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More Ethics Woes for Wyoming's Hill as Accountant Alleges Improper Payments

One of the relatively embattled state K-12 chiefs, Wyoming Superintendent Cindy Hill, is in the headlines again after an accountant in the state education department told lawmakers in a hearing this week that he was ordered to disburse federal funds illegally in order to pay overtime to an employee who wasn't qualified for such a benefit.

As I've written previously, Hill has in practice qualified as "embattled" for approximately a year. Last January, Gov. Matt Mead. who is an elected Republican like Hill, signed a law that effectively stripped the superintendent of her power over public education in her state. Legislators justified the major shift by citing a report that purported to show Hill's inability or unwillingness to implement a new state law related to education accountability. Rich Crandall, a former Republican state senator in Arizona, has now assumed power over K-12 in the state as director of the state education department.

Hill, who retains the title of her office (created in the state constitution) and some relatively minor duties related to education in the state, has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of this law and last year announced her intention to run for governor in 2014. In fact, she reportedly kicked off her gubernatorial campaign yesterday. But as the Casper Star-Tribune notes, legislators haven't let her off the hook—they've been investigating her for alleged improprieties in how she ran her department. I noted last year that state investigators reported that problems in the department touched on everything from baseball bats to the buddy system. A full, 185-page report from Mead's office detailing numerous problems in her office was released last summer that in part dealt with the office environment under Hill. Below is a description about one situation highlighted in the report, an incident Cindy Hill said she could not conceive happening as at least one employee alleged it happened:

CindyHillSnip.PNG

What's the latest on her situation? An education department accounting analyst, Trent Carroll, told lawmakers that a member of Hill's staff, Christine Steele, instructed him to use federal funds totaling $26,000 to pay overtime for an employee, who isn't identified in the piece. Carroll claimed that he objected twice to such directions. 

A memo from Steele about the matter from April 2012 reads: "It is understood ... that paying this invoice would cause the Wyoming Department of Education to be out of compliance with state and federal guidance and, should this be identified in a state or federal audit, will result in an audit finding."

Hill's handling of federal initiatives, and specifically her skepticism of federal funding for those initiatives, has been highlighted during her tenure in office.

Reporter Leah Todd also highlights the contract the daughter of Hill staff member Sheryl Lain received with the education department—the state constitution prohibits a public employee from lobbying for or causing a family member to receive state employment. But Lain denied that Hill knew about this contract her daughter received.

In general, it's important to stress that Hill has denied any wrongdoing throughout the state's investigation. 

Ultimately, Hill, who has received strong backing from some Tea Party groups in Wyoming, could be impeached by state legislators. 

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