A legislative report on Wednesday rebuked state schools chief Cindy Hill for misconduct in office but stopped short of recommending lawmakers impeach her.
A committee of state lawmakers that spent more than a year examining her tenure at the Wyoming Department of Education concluded she repeatedly and willfully violated the law. Some committee members believe Hill's actions warrant impeachment, but the group chose to allow individual lawmakers to file for Hill's impeachment if they so choose.
"Cindy Hill, for whatever reason, chose not to follow the law," the report states.
Hill, a Republican elected in 2010, drove off senior employees at the Department of Education and replaced them with people loyal to her but with little or no experience managing a state agency, according to the committee's findings. She did not ask for legislative appropriations for her programs and she demanded political and personal loyalty from her employees.
"The Committee finds Superintendent Hill’s actions amounted to misconduct in office, and for that misconduct the Committee formally rebukes Superintendent Hill," the report states.
Hill is currently a Republican candidate for governor.
In a statement to the Associated Press on Wednesday, Hill dismissed the committee report as a political "smear campaign" aimed at discrediting her.
"A 'rebuke' means that they are conceding that I did nothing wrong. It's that simple," Hill said in a written statement. "They spent two years and $1.3 million so that they could 'rebuke' someone?"
Now that the Legislature is giving up on its efforts to remove her, Hill said wants to know when she will be getting a formal apology.
A 2013 state law temporarily removed Hill as the top official at the Department of Education and transferred many of her duties to a governor-appointed director. A divided Wyoming Supreme Court found the law mostly unconstitutional earlier this year and Hill returned to office in April.
Lawmakers were initially concerned Hill was not following legislative directives on the state's new school accountability system. Allegations of erratic leadership practices and misuse of federal funds surfaced later in an investigation commissioned by Gov. Matt Mead and conducted by Rawlins attorney Catherine MacPherson in 2013.
The select investigative committee was formed by a vote of the Wyoming House shortly after. The committee's work cost $231,000, according to the report.
Hill's administration misused federal special education money to pay for general education teacher training that the Legislature prohibited in 2012, according to the committee report.
The report notes the Legislature barred Hill from running several home-grown professional development programs that year, but that Hill and her leadership team diverted funding from other accounts to continue the programs under new names. Federal funds earmarked for special education were used to fund the trainings, which included as little as 20 to 40 minutes of special education focus during a typical 12-hour course, the committee report states.
Later, Hill and her administration started a reading program on the Wind River Indian Reservation with no apparent source of funding.
Hill also required new employees at the Department of Education to sign letters affirming their position would become at-will, ensuring Hill could terminate the employee without cause. The committee report states Hill "intentionally and knowingly" violated the law because she had previously requested a Wyoming Attorney General opinion on the issue, which told her she did not have authority to change positions from permanent to at-will.
The committee found Hill's repeated demands for personal and political loyalty violated state statute and the Wyoming and U.S. constitutions. Hill called meetings where employees were asked to leave if they did not support her and asked to hold hands to join a circle of trust, according to witness testimony.
Elected officials can direct programs and policies but cannot demand absolute political loyalty, according to state statute.
Such activity is grounds for Hill's removal from office, the committee said.
In its report, the committee suggested Wyoming create a confidential reporting process that will allow an official outside the agency's chain of command to investigate violations of the law.
It said Wyoming should mandate training in governmental ethics, laws and whistleblower protections for all state employees.
Sam Shumway, chief of operations for the Department of Education and a member of Hill's leadership team, said Hill offered witnesses who could explain the issues during three days of investigative hearings in Cheyenne in January. Hill suggested 38 witnesses in addition to the 16 called by the committee. None of them was called. However, the committee changed its rules before the hearings to allow Hill to cross-examine the other witnesses.
"If this marks the end of that committee’s work, I think that would be a good thing for the department," Shumway said.
Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, served on the special committee that drafted the report.
"The report is what it is," Brown, the House Majority Floor Leader, said Wednesday. "It is the end result of the activities of the investigatory committee, and it does not necessarily drive anything. It is a resource for the Legislature and for individual legislators to use however they wish."
Rep. Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, the committee's chairman and state Speaker of the House, did not immediately return a call for comment Wednesday afternoon.