The Wyoming Department of Education and its communication director said in a Monday response to a court complaint that state funds were used for a private political event held by former Interim Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder in October 2022.
The department previously denied this fact. No information was provided about whether these expenses were ever fully reimbursed. Without reimbursement, these funds amounted to less than $500.
The department said Monday in response to the original complaint filed in Laramie County District Court that state funds were used for helping pay expenses for people to travel to pay expenses for people to travel to the event.
The department also said it provided all necessary publicly requested information about the planning of the event when requested, the major point of contention within the complaint.
The civil lawsuit filed by Cheyenne attorney George Powers and Laramie attorney Rodger McDaniel in late February claims the department, under Schroeder’s watch, refused to provide public information about much of the planning behind the event when requested.
The event featured various guest speakers and state legislators offering the viewpoint that children are being exposed to inappropriate sexual content in schools.
The filed response, submitted on behalf of the department and its current communications director Linda Finnerty, admits that state funds were used to pay for plane tickets and hotel rooms for a few of the speakers who presented at the event.
Despite having already-made purchases, the department of education said in a press release prior to the event 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.” Schroeder stated to the media at the event that the original plan to use state money had changed and it was completely funded from his own money and private sources. This statement was made after money had already been spent.
The original complaint included $2,416.34 in receipts and other evidence that Schroeder “specifically authorized” Department of Education staff to use state funds for members of No Left Turns In Education to attend the event held at Little America Resort in Cheyenne. No Left Turns In Education is a conservative leaning organization that advocates for schools to teach without partisan bias on either side of the political aisle.
Monday’s filing is the first instance of the Department officially admitting that state funds were used on the event.
The purpose of the event was to draw attention to allegedly indoctrinated and over-sexualized schoolchildren in Wyoming. Over the last few years, the issue of certain school library books with sexually graphic content has become a major talking point around Wyoming.
Although billed as a press conference, the event 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.
In a message written by the Wyoming Department of Education’s 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 department $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.
No Paper Trail
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. The Department denied it had access to these accounts at the time of the request, a few months prior to Schroeder leaving the office.
Finnerty said in a February email that the superintendent and the Department of Education are one in the same, so Schroeder’s personal records were considered public record while he was serving in office. By the time she sent this, however, he was already out of office.
“The Department and Ms. Finnerty do not have access to any records exclusively in Schroeder’s custody and control,” Monday’s response reads.
In Monday’s filing, the department said every action Finnerty and the department took regarding the record requests was lawful.
Longtime press attorney and Cowboy State Daily consultant Bruce Moats said that legal precedence holds that private text messages are typically considered public documents and are subject to public record requests while still in office.
“Text messages are all part of being under the Wyoming Public Records Act,” he said. “This is the recognized precedent across the country.”
Moats said any electronic form of communication is considered physical documentation under the Public Records Act.
The 2016 Wyoming Supreme Court case Cheyenne Newspapers v. Board of Trustees of Laramie County School District No. 1 also establishes that the private emails of public officials used to conduct public business are subject to records requests.
The state’s response, submitted by Senior Assistant Attorney General Mackenzie Williams, argues that Schroeder had no duty to preserve any public records on his private accounts or to cooperate with department representatives assigned to collect on and provide access to the public record requests.
Williams also argues that the plaintiffs are requesting access to “communications that do not exist in a physical form,” items that are exempt from the Wyoming Public Records Act. This is likely in reference to the request the plaintiffs made for records of video conferences and other ambiguous communications where a physical record may not exist.
The complaint makes no arguments about whether the press conference 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 has not responded to the complaint yet. Since he wasn’t served until March 13 while he was out of the state, he has until April 12 to respond.