House committee

Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

Legalized marijuana may be coming to Texas after a recent House committee vote.

In what is being hailed as a victory by its supporters, the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on May 7 approved legislation that would legalize the possession, sale and recreational usage of marijuana in Texas.

HB 2165, sponsored by Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview), is described as legislation “relating to repealing marihuana (sic) offenses.” According to CBS Houston, the bill seeks to have those convicted on a first-time “state jail felony” to instead be placed under “community supervision,” along with creating probationary protections for students and minors.

Simpson, who is a member of the Tea Party, wrote in an op-ed last month that his belief in God and his distrust in government led him to sponsor the bill.

“I don’t believe that when God made marijuana he made a mistake that government needs to fix,” Simpson wrote. “The time has come for a thoughtful discussion of the prudence of the prohibition approach to drug abuse, the impact of prohibition enforcement on constitutionally protected liberties and the responsibilities that individuals must take for their own actions.”

Stephanie Hamborsky, leader of the University’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter, said although the organization supports the bill’s passing, it does not agree with the way Simpson presented the issue.

“We feel it passed [the committee] because it was a conservative that pushed it and he’s very religious,” said Hamborsky, a Plan II and biology junior. “We wish it had been passed through with other reasoning, but we’re glad it’s been proposed nonetheless.”

Two Republicans joined the panel’s three Democrats in approving the bill, which passed the committee by a 5–2 margin. The committee’s ruling comes four days after the same panel voted in favor of another bill calling for the decriminalization of marijuana, another unprecedented decision in state Legislature.

The bill passed committee only after altering language to ensure marijuana consumption by minors remains illegal in the state unless under direct parental supervision. 

Government junior Carlo Antoniolli said he thinks the bill will not last much longer in the Legislature.

“I think it had potential to make it through committee, but there is no way will it be voted for on the floor,” Antoniolli said.

Antoniolli also voiced concern with the way Simpson framed legalization in his bill.

“I’m a big advocate for separation of church and state,” Antoniolli said. “I don’t think [religious affiliation] is a very justifiable way to consider something.”

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

College students and professors, including several from UT, attended a House committee hearing Tuesday to express opposition to campus carry.

Grant Willson, a UT chemistry and chemical engineering professor, said he believes allowing students to carry guns on campus could inhibit professors’ ability to grade fairly.

“There are numerous examples of students who are emotionally charged as a result of [grades] that they get,” Willson said. “If I look out there and see that they are all sitting out there with holsters and guns, I’m not sure I will have the guts to give a grade below a  ‘B’ again. It’s just not a reasonable environment for teaching.”

Thomas Sovik, a music history professor at the University of North Texas, argued in favor of campus carry. He said he believes carrying a gun on campus could help protect him from upset students.

Siddharth Desai, engineering senior and teaching assistant said he thinks guns in the classroom would put TAs, professors and students at risk. Desai was among six UT students who testified at the hearing.

“The classroom is a high-stress environment,” Desai said at the hearing. “As a student, I’ve been under stress at times, and as a teaching assistant, I’ve been the one delivering bad news and being the source of stress to students. Weapons do not belong in that interaction in any way.”

Student Government Vice President-elect Rohit Mandalapu, a Plan II senior, also testified at the hearing. He said SG will continue to oppose campus carry, along with Faculty Council, Chancellor William McRaven and President William Powers Jr.

“All of these people are against concealed carry on campus, and we ask why this decision is being made here in this room instead of at the institutions themselves, when we’re the ones being affected by this,” Mandalapu said.

Mandalapu said he thinks the implementation of campus carry would discourage students from attending state universities like UT.

“I also think that if guns were allowed on campus, that would be a big safety decision that would have factored into my decision to come to UT when I applied four years ago,” Mandalapu said.

UT System Regent Wallace Hall

On Monday, the Texas House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations voted 7-1 to continue the investigation of embattled UT System Regent Wallace Hall. Hall, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011, has always been an imperfect fit for the System, particularly as a result of his Perry-backed, business-minded stances on the proper role of higher education and often confrontational style. The House committee found there were grounds for Hall’s impeachment, partially as a result of these issues since taking office. In practice, Hall’s intransigence has shown itself through his witch hunt against UT President William Powers Jr. This crusade has taken the form of filing a taxing number of records requests and finagling in business beyond his purview.

