CHEYENNE — It’s not every day one of Wyoming’s former top state officials takes the witness stand in court.
That’s what happened Thursday when former Superintendent Of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder was questioned in a civil lawsuit filed in Laramie County District Court about how the department handled public records requests under his watch.
Testifying under oath, Schroeder admitted he lied to the press when he said public money wasn’t spent on a political event he hosted last fall.
Laramie County Judge Steven Sharpe said last month there were acts of “bad faith” on the part of the Wyoming Department of Education in not complying with public records requests made about a “Stop the Sexualization of Our Children” press conference hosted by Schroeder in 2022.
This past spring, Cheyenne attorney George Powers and Laramie attorney Rodger McDaniel filed a lawsuit against the Wyoming Department of Education, Schroeder and a department staff member. The lawsuit claims the department, under Schroeder’s watch, knowingly failed to provide public information about much of the planning behind the event when requested.
On Thursday, a show cause hearing was held where the state attempted to prove that it adequately responded to the public records requests made about the Sexualization event. Current DOE staff, Schroeder and other witnesses were questioned about their involvement in the public records request.
The state, represented in court by Senior Assistant Attorney General Mackenzie Williams, denies that it purposely hid documents.
“The defendants have been looking forward to today,” Williams said. “This case is rich in speculation and assumed facts.”
The case could hold serious consequences for how much effort public agencies in Wyoming need to make to comply with public records requests.
The state has admitted multiple times that it made errors with McDaniel’s records request, a stance it maintained Thursday. To date, most of the information requested has now been provided by the state.
One of the key questions within the records requests was whether public money was used to pay for Schroeder’s event, which was political in nature.
Schroeder admitted Thursday that public money had already been spent on the event by the time he told members of the press that it hadn’t.
He offered a jumbled excuse for the discrepancy, saying that at the time he didn’t understand the state’s procurement processes.
It was also revealed for the first time Thursday that the event was eventually fully reimbursed by private donors in May after the lawsuit had been filed.
Schroeder had originally rejected a request to have his private computer and cellphone inspected as part of the records request.
He said Thursday that he had received advice on the matter from a handful of legal sources, including Wyoming Attorney General Bridgett Hill, who Schroeder said had told him he needed to have those devices inspected. According to Schroeder, Hill also told him, “I have to give you the best legal advice I can, but you do what you … do whatever you have to do.”
Ultimately, Schroeder said the mixed opinions he received from legal sources caused him to reject the initial request to have his personal devices inspected until he later heard otherwise. He eventually performed the search on these devices himself in early 2023.
Powers told Cowboy State Daily he plans to meet with Williams on Friday to make a plan to have Schroeder’s devices inspected by another party.
Schroeder also said he received legal advice from Cheyenne attorney Drake Hill. This caught the attention of Powers, who asked if Hill was involved with the planning of the Sexualization event, to which Schroeder said he was.
Powers used this testimony to argue that the state had failed to provide information related to Hill and other people involved with planning the event as outline in the records request.
Mistakes Were Made
Linda Finnerty, communications director for the Department of Education, managed the records requests. She said Thursday there was no purposeful intent to withhold any documents.
“While I definitely made some mistakes, I did my best under the circumstances and under my knowledge of the Public Records Act,” she said.
In her response to McDaniel’s first records request, Finnerty limited her search to only Schroeder’s public accounts and very specific keywords.
“If an agency doesn’t look for documents when a records request is made and then say they don’t have it, I don’t think that’s kosher,” Powers told Cowboy State Daily.
Finnerty explained to the court that although she has handled 144 records requests since starting her job in 2020, she wasn’t given any training for how to facilitate these requests when she began.
Judge Sharpe didn’t make a decision Thursday.
There is a strong likelihood that whichever party loses the case will make an appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court to establish a legal precedent related to the case and public records requests moving forward.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.