CHEYENNE — New evidence showing the Wyoming Department of Education knew public money had been spent on a private political event when it said it hadn’t will be allowed into an ongoing and potentially precedent-setting public records lawsuit, a judge decided Monday afternoon.
The money was used for former Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder’s “Stop The Sexualization Of Our Children” political event in 2022.
This past spring, Cheyenne attorney George Powers and Laramie attorney Rodger McDaniel filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education, Schroeder and a department staff member. The lawsuit claims they, under Schroeder’s watch, knowingly failed to provide public information about much of the planning behind the event when requested, including about whether public money was spent on the event.
Testifying under oath last month, Schroeder admitted he lied to the press when he said public money wasn’t spent on his event.
Late last month, an email chain was provided by the state showing that Department of Education Chief Communications Officer Linda Finnerty told a WyoFile reporter about a week before Schroeder’s event that public money was being used to fund it.
Not only had this conversation not been provided in a public records request for all information related to the funding of the event the next day, but Finnerty also claimed to the requestor on two occasions that state funds were not being used to fund the event.
During a Sept. 14 court hearing, Finnerty said she had given incorrect information in response to the public records request because she was confused.
Powers doesn’t buy this argument.
“I believe there was a concerted effort on part of the defendants to essentially hide these public monies for Schroeder’s rally,” Powers told the court.
Shortly after the conversation with the WyoFile reporter was engaged, the Department of the Education put out a statement saying that the event actually wouldn’t be paid for with public dollars. Schroeder told Cowboy State Daily the same on the day of the event.
Funds for the event were originally drawn out of a teacher development account, but were eventually reimbursed in full by private donors this past April.
Judge: It’s ‘Common Sense’
Laramie County Judge Steven Sharpe said whether or not there was a deliberate intent to hide information from the public is irrelevant as he believes the new evidence belongs in the case.
“Clearly the plaintiff should have received this, that’s common sense,” he said.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Mackenzie Williams argued Monday that there should be more of a procedural path taken before evidence is arbitrarily added to the case and there was no conspiracy to hide public information.
“This exchange was with a reporter,” Williams said. “To say there was a bad faith cover up or scheme … it just doesn’t hold water.”
Williams agreed that the correct information should have been provided initially, but questioned when the inquiries will end.
“It’s inevitable new documents are going to come up when we do more searches, but when is this going to stop?” he questioned.
Both parties in the case agreed to have Schroeder’s private phone inspected with a list of about 25 new search terms related to the political event.
Powers told the court that Schroeder’s phone arrived in Denver on Monday and is being inspected there by a private firm. The state has agreed to pay up to about $5,000 for this service.
Additionally, work phones belonging to Finnerty and four other Department of Education employees will also be searched by the state for information related to the 2022 event.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.