Judge nixes Laurie Nichols' request to see records

Judge nixes Laurie Nichols' request to see records

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Laurie Nichols

Then-University of Wyoming president Laurie Nichols speaks during a pep rally at David Street Station in June 2018 in Casper. 

LARAMIE — Former University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols has been admitted as a party to the court case regarding the potential release of university records pertaining to her ouster from UW earlier this year.

However, Albany County district court Judge Tori Kricken ruled that Nichols will not be allowed to see the disputed records that the judge was given to see if they constitute public records.

Shortly after Kricken signaled in early October that she was close to making a ruling on that issue, Nichols’s attorney asked Kricken to allow the former president to join the case.

At that time, Nichols was neither seeking to block the release of records to the news organizations nor to compel the university to release them.

Instead, Laramie attorney Megan Goetz said Nichols wants to be able to review the supposed investigatory record against her before weighing in on whether its release would be in the public interest.

Even if Kricken doesn’t determine UW must release documents to the public, Goetz argued that Nichols still be allowed to see the documents submitted to the judge “in camera.”

“Nichols should have the ability to intervene to formally understand the nature and contents of all documents before the court in camera for consideration,” Goetz wrote in October. “Even assuming that this court determines that no documents submitted by (the trustees) in camera should be released to petitioners, a mere order to this effect or legal analysis as to justification of this court’s conclusion, may be potentially damaging to Nichols.”

However, Kricken said there’s no basis for allowing Nichols to review records that are submitted for a judge to review “in camera.”

“Dr. Nichols has presented no cogent legal authority in support of her position that she should first be permitted to review the contested public records before determining whether she wished to oppose their release,” Kricken wrote in her Wednesday ruling. “Neither could this court locate any precedent in support of her position.”

The Casper Star-Tribune and WyoFile jointly published a story Sept. 27 that indicates the trustees hired a law firm to investigate Nichols shortly before it was announced she would not return as president at the expiration of her three-year contract.

According to sources and documents reviewed by the news organizations’ reporters, the investigating firm had a final document review and teleconference March 13 — two days before the board’s four executive committee members flew to Arizona, where Nichols was vacationing, to inform her she would not be continuing as president.

An invoice, obtained by the Star-Tribune and WyoFile, indicates the university trustees paid $8,550 to Employment Matters LLC Flynn Investigations Group to interview at least 14 people in the weeks and days before the board notified Nichols on March 15 that she wouldn’t continue as president.

Though she won’t be allowed to see the disputed records before the judge decides whether they should be released, Kricken said she’s welcome to make arguments to protect her privacy regardless.

“If her concern is protection of her privacy interests, as she has indicated and upon which she has relied in seeking to intervene, then Dr. Nichols should utilize this opportunity to brief the scope, extent and nature of her privacy interests to their fullest,” Kricken said.

In June, Wyoming news organizations — including the Star-Tribune, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, the Laramie Boomerang and WyoFile — asked Kricken to review whether UW is legally justified in withholding certain records from public access.

Nichols is currently the interim president of Black Hills State University and is a candidate for the presidency of University of North Dakota and for the position of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s executive vice chancellor of academic affairs.

Now that Nichols is a party to the court case, she has until Dec. 10 to file a brief. Then both UW and the news organizations in the case will get a chance to respond to her brief.

In asking for a court review, the media are exercising a portion of the Wyoming Public Meeting Act that states “any person denied the right to inspect any record covered by this act may apply to the district court of the district wherein the record is found for an order directing the custodian of the record to show cause why he should not permit the inspection of the record.”

Some of the records being sought in the case involve the “terms and conditions of employing/retaining an individual and/or entity to conduct an investigation into the conduct or performance of President Nichols, as well as any records related to retaining an investigator.”

On April 2, the Casper newspaper also sought “all public records of communications that include Dave True, Jeffrey Marsh, Kermit Brown and John McKinley that include any of the following keywords: Nichols, Laurie, president, sweep, scrape, renewal, evaluation, Steve Portsch, Portch” from the end of 2017 to April.

Steve Portsch was the person hired to conduct Nichols’s performance review in 2018.

Under the Wyoming Public Records Act, governmental agencies can, but are not required to, withhold records that are part of a personnel file or investigative reports so long as releasing the documents “would be contrary to the public interest.”

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