Former University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols has asked a judge not to release UW records related to her dismissal to Wyoming news organizations.
When Nichols first joined a legal challenge of UW’s refusal to release those records, her initial intent was simply to get Albany County district court Judge Tori Kricken to show her the investigatory records that UW’s attorney had submitted for the judge to privately review before deciding whether they constituted public records.
Kricken declined that request, saying there were no legal grounds for her to show Nichols documents that were submitted “in camera.”
Laramie attorney Megan Overmann Goetz, who’s representing Nichols, said in a Tuesday court filing that, because Nichols was not allowed to review the records, the university’s denial of a records request should be upheld.
“Not being privy to anything, Nichols can only assume the worst,” Goetz said. “Nichols can only assume that the university has confidential sensitive personal information about Nichols which, if disclosed to the media, could be very harmful to Nichols, her name and reputation.”
Nichols is currently the interim president at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota.
In recent months, she was named as a finalist for the presidency at the University of North Dakota and the No. 2 administrative position at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
She was ultimately not hired for the North Dakota position, while Nebraska has yet to announce its selection for the position of executive vice chancellor for academic affairs.
In June, 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.
As part of the case, the media are seeking records regarding a supposed investigation of Nichols that UW’s board of trustees ordered shortly before the university announced in March that Nichols’s presidency would end at the expiration of her three-year contract in June.
The news outlets also requested communications between UW trustees about the terms of Nichols’s new contract.
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.”
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.”
Nichols has repeatedly stated that she had no knowledge of such an investigation and is unaware of what the relevant documentation could reveal.
“The scenario is such that the entire world may see confidential personnel documents about Nichols at the same time she does,” Goetz wrote in a Tuesday brief.
Goetz said that Nichols “did not have any information whatsoever to support that an investigation may have actually occurred until (a) October 8, 2019, court hearing.”
“Nichols still has no idea what Employment Matter LLC and/or Flynn Investigation Group has to do with her,” Goetz wrote. “Nichols was never notified of an investigation, interviews or any other undertaking about her or her performance as president of the university. If people were interviewed about Nichols, she does not know who or when or what was said. Certainly, Nichols was never given an opportunity to respond. This is a significant fact. If in fact, such an ‘investigation’ occurred, this is directly contrary to the university’s own regulations. This is also a significant fact.”
Goetz’s brief does not explicitly state how such an investigation would violate UW regulations. A 2016 presidential directive issued by former UW President Richard McGinity shortly before Nichols took over states that — in cases involving harassment, hostile environment or retaliation — the subject of a investigation has the right to receive written notice of a relevant complaint and to also receive the investigator’s final report.
Goetz said that if either the university or Kricken was willing to show Nichols the documents that were submitted for a judge's private review, the former president may not have objected to the public release of the documents.