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Nichols asks judge to show her UW files

LARAMIE — In a public records dispute between the University of Wyoming and Wyoming news organizations, an attorney for former UW President Laurie Nichols has asked Albany County district court Judge Tori Kricken to show Nichols the records related to her ouster that are currently being considered for public release.

Laramie attorney Megan Overmann Goetz filed a motion for Nichols to intervene shortly before Kricken’s court clerks closed their office late Tuesday afternoon.

In that filing, Goetz expounded on what Nichols has already told reporters: That she was unaware UW investigated her and still has “no idea” why her tenure at the state’s flagship institution came to an end in June.

“When Nichols was informed that her contract with the University of Wyoming would not be renewed, she inquired with (the trustees) as to the reasons why,” Goetz wrote in her filing. “At all relevant inquiries, (the trustees) would not disclose any such reasons to Nichols.”

Before deciding to intervene, Nichols had asked UW for her personnel file to consider any possible privacy concerns.

“To date, Nichols has not received such,” Goetz said.

According to Goetz’s filing, Nichols is not — at least at this point — seeking to block the release of records to the news organizations nor to compel the university to release them.

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

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.

Goetz said Nichols decided to try joining the case after learning last week that attorneys for UW would be submitting records related to the Flynn investigation for review by Kricken.

“Not only is Nichols unaware of the existence of any such documents, she is unaware of the content of any such documents to the extent they exist,” Goetz said. “Nichols has never known of any investigation performed or done by (the trustees) or its agents into her job performance.”

A court hearing held Oct. 8 was the first time Nichols became aware of possible investigatory records into her job performance, Goetz said.

The attorney argues that Nichols has “a right” to understand more about the investigation, including the existence of a report.

Even if Kricken doesn’t determine UW must release documents to the public, Nichols should still be allowed to see the documents submitted to the judge “in camera,” which means they can currently be seen only by Kricken, Goetz argues.

“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. “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.”

If Kricken grants Nichols the right to review records currently being reviewed by the court, the ex-president said she may ultimately be amenable to certain records being released.

“Nichols may in fact offer no objection to the release of any documents to (news organizations),” Goetz said. “However, Nichols frankly cannot make any decisions or determinations without intervening as a party in this matter to assert fully, her rights and argument in this regard.”

In June, Wyoming news organizations — including the Casper 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 position of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s executive vice chancellor of academic affairs.

She was announced as one of four finalists for the Nebraska job at the end of September and gave a public presentation on campus Oct. 1.

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.”