As public records are increasingly digitized, debate in Wyoming has grown over how to make them available to the public. (PxHere/Public domain)

Two groups sued Wyoming State Auditor Cynthia Cloud on Wednesday over a public records request the organizations allege is being slow-walked even after they paid $7,820 in records fees.

American Transparency, a national organization, and the Equality State Taxpayers Association, a Wyoming group, say they paid Auditor Cynthia Cloud’s office nearly $8,000 to provide five years of spending data — much of it public information that had been previously published online. But months after the payment, they’ve only received records for a few weeks of expenditures. The vast majority of their request remains unfulfilled, they say.

The groups’ complaint, filed in the First Judicial District Court of Laramie County on July 18, asks the court to compel the auditor’s office to “immediately produce the official public records requested.” Dissatisfied at the pace of Cloud’s response, the groups had threatened to sue.

After receiving the $7,820 fee, the auditor’s office dedicated only 37 hours of staff time toward completing the request over a 10 week period, the complaint alleges.

The lawsuit comes as Wyoming agencies put into place rules to charge fees for public records across state government.

Open the Books — a project of the Illinois based 501(c)(3) nonprofit American Transparency — compiles government expenditures and publishes the information online to track tax dollar spending. They’ve published “checkbooks” for 47 states on openthebooks.com, CEO and founder Adam Andrzejewski told WyoFile.

The group has been pursuing Wyoming’s “state checkbook” since 2015, Andrzejewski said.

The groups’ attorney is Drake Hill, a Cheyenne attorney who is no stranger to debate over public records. As the issue heated up this summer, several parties have referred to a previous large records request to state agencies by Hill as an example of the type of abuse that makes fees necessary.

But the fee structure, which gives agencies broad discretion in charges and timelines for completing requests, could be applied to requests much smaller than Hill’s or the groups he’s now representing.

The auditor’s office is unable to comment on “pending litigation,” deputy auditor Sandy Urbanek said in response to a request for comment for this story.

Since news of the organization’s threatened lawsuit broke in June, however, Cloud has defended herself on a pair of radio shows and in a newspaper editorial. On KGAB in Cheyenne and on Sheridan Media, she said transparency is a goal for the auditor’s office and that spending is documented online. It is, but only for a 90-day period at which point the payments are removed. To view data further back than 90 days requires a records request.

Cloud has said further transparency that makes all spending data available online will require legislative investment that she has “pleaded for,” but not received, according to her editorial.

The radio interview with KGAB came shortly after publication of a WyoFile report on the two groups’ threat to sue and on American Transparency’s multi-year skirmish with the auditor’s office. The auditor’s office declined to comment for that story as well.

On the airwaves, however, Cloud contested news reports.

“When I ran for office in 2010 I thought you could really believe what you read in newspapers,” Cloud told KGAB radio host Glen Woods. “And after you are in this your realize ‘no, you cannot believe.’”

Cloud referred to American Transparency as “out-of-state people who are wanting to get a large data dump.”  

Her office answered attorney Hill’s initial letter that threatened a lawsuit with a letter from a lawyer in the Wyoming Attorney General’s office documenting the efforts made to comply with the records request.

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“As of this letter, this office has used $540.04 of your original $7,820 deposit,” attorney Rebecca Zisch wrote. “The Auditor’s Office will continue to review and provide records to the extent that doing so does not ‘impair the agency’s ability to discharge its duties’” she wrote, quoting Wyoming’s public record statute.

Cloud has said some state payments must be reviewed for confidential information, particularly related to medicaid payments or victim-service data. Hill argued in his July 18 complaint that most of the spending they have requested has previously been made public on the auditor’s website and should have already been reviewed for any confidential data.

“The Defendant either (i) previously breached her statutory duties by disclosing statutorily protected information,” Hill wrote. “Or (ii) sought to charge the Plaintiffs for a review that has already been done, in which case the Defendant Cloud fraudulently charged the Plaintiffs for a review that was previously performed.”

Andrew Graham

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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