there were no documents provided showing any communication between them.
The complaint says Schroeder also had participated in at least two video conferences with No Left Turn staff in September, but there was no record of any communications between Schroeder and this group provided in a response to the records request.
Private Vs. Public Records
McDaniel said records from Schroeder’s private email and text messaging accounts needed to be provided, as the superintendent was using them to conduct matters he had stated were part of his official duties and public business.
Finnerty responded to the original request to inspect Schroeder’s personal records, saying that the WDE did not have access to Schroeder’s personal accounts and that “there are no further records for this request.”
“This statement was false,” the complaint says. “Any public records in these locations were in custody and control of the WDE at the time this request was made and at the time of the WDE’s responses.”
The 2016 Wyoming Supreme Court case Cheyenne Newspapers v. Board of Trustees of Laramie County School District No. 1 establishes that the private emails of public officials used to conduct public business are subject to records requests.
The complaint states that WDE has since acknowledged these were public records at the time, and the failure of the department, Schroeder and Finnerty to provide them was done “knowingly and intentionally.”
“WDE has no excuse for not collecting and including these materials in its earlier responses,” the complaint reads. “The WDE cannot excuse its failure to identify and secure these materials in response to prior public record requests.”
Finnerty also failed to provide this information in the amount of time required by the Wyoming Public Records Act. Any person who knowingly or intentionally violates the Wyoming Public Records Act is liable for a penalty of up to $750.
There also were no materials provided about the Wyoming parents who spoke at the event or the private meetings that took place after “to interact further on strategy, policy, the law and future legislation,” as Schroeder wrote in one email.
McDaniel and Powers gave the WDE until Feb. 6 to issue possibly missing information.
In a Feb. 10 email, Finnerty said that the department “cannot opine about whether any records stored in those locations constitute public records under the Public Records Act because no Department employee, or its counsel, has been provided any records or has been able to make that assessment.”
This statement makes it seem the department didn’t know if Schroeder was using his personal accounts to organize the event, but at least some coordination had to have been taking place that was not provided in the records request.
The complaint argues that until Jan. 2, Schroeder was the superintendent of Public Instruction and thus his personal records were property of the Department of Education.
Finnerty said in the February email that the superintendent and the Department of Education are one in the same, so Schroeder’s personal records were considered public record.
But she added that since Schroeder was no longer the superintendent, the department would not be able to access his records. No explanation was given for this pivot.
About two weeks before the event, the WDE bought three plane tickets for speakers to attend the event at a cost of $2,084.12. Receipts are included in the complaint.
In November, Finnerty also approved state money to go toward paying for motel expenses incurred by the No Left Turn representatives at a total of $332.22.
Despite these already-made purchases, the WDE said in an Oct. 19, 2022, press release that “no state funds will be used in connection with this event and the final venue for the press conference is yet to be determined.”
The release said Schroeder “is greatly concerned about the actions of teachers who are circumventing parental authority and imposing their personal views of sex and gender ideology on children without parental consent or notification.
“Although the Superintendent believes it is well within his duties as State Superintendent, he has decided to separate the press conference from the Wyoming Department of Education.”
Follow The Money
The complaint says the press release misrepresented the truth as state money had already been spent to help pay for the event.
The day before the press release came out, Finnerty gave a conflicting account to WyoFile in an email that state funds had been used for the event, authorized by Schroeder.
In a message written by WDE employee Penny Rodriguez on the day of the event, Rodriguez said Schroeder decided he would no longer use state money to pay for the event after she had already bought plane tickets. She said Schroeder would provide personal reimbursement for these expenses.
Casper resident Kyle True and Jackson resident Blair Maus each gave the WDE $1,000 in November and December as reimbursement for the event. Even with these reimbursements, there was no evidence provided by the state that it was ever reimbursed the remaining $416.34.
In one email, a WDE employee acknowledged the discrepancy between what Schroeder was telling the public and the purchases that had already been made and asked a supervisor about how to proceed.
On Feb. 10, Finnerty and the state released information that contradicted prior statements made in response to prior record requests. It was in this request that evidence surfaced showing that state money had been used. Still, no information was provided in connection with the cost to rent the Little America facilities or Schroeder’s private accounts.
There was no explanation as to what led to the change of location and source of funding, but one email gives a likely explanation.
Two weeks before the event, Finnerty sent an email to Schroeder expressing a desire for WDE to go a different direction in promoting the event, as No Left Turn’s leadership weren’t spokespeople for the state agency.
This was the oldest document provided to McDaniel, which drew his suspicion that there were earlier communications, according to the lawsuit.
“This recommendation is based on the understanding that the WDE is a compliance agency charged with helping districts comply with federal and state regulations,” Finnerty wrote. “This event does not fall into something the agency would be doing tied to that or any requests from the Legislature.”
Finnerty said this approach would provide the same result “while protecting the agency from any claims that it is straying from the boundaries it is expected to function within.”
Finnerty said there was no written communication available as to what led up to this message, the result of discussions held in a weekly staff meeting.
Was It Public?
During the event, Schroeder said he was hosting it in his capacity as superintendent of Public Instruction.
“The issue that we’re addressing here today clearly falls under the general supervision of the superintendent of Public Schools here in Wyoming,” he told the audience.
Schroeder also told Cowboy State Daily immediately after the press conference that total costs to hold it were about $3,000, including the expense of renting a conference room at Little America, flying guests in and giving them free lodging.
Schroeder stated to the media that the original plan to use state money had changed and it was completely funded from his own money and private sources.
Powers and McDaniel argue in a January letter that any money collected by Schroeder in connection with his official duties should still be considered public money and documentation needs to be provided for it.
Schroeder refused to provide any information related to the private donors when requested by McDaniel in October. Powers argued to Schroeder in an email that any reimbursement of his personal expenses could be considered a private benefit.
Under Wyoming law, “No public official, public member or public employee shall use his office or position for his private benefit.”
Schroeder sent emails inviting guests to the event from his state government email account, including 44 state legislators Schroeder described as “conservative.”
Schroeder was previously head of a private Christian school in Cody before taking the interim superintendent job. He moved to Cody from the Midwest in 2020.
Schroeder became the superintendent in January 2022 after former Superintendent Jillian Balow stepped down from the role. He was one of three nominees selected by the Wyoming GOP and was picked by Gov. Mark Gordon to fill the vacancy.
Schroeder ran for permanent election last summer, espousing hardline conservative views during his campaign. He finished a close second in the Republican primary to Megan Degenfelder, who ultimately won the office.
Schroeder told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday he is considering the next chapter of his life and has not made a final decision on whether that will be in education.