The University of Wyoming paid its attorneys more than $42,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to block the release of records outlining the board of trustees’ investigation and decision to part ways with former president Laurie Nichols, records released last week show.
The university spent $42,532.61 between July and December to fight a lawsuit brought by WyoFile, the Star-Tribune, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and the Laramie Boomerang. The organizations had jointly sued the school in June, after UW blocked the release of records that detailed the end of Nichols’ tenure and the board’s decision making. A judge ruled in favor of the news outlets in early January and said that the records could be released, albeit with redactions.
The cost of the school’s defense was released late last week in response to another records request by WyoFile and the Star-Tribune. The released invoices show that Hirst Applegate, the Cheyenne-based law firm hired by the board to defend it against the media, billed UW six times in the latter half of 2019. All but one of those invoices was for $7,000 or more.
A voicemail left for Dave True, the board chairman, was not returned. Various faculty and department leaders around campus declined to comment or did not return messages. Donal O’Toole, who was the Faculty Senate chair when Nichols was dismissed, called the expense “a stupid waste of money.” The expense is more than double what a Wyoming resident pays in tuition each year.
At the Capitol, where a legislative budget session is underway, one lawmaker questioned the expenditure.
“I hope they feel they got what they paid for,” said Sen. Mike Gierau, a Jackson Democrat who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, “because as someone who appropriates money to the University of Wyoming, I just don’t see it.”
In a statement, university spokesman Chad Baldwin said the board’s “paramount concern” in defending the media’s lawsuit was “safeguarding the confidentiality of those individuals whose comments were factored into the decision” to not renew Nichols’ contract.
“Those individuals were offered assurances of confidentiality in exchange for their willingness to be interviewed, and the board felt it had a responsibility to seek to maintain the privacy of those numerous individuals prior to and after the lawsuit was filed,” Baldwin wrote. “In that very important respect, the university is pleased with the outcome of the litigation and grateful that Judge (Tori) Kricken ordered the redaction of those names in the documents that were released.”
Bruce Moats, the attorney who represented the news outlets in the lawsuit, said the university could’ve redacted the documents themselves when WyoFile and the Star-Tribune first requested them more than 10 months ago.
“If that’s all they were concerned about, the (state) Supreme Court has been very clear that redaction is appropriate,” he said. “They could’ve done that in the first place.”
In court and in its rejection letter to the news outlets last spring, the university had argued that the requested documents could not be released because they contained privileged personnel information. The news outlets disagreed and contended the records could and should be released. The Star-Tribune and WyoFile had submitted the requests in the days and weeks after the board announced in March that Nichols’ contract would be allowed to expire in June. From the outset, the board refused to comment on why it was not sticking with its widely popular president. Nichols herself maintains that she was never given an explanation.
The lawsuit was filed in June and ended earlier this month. In September, the Star-Tribune and WyoFile reported that the board had quietly investigated Nichols in the weeks before the late March announcement.
In early January, Judge Kricken ordered that nearly all of the documents should be released. Earlier this month, the board announced it would not appeal the decision, and more than 100 pages of records were unsealed.
The records indicate Nichols was accused of verbally abusing subordinates. Interview notes show university HR took two detailed reports against the former president, one in 2018 and one in early 2019, in which she’s alleged to have yelled at a caterer and a UW Foundation employee. After the 2019 report, the school hired a Denver-based law firm to conduct a more detailed inquiry.
What exactly that outside investigation discovered remains unclear. But after the other documents became public, the university said the investigation indicated Nichols’ behavior was not limited to those two reports and that she had exhibited a pattern of abuse. Nichols, in two statements released earlier this month, denied the allegations. She said the reports were taken out of context, and she expressed frustration that the board did not notify her of the complaints or its investigation.
The board had used the taxpayers’ money against them, one conservative lawmaker argued.
“The UW board then used taxpayer funds to try to block the release of the details of the dismissal,” Casper Republican Rep. Chuck Gray said in a statement Wednesday. He criticized the board’s lack of transparency. “The board eventually relented, but it was not acceptable that a lawsuit was required for that basic transparency.”