CHEYENNE – Legal action could be coming against the state of Wyoming as transparency organizations are demanding the auditor turn over state finance records.
On Thursday, a representative of American Transparency, branded as OpenTheBooks.com, and the Equality State Taxpayers’ Association delivered a letter to the office of Wyoming State Auditor Cynthia Cloud, signed by Cheyenne attorney Drake Hill of Hill Law Firm.
It calls on the elected auditor to comply with a request to turn over public records of state expenditures in 2016 – a request her office has denied up to this point
The auditor’s office claimed processing the records for public review would take years and disrupt addressing its statutory duties, according to Adam Andrzejewski, OpenTheBooks.com CEO. But he said the response smacks of lacking transparency on the auditor’s part.
"We hope the auditor provides a responsive record to our open records request without litigation," Andrzejewski said. "It shouldn’t take a search warrant or a subpoena to force open state checkbook expenditures in Wyoming."
Requests for an interview with Cloud or a representative from her office on this issue were denied via an email from the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office. Rebecca Zisch, assistant attorney general, said the auditor’s office cannot comment on pending litigation matters.
The sole desired outcome of any potential litigation would be obtaining the records, Andrzejewski said. The letter states Hill Law Firm is representing the transparency organizations.
Wyoming is one of only three states to not comply with OpenTheBooks.com’s request for state checkbook records, Andrzejewski said. Nearly all of the remaining 47 states disclosed federal spending on contracts, grants, direct payments, loans, insurance and farm subsidies since 2001 or earlier, he said.
Andrzejewski said it’s a red flag for the organization when a government agency slow-walks or denies records requests.
"The fact that Auditor Cloud admitted that producing a clean checkbook would take ‘years’ is very embarrassing," he said. "Citizens have a constitutional duty to give oversight to their elected officials. If all state expenditures are shielded, then we, the people, have no ability to exercise our rights."
The transparency organizations are arguing that making the requested information available is the auditor’s statutory duty. They cite the statement on the auditor’s website homepage that the office "protects public money by ensuring that it is properly accounted for in the most efficient and cost-effective means at all times" and "(p)romoting transparency and financial accountability are the auditor’s top priorities."
Requests from the organizations began in 2015, with the latest being the letter hand-delivered Thursday.
In a summer 2017 email exchange between Jennifer McPherson, OpenTheBooks.comresearch specialist, and Sandra Urbanek, deputy state auditor, Urbanek explained the office processes more than 1.8 million vendor payments to 150,000 vendors annually. To comply with the request of any and all payments in 2016, Urbanek said, would be a "daunting effort."
"The vendor payment records contain a great deal of protected information and would require a manual review to ensure that no confidential information was included," Urbanek said.
The Wyoming Public Records Act exempts state agencies from requirements to compile data, extract data or produce a new document to comply with a request if it would impair the agency’s ability to discharge it’s duties, which Urbanek points to in the email exchange.
Urbanek also cites the vendor payments portion of the auditor’s website, where records are available for the last 90 days.
But Andrzejewski said the website’s offering is inadequate for several reasons. The 90-day window, he said, doesn’t answer how much money particular vendors received in a year. And the claim that the data is purged after 90 days appears to contradict the state records retention policy against destroying public records.
OpenTheBooks.com also requested the names and addresses of state vendors in order to map expenditures. Andrzejewski said this could show how much money flows out of state, as well as what counties or cities within Wyoming are the primary beneficiaries of state expenditures. Providing that information was also rejected by the auditor.
The demand submitted by Hill calls the burdensome characterization of the request into question. It cites a 2016 $63.9 million contract with CGI, one of the world’s largest information technology firms, for hosting and maintenance of the state’s financial and human resource and payroll system.
"Your expenditure of millions of dollars in system upgrades belies your claim," the letter said. "We know that the information is readily accessible."
Cloud is up for re-election this year.