In the middle of ongoing tensions between the UT System Board of Regents, the Texas Legislature and President William Powers Jr., board Chairman Gene Powell has asked the Texas Attorney General's office if the System is allowed to withhold information from legislators.
Powell's request comes only weeks after the regents levelled claims of a "lack of transparency" against Powers regarding a controversy surrounding the UT Law School Foundation.
The board's request to withhold information has sparked sharp criticism from lawmakers, including state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who in a statement referenced the behavior of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.
“My only conclusion is that [the Regents] have something to hide,” Zaffirini said Friday night in the statement.
In a letter to state Attorney General Greg Abbott, Powell asked if the System could legally withhold certain information from the legislature, or if there was a specific time frame in which a governmental body must respond to an open records request.
“With regard to legislative requests, we are presented with a unique set of circumstances not clearly addressed in the law,” Powell wrote.
According to the Texas Public Information Act, governing bodies must handle all requests from private citizens in good faith and produce requested information “promptly.” If this cannot be done in 10 days, the governmental body must recognize this in writing and set a date and hour when the records will be available. Alternatively, if there is a desire to withhold information, the governing body — in this case, the UT System — has 10 days to write to the attorney general asking for a decision.
The UT System has, by its own count, received four “expansive” requests for information from legislators, including one request by Zaffirini made as a private citizen. In this request, Zaffirini asked for any and all data relating to a number of categories, including “President Powers,” “Regent Wallace L. Hall Jr.” and “Regent Alex M. Cranberg,” among others.
Zaffirini said she made her request as a private citizen because the System has no time limit on responses for legislative requests. Her request as a private citizen is likely what prompted the 10-day clock to start, spurring Powell to request withholding certain documents.
In his letter addressed to Abbott, Powell said the information requests might be harmful to the System’s ability to do its job.
“We recognize that the legislature has reserved for itself a special right of access to information in the hands of the executive branch, and yet these requests have proved potentially damaging to the ability of the System’s governing board to fulfill properly its statutory and fiduciary duties,” Powell said in the letter.
Zaffirini called the move outrageous.
“While the specific regents and personnel involved in this response process have employed countless delay tactics to date, this one is not only the most innovative, but also the most outrageous,” Zaffirini wrote. “Perhaps they do not understand the difference between ‘inconvenient’ and ‘confidential.'”
Abbott has not yet ruled on whether or not the requested information will be granted to Zaffirini or to any of the other legislators.
UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said Powell informed the board's three vice chairmen — Regents Paul Foster, Steve Hicks and James Dannenbaum — of his decision to write to the attorney general. Foster, whose term as a regent expired in February, was nominated by Gov. Rick Perry to serve another six-year term.