Nichols to join court case on firing records
October 10, 2019
LARAMIE — Former University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols is hoping to weigh in on whether the university will be required to provide news reporters with a number of records regarding an investigation into Nichols’ conduct at the university, as well as records of correspondence among UW’s Board of Trustees regarding Nichols.
Laramie attorney Megan Overmann Goetz filed to join the case on behalf of Nichols late Friday afternoon. A formal motion to intervene is expected to be filed Tuesday.
According to an email Goetz sent to Albany County District Court Judge Tori Kricken on Wednesday, it appears Nichols will attempt to block the release of documents related to her exit from UW.
“Dr. Nichols has determined she must intervene formally in this matter for her protection and privacy interests,” Goetz told the judge.
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.
After UW announced in March that Nichols’ tenure as president would end in June, the university’s first female president publicly denied knowing why the trustees decided not to offer her a second contract.
In June, she told the Casper Star-Tribune she asked the trustees for an explanation and was refused.
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 her email, Goetz said Nichols decided to intervene after the attorney heard arguments made in court Tuesday and after learning Robert Jarosh, an attorney for UW, will provide Kricken with a number of records related to an investigation into Nichols’ conduct.
Jarosh previously provided Kricken with other records in August so the judge could decide whether they qualify as public records.
In September, Nichols denied knowing about the investigation.
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 organization's 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.
Jarosh agreed this week to provide Kricken with those invoices and other related documents.
Kricken indicated Tuesday she has already conducted a review of the case law related to the legal petition and a decision is likely to be issued soon. She has, on occasion, issued rulings within a single business day of hearing arguments on a motion.
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.”
On Tuesday, Kricken said the implications of the case were “serious” for both sides and believes the dispute merits her consideration.
“It’s appropriate for this matter to have come before this court,” Kricken said.
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.
The university did provide some of the documents while denying others June 6.
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.”