Today is James Madison’s birthday and the midway point in Sunshine Week — the nationwide celebration of government transparency, accountability and freedom of information. It’s a fitting overlap considering that Madison — the father of the U.S. Constitution — was also a staunch advocate of government transparency.
“Popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both,” Madison wrote, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Despite this founding father’s support for open government, accessing public records has been and remains an arduous part of journalism. Sometimes the records are on the other side of Wyoming and can only be reviewed with an in-person visit. Sometimes the records are easily available, but sifting through reams of them to locate the critical details is the challenge. And there are times when requests are flat-out rejected, forcing reporters to find another way to get information. Every request presents a different challenge, but it’s always worth it. WyoFile offers this public records playbook based on three distinct experiences.
With more than 30 articles, WyoFile has led what has become national coverage on the corner-crossing saga in Carbon County, a trespassing dustup in 2021 that triggered court battles and a broad conversation about access to public lands. But initial reporting was a struggle.
Essential elements of the groundbreaking case came to light when the Wyoming chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers launched a GoFundMe campaign to ensure the four hunters charged with misdemeanor trespassing could have their day in court. The hunters had crossed from one piece of public U.S. Bureau of Land Management land to another at the four-corner intersection with two pieces of property belonging to Elk Mountain Ranch.
But the online social chatter lacked the essential elements of sound legal reporting which remained out of reach — affidavits, citations, sworn testimony, physical evidence and interviews with participating parties.
Records produced by active investigations are not available under Wyoming’s public records laws and it took a while for Carbon County Attorney Ashley Mayfield Davis to file charging documents — which are public — in court. The circuit court has no internet-accessible digital filing system leaving the case somewhat shrouded to all but the in-person courthouse visitor. Meantime, the hunters, their attorneys and others remained mum.
WyoFile confirmed through a telephone call to court officials that a deputy had issued four trespass citations. But beyond that, there was initially little other information readily available.
Over the course of several weeks WyoFile tried to send reporters from Casper and Laramie to the Rawlins courthouse to view and copy charging documents, but circumstances and weather thwarted early attempts. Once a reporter did get to the courthouse, however, the logjam began to loosen.
For some, the ensuing flood of public information was too much. WyoFile learned from court documents that a Carbon County deputy had recorded a conversation with a key prosecution witness — the property manager at the Elk Mountain Ranch — on his body cam. Uncovered by the hunters’ attorneys through the legal process of discovery, that video became a public record.
As such, WyoFile sought a copy of it, but was initially unable to obtain one from court authorities who said they had no means of copying the evidence. After being pressed and receiving a $5 copy fee through the mail, they provided a copy.
By then the hunters were represented by numerous attorneys, each of whom possessed digital copies of public court files. The lawyers were still reluctant to try their case in the media, but their and the prosecutor’s public filings became grist for the news mill.
WyoFile readers readily consumed that product, but prosecutors didn’t like the taste. They asked judge Susan Stipe to “limit prejudicial pretrial communications with the media and release of information.”
Stipe called the motion to limit distribution of public court documents a request for a gag order and rejected it.
The hunters went on trial in April last year and a six-person jury found them not guilty. The nation’s justice system, which requires most proceedings to be held in public, ensured reporters were able to observe and report from the courtroom.
Meantime ranch owner Fred Eshelman filed a civil suit alleging the hunters trespassed and caused up to $9.39 million in damages. That suit in federal court is ongoing but in a venue where filings are posted online.
Federal dollars to anti-federal lawmakers
When a politician makes a promise to voters, it’s important for the press to look into its feasibility. Throughout Wyoming’s 2022 election, WyoFile kept hearing political candidates criticize the federal government for what they said was excessive spending. More specifically, there were frequent calls to wean the state off of federal dollars and campaign promises to do so.
This policy stance was not new. In fact, it came on the heels of an unsuccessful attempt by a group of lawmakers to convince the Legislature to send more than $1 billion in stimulus funds back to Washington. WyoFile was curious how practical the anti-government-spending stance was for lawmakers and candidates in their personal endeavors.
Relying entirely on public records, WyoFile began to dig into the issue by poring over business filings with the secretary of state, elected officials’ financial disclosure forms as well as WyOpen, a searchable database of Wyoming’s expenditures, including grants funded with federal dollars. WyoFile also sifted through records from the Small Business Administration, the federal agency which backed Paycheck Protection Program loans. Those records, however, were not always public. The names, addresses and precise loan amounts for all PPP loans were only released after a judge ordered the SBA to do so, following a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in May 2020. Thanks to the work of other curious journalists, WyoFile was able to access public records that would have otherwise been kept in the dark.
Those records told a different story: that federal grants and subsidies kept many candidates’ businesses afloat.
Wyoming Boys’ School
During the 2021 interim session the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee studied ways to improve Wyoming’s juvenile justice system.
In a memo explaining why juvenile justice was the committee’s No. 1 interim priority, the committee wrote: “Wyoming has one of the highest rates of youthful confinement in the nation. Youth confinement is one of the largest expenditures for [the] Department of Family Services.” That prompted the committee to explore “legislative changes regarding state expenditures, confinement and removal of juveniles,” as well as ways to address a serious lack of juvenile justice data.
On Sept. 13, 2021 — one of the three times the committee met to discuss juvenile justice — there was a 10-minute presentation on the Wyoming Boys’ School followed by a few questions from lawmakers. Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) wanted to know how allegations of abuse or mistreatment at the Boys’ School are handled. DFS Director Korin Schmidt explained they’re treated as Child Protective Services cases, “and then we don’t talk about that. That’s confidential under the statute.”
Before Provenza could follow up, the committee’s co-chair Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Laramie) pivoted, remarking “maybe four years ago, I visited the Boys School and I had lunch there. And I recall having chicken fingers. And I just have to say, it was actually really really good.”
But Schmidt’s comments prompted WyoFile to examine what it means for investigations of the Boys’ School to be kept confidential. It seemed worthy of scrutiny because Child Protective Services and the Boys School are both under the auspices of DFS — meaning the agency investigates itself without oversight or transparency.
DFS denied WyoFile’s request for incident reports and investigations, citing a desire to protect the privacy of juveniles in state care. A follow-up request for records with any identifying information redacted was also denied.
Gary Gilmore, former superintendent of the Boys’ School, told WyoFile that 1988 was the last time he could recall a substantiated abuse determination, but a request for a tally of allegations and whether they were investigated was also denied.
Those denials led WyoFile to try other avenues to examine the climate at the Wyoming Boys’ School.
The police reports revealed that between June 2021 and January 2022 — the same time the Joint Judiciary Committee was reviewing the juvenile justice system — the Washakie County Sheriff’s Office experienced an uptick in calls for help at the Boys’ School. Incidents ranged from students breaking windows and damaging property to physical altercations between students and staff. Staff told police they were seeing more and more teens with a level of mental illness they felt ill-equipped to care for, prompting WyoFile in collaboration with the Casper Star-Tribune to do a two-part investigation of conditions at the Wyoming Boys’ School.