CHEYENNE – A Wyoming Department of Education employee testified Tuesday that a top staffer to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill told him to pay bills in a way that violated state and federal guidelines.
The testimony came during the second day of hearings here, where the Legislature's Select Investigative Committee is investigating whether Hill committed any impeachable offenses while overseeing the education department.
Hill was elected superintendent in November 2010. In January 2013, the Legislature stripped her of her administrative duties within the agency and created a governor-appointed director position. Hill retained the superintendent's state constitutional duties, such as serving on state boards.
On Tuesday, education department accounting analyst Trent Carroll, told lawmakers analysts were twice told to pay illegal employee overtime invoices during Hill's tenure.
According to a memo from Christine Steele, a member of Hill’s leadership team, Steele directed staff to pay roughly $26,000 in federal funds to cover an employee’s overtime work even though the employee’s contract didn't permit overtime pay.
In a memo to the finance department dated April 20, 2012, Steele wrote: “It is understood … that paying this invoice would cause the Wyoming Department of Education to be out of compliance with state and federal guidance and, should this be identified in a state or federal audit, will result in an audit finding.”
As with the first invoice, Carroll received a memo from Steele acknowledging that paying the second invoice would lead to uncomplimentary audit findings, according to documents provided to the investigative committee.
And like the first invoice, the bill was paid over objection from the accountants.
“We objected to this one, just as we had the previous,” Carroll said.
Any possible involvement by Hill in approving Steele’s directive is as of yet unclear. Carroll said an audit is currently being conducted of all federal grants greater than $500,000 at the Department of Education.
A member of Hill’s leadership team said Tuesday morning she didn't know she violated state law when she approved her daughter’s sole source contract with the Department of Education.
Sheryl Lain said she “twisted [her] daughter’s arm” to take a contract with the agency after not finding any other qualified teachers to work with an intervention program in 2011. Lain’s daughter, Shan Anderson, signed a $17,000 sole source contract with the department to provide professional development across the state that year. Lain requested the department waive competitive bidding for her daughter’s position, according to a bid waiver request provided to the committee.
Lain said Hill had no knowledge of the contract. She said signing her daughter’s contract without consulting with Hill or the state attorney general was a mistake. Someone else should have signed it, she said.
“I wish somebody [would have] known ahead of time,” Lain said. “It was a procedural problem.”
The Wyoming Constitution prohibits public employees from advocating or causing the employment of a family member in another state position.
Former Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Trent Blankenship came under fire when it was reported his mother worked at the Department of Education for a month, and that two wives of Republican legislators had been hired there. Blankenship resigned as superintendent in 2005.
Five more witnesses were scheduled to testify as of press time Tuesday night, according to the committee’s agenda. In all, the committee is expected to hear from 16 witnesses by the time the hearings wrap up Wednesday.
Lawmakers discussed some potential legislative action for the first time during their proceedings Tuesday, but the discussions were preliminary and they didn't mention impeachment. The House investigation is a possible first step toward impeaching Hill, which would be a first for an elected statewide officer.
State Rep. Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, the committee chairman and speaker of the House, asked several witnesses what they would change to ensure the department complied with federal guidelines.
Carroll, the accounting analyst, said an independent group of expert auditors or attorneys could benefit state agencies.
“At a lower level at an agency, we try to do the best that we can to identify things,” Carroll said. “But we don’t always have all the information … as to whether something is illegal or prohibited under legislation.”
Carroll said those decisions should be made at a higher level within the agency. But when the higher-ups in an agency don't make those decisions, that’s when problems arise, he said.
Hill is expected to testify Wednesday, though the committee agreed to release her from subpoena early to accommodate her plans to launch her gubernatorial campaign in Newcastle on Wednesday evening.
Hill has denied any wrongdoing and is challenging in the state Supreme Court the constitutionality of the law that removed much of her power in 2013.