The UT System Board of Regents voted unanimously today to release all documents requested by state legislators via open records requests, rather than attempting to withhold them as chairman Gene Powell had inquired about this month. The Board also voted unanimously to ask the Texas attorney general to take over an external review of the relationship between the UT School of Law and the Law School Foundation.
Powell inquired about the legality of withholding information after state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed a broad open records request as a private citizen instead of in her capacity as a legislator. Though there is no specific deadline by which legislator’s open records requests must be responded to, 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.
In a 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.
Powell’s move spurred intense criticism from several legislators and prompted a fiery three-page statement from Zaffirini in which she said she had heard Powell’s behavior compared to that of former President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.
“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 [the Regents] do not understand the difference between ‘inconvenient’ and ‘confidential’...my only conclusion is that they have something to hide.”
Another issue at the center of today’s meeting was the board’s recent 4-3 vote to continue an external investigation of the relationship between the UT School of Law and the Law School foundation. The investigation, estimated to cost $500,000, was criticized by legislators as well as individual Regents themselves. Regents Steven Hicks and Robert Stillwell both referred to the external investigation as “beating a dead horse,” and Stillwell said the initial investigation, conducted by outgoing System general counsel Barry Burgdorf, was sufficient.
Regent Alex Cranberg defended the System’s decision and said he believed there were flaws in Burgdorf’s investigation.
“[The investigation] was so inadequate that I have heard complaints of it being a cover up,” Cranberg wrote in an email to the Texas Tribune.
Legislators also criticized the vote: In a letter signed by 18 state senators and sent to Powell, the senators asked the board to seek the attorney general’s assistance if regents insisted on continuing what the senators called “an unnecessary probe.”
Powell maintained that the additional review of the Foundation is a necessary move, but said he felt confident in the attorney general’s ability to conduct it.
"If I'd been here on the day of the [4-3] vote, I'd have been the 5th vote to continue the investigation,” Powell said.