The public has the right to know about protected Colorado wolves killed legally by hunters when they cross the Wyoming state border, but officials here are blatantly using a 2012 state law as a feeble excuse to keep all information secret.
WyoFile’s recent reporting on the controversial practice is just one example of how some government agencies abuse the public records system to keep us in the dark about vital matters. Cases involving a wrongful death lawsuit settlement, students, juvenile inmates and even alleged sex crimes are other examples of how Wyoming public officials have attempted to hide facts under the guise of protecting personal privacy.
In the wolf-killing controversy, Wyoming residents aren’t the only ones whose rights under the state’s Public Records Act have been clearly violated by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Incredibly, even Colorado officials who manage wildlife haven’t been provided any details of the alleged incidents by their Wyoming counterparts.
Bruce Moats, a former journalist and recently retired Cheyenne attorney who spent more than 40 years fighting for transparency in government, said there’s a reason why authorities in power withhold information: They want people to think and act in a certain way.
“More specifically, they don’t want you to think in a certain way or act in a certain way, because they fear if you have that information, that’s what you’re going to do,” Moats said.
Often agencies contend they withhold information to protect someone’s identity, but that’s a misguided argument used to brush aside public records laws. A flat-out rejection of a records request isn’t necessary to protect someone’s identity when records custodians can instead redact identifying information and still release most of the details.
In the legal world, they call this the “least restrictive means.” Put simply, the least impactful approach should be taken when a compelling government interest collides with the public’s right to know. Instead of the wholesale denial of information, officials are supposed to release as much as feasible.
But that’s not what happened in the wolf-killing and other cases.
The Game and Fish Department said an 11-year-old state law protecting wolf hunters’ identities was meant to keep people from harassing and threatening them. The department releases only the aggregate number of wolves killed in the entire 53-million-acre area “predator zone,” which covers 85% of Wyoming.
But even if the state disclosed information about wolf kills by each county, it would still likely be difficult to determine who are the shooters. In other words, the government can protect individual privacy rights and the public’s right to know. Moats said the Public Records Act and legal precedent established agencies have an obligation to segregate material, redact exempt material — including names — “and turn over the rest.”
Albany County has consistently denied requests from WyoFile for public documents related to a 2022 settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit in the fatal shooting of Robbie Ramirez by a then-deputy sheriff.
The county maintains the settlement agreement contains information that is “highly confidential and sensitive.” But a recent Wyoming Supreme Court ruling suggests that such agreements are public records, prompting WyoFile to resubmit its requests on Aug. 22. In response, Albany County is still looking for ways to block access.
This attack on transparency is nothing new. Back in 2018, the Department of Family Services refused to say if it investigated the Natrona County Juvenile Detention Center, in the wake of allegations a former staff member sexually assaulted a female inmate. DFS has the power to examine if any regulations related to running such facilities were violated.
But even after a criminal case confirmed the sexual assault, DFS cited confidentiality of child abuse and neglect cases and still wouldn’t confirm the investigation. That response inspired no confidence that the agency was doing its job.
A decade earlier, things were different. When another company operated the detention center, DFS responded immediately to an unreported sexual assault found during an investigation and released it to the public, along with updates.
It doesn’t make sense how disclosing an investigation would jeopardize an abused child’s privacy, but DFS raised the same concern when denying WyoFile’s requests for information about reports of abuse at the Wyoming Boys’ School.
To Moats, DFS’s unwillingness to confirm investigations is another example of the national trend that “government entities are hiding behind individual privacy.”
In another 2018 case, the Natrona County School District confirmed it investigated what it called an isolated incident of “extreme bullying.”
However, the ages, grade levels, number of students involved and even such basics as what happened and when were withheld to protect student privacy, according to the district. Parents and the general public have a right to know about such incidents so they can judge if the school took the proper action to ensure kids’ safety.
“If you shut off information to the newspaper, that doesn’t mean people aren’t going to learn about it,” Moats said. “Hiding stuff just leads to rumors and misinformation, and that causes a lot of problems.”
Reporting on Public Records Act and open meetings law violations is one of the most important jobs for all journalists. I’ve been fortunate to work for Wyoming news organizations that have consistently gone to the mat to defend the public’s right to know, usually at considerable expense.
Moats recalled during his career, there were times when government attorneys either urged unwilling boards and councils to release information or told them they had to do it.
“I’ve seen it turn back again now,” he said. “Instead of finding a way to release information, they’re finding a way not to.”
What changed? Moats said divisive national politics is a factor, plus amendments to the Wyoming Public Records Act initiated because of how much public records requests were costing agencies.
In one of Moats’ few defeats at the Wyoming Supreme Court, the justices ruled 3-2 that agencies may charge search and retrieval fees for electronic records.
“Some are still charging thousands of dollars and asking for advance payment,” he said. “It creates an impediment to access of documents that are indisputably public.”
Such expenses are a tremendous burden on the media, especially because news outlets have much less advertising revenue to spend on court cases and documents, not to mention fewer reporters.
“But for individual citizens, it can just be a way to deny [their requests],” Moats said. “[Agencies] know people can’t afford to hire an attorney.”
He said the Legislature severely restricted the Public Records Act by setting a 30-day deadline to respond to records requests. “Often we’re looking at a public record because there’s something going on then that people want to make a decision about,” Moats said. “That was a big change.”
Moats stressed the public can no longer expect the media to take the lead in fighting for every public records case.
“People have to rise up; the time is now,” the attorney said. “Stand up for yourself, and support your local media organizations and reporters who are out there covering meetings. We don’t have as many fact-finders out there as we used to, and we’ve never had enough.”
With fewer professionals to take on public records cases, Wyoming owes a debt of gratitude to two retired Wyoming attorneys who took on the challenge of obtaining public records from the Wyoming Department of Education.
Rodger McDaniel and George Powers last spring sued WDE, former interim Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder and a staff member for failing to provide public information about the planning of a far-right “Stop the Sexualization of Our Children” rally Schroeder hosted in Cheyenne last fall.
Last month, Laramie County Judge Steven Sharpe said there were acts of “bad faith” by the department when it didn’t respond to the requests.
But that paled in comparison to what Schroeder admitted in court last Thursday. Testifying under oath, Schroeder said he lied to the press when he said public money wasn’t spent on the political event.
Moats praised Powers and McDaniel for their commitment to finding the truth.
“Where the department denied having records on a number of occasions, it turned out they did have them,” he said. “That’s the problem when you don’t know what’s there. Attorneys are experienced at probing and finding the soft spots.
“But most people don’t have that,” Moats said. “So agencies just say ‘that’s all we’ve got,’ then that’s the end of it.”
Hopefully, the Schroeder case will establish a legal precedent for public records requests in Wyoming, and that will help our future citizen fact-finders. As our champions of government transparency like Moats retire, we need a new generation to lead the effort.