Regents asks to withhold information, prompts legislator to ask if board has “something to hide”

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Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

In the middle of ongoing tensions between the UT System Board of Regents, the Texas Legislature and UT 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.

The request comes only weeks after regents levelled claims of a “lack of transparency” against Powers regarding a controversy surrounding the UT Law School Foundation.

Two days after the letter to the attorney general was filed, four regents — Steve Hicks, Robert Stillwell, James Dannenbaum and Printice Gary — submitted a written request to hold a meeting of the full board to discuss whether or not information should be withheld from legislators.

The four regents also requested the board discuss the possibility of authorizing the attorney general’s office to conduct a review of the relationship between the UT School of Law and the Law School foundation. Last month, in a 4-3 vote at which Powell was absent, the Board decided to conduct a new external review, which has been estimated to cost roughly $500,000. 

Powell’s request to withhold information has sparked sharp criticism from lawmakers, including state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who said in a statement she had heard Powell’s behavior compared to that of former 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.

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 has 10 days to write to the attorney general asking for a decision.

The UT System has, by its own count, received four 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 to Abbott, Powell said the information requests might be harmful to the System’s ability to do its job.

“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 said in the statement. “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, Hicks and Dannenbaum — of his decision to write to the attorney general.

Though Powell has requested to withhold information from legislators, the System has not been shy about requesting its own information from UT, including recently criticizing Powers for not being transparent enough.

In February, the University supplied more than 40 boxes of records to Regent Wallace Hall Jr., who had requested all open records correspondence and responses for a 23-month period stretching from January 2011 to November 2012. The University had responded to roughly 2,500 requests in that time period.

Hall is currently in the process of filing new information about his own legal history with the governor’s office after it was discovered last week he failed to disclose his involvement in at least six state and federal lawsuits on his original application for the Regent position.