Regent behavior prompts reexamination of state's open records law

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The UT System Board of Regents’ decision last week to disclose information requested by Texas lawmakers has not stopped legislative efforts to clarify regents’ proper adherence to the state’s open records law.

Board Chairman Gene Powell sought advice on April 5 from the Texas Attorney General’s Office regarding the legality of withholding information requested by lawmakers in March. 

This drew criticism from legislators and State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed a bill last week to address regents’ adherence to the Texas Public Information Act, a state law that allows citizens to access government documents.

Zaffirini told The Daily Texan on Monday she had begun receiving documents from the System after regents voted Thursday to disclose the documents, but she will continue to push her bill, which has 16 co-sponsors.

“From my perspective, there is no justification for withholding any information from a legislator who requests information for legislative purposes,” Zaffirini said. “But, because [regents] seem to think that there is, we needed to address it through legislation.”

Under the act, state agencies have 10 days to seek an opinion from the attorney general’s office about whether they may withhold certain documents. Otherwise, agencies must allow requestors to view information.

Zaffirini said her bill, which was left pending in the Senate Open Government Committee on Monday, would clarify that the 10-day period also applies to lawmakers seeking information for legislative purposes. 

Zaffirini said it would also institute a rolling mechanism by which agencies would supply information as it became available during the 10-day period, not wait until they had compiled all information related to requests. This would apply to legislators and the general public.

UT spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said the System began supplying documents requested by lawmakers on Friday. She said the System’s Office of General Counsel is compiling more documents in response to legislators’ requests.

In his letter to the Attorney General’s Office, Powell cited concerns that releasing information to lawmakers could possibly hinder an investigation into the UT Law School Foundation, which awarded a $500,000 forgivable loan to Lawrence Sager, then-dean of the School of Law. In 2011, President William Powers Jr. asked Sager to resign. However, Sager still holds a faculty position at the School of Law.

In an interview published Monday, Regent Wallace Hall told Texas Monthly that regents intended to comply with legislators’ information requests, but said he has concerns about how to handle requests “in a sensitive way.”

“The Legislature doesn’t fully understand what we’re about to give them,” Hall said. “We have issues — HIPAA, FERPA — that are ancillary to what I think they want to see, and we need to make sure that we treat that information according. There is certainly information in there that could chill the investigation if it is widely disseminated.”

Printed on Tuesday, April 16, 2013 as Regents comply with open record legislation