While no one can be blamed for Hall’s actions but Hall himself, one cannot ignore the influence of Perry in the regent’s political maneuvering. An investigative report conducted by Rusty Hardin, special counsel to the committee, details both what Hardin identifies as the regent’s impeachable offenses as well as the extent to which the governor, a known opponent of Powers, has attempted to effect his own personal agenda through Hall. According to the report, “A number of witnesses interviewed in the course of this investigation opined that a well-known goal of Governor Perry — and, by extension, his appointee Hall — is to terminate Powers as UT Austin President.”

This editorial board applauds the findings of the House committee, and strongly urges them to recommend full articles of impeachment when the committee comes back into session on May 21.

In the meantime, we strongly hope that Hall resigns before any more harm is done, both to this University and this State. We stand with state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, in requesting Hall's resignation so the past few years' drama can finally come to an end.

As former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson recently opined in the pages of the Austin American-Statesman, the standard for impeachments in state offices is a significantly lower hurdle than federal positions. The committee need not prove that Hall was engaged in some sort of nefarious conspiracy, but merely that he took actions tantamount to malfeasance.

Any cursory overview of Hall’s tumultuous tenure is proof enough of said malfeasance, in this board’s opinion. Surely, the bipartisan representatives on the House committee saw the issue similarly, which is why they found that Hall engaged in impeachable offenses.

Texans take their education seriously, particularly at this University. As UT megadonor Joe Jamail was quoted as saying on this issue recently, “One thing [Gov.] Perry’s got to understand is, we impeached one [expletive deleted] governor for fooling with the University of Texas.”

Jamail, of course, was referring to James Edward “Pa” Ferguson, who left office in disgrace about a century ago after getting into a tiff over academic freedom, but more broadly to the power of the Governor’s office to micromanage the affairs of the University. Judging by today’s events, said micromanaging — now on the part of Hall — will still be dealt with the same way.

 

On Feb. 6, the State of Texas authorized the payment of $157,803 to Rusty Hardin — general counsel for the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations — for his work in the committee’s investigation into the actions of UT System Regent Wallace Hall, according to invoices provided from the Texas Legislative Council. 

Hardin originally billed the state $163,302 for his work from August to October of last year, but the state contested certain charges, including several for “air flight insurance,” marked at just more than $20. Hardin originally billed $508 for dinner at an Italian restaurant, but later requested to cancel the charge. 

The House Committee is trying to determine whether Hall overstepped his duties as a regent after he filed open record requests with the University for more than 800,000 pages of information. Some state legislators have accused him of conducting a “witch-hunt” against President William Powers Jr. 

At one committee hearing in November, UT System lawyers testified Hall was mistakenly given access to private student information — possibly in violation of federal privacy laws — which he subsequently shared with his private attorney. During testimony, Francie Frederick, general counsel for the Board of Regents, said regents must have a valid, job-related reason to see protected information.

“I’m not a FERPA expert, but my understanding is that the regent must have a legitimate educational interest to see FERPA [documents], something related to the regent’s duties,” Frederick said. 

At the same hearing, State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, requested a review and response from the UT System regarding the potential violation and motioned to have Hardin review Hall’s actions.  

Phillip Hilder, outside counsel to the UT System, submitted a report to the committee stating there was “no credible evidence” that Hall violated any state or federal laws regarding information protection. Hilder billed the state nearly $200,000 for his contributions from September to November of last year, according to reports from The Dallas Morning News.

Hardin has yet to submit his report on Hall’s potential violation of privacy laws, but State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston and co-chairwoman of the committee, said she is looking forward to his findings.

“We appreciate [the System] getting this to us in a timely manner, and I’m looking forward to reviewing the main report from our own general counsel [Hardin],” Alvarado said.

Photo Credit: Charlie Pearce | Daily Texan Staff

Click below to watch the livestream of the hearing brought to you by a partnership between The Daily Texan and TSTV.

President William Powers Jr. and UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa will testify before the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations Wednesday and Thursday following subpoenas issued at the last committee hearing.

This testimony is part of the House committee's ongoing investigation into Regent Wallace Hall, who has been accused of overstepping his duties as a regent and conducting a “witch hunt” against Powers. Hall reportedly filed massive open records requests to the University, asking for more than 800,000 pages of information. 

At the last committee hearing, University officials gave testimony Hall was mistakenly given access to private student information as a result of his open records requests. Hall reportedly shared this information with his private attorneys, potentially violating federal privacy acts.

Rusty Hardin, legal counsel to the committee, was asked to review Hall’s actions in sharing confidential documents and determine whether Hall committed a crime.

At the last hearing in November, the committee initially issued a subpoena for Hall but redacted it shortly after. Hall has declined the committee's invitation to testify and will likely only testify if a subpoena is issued. 

The hearings will take place Wednesday and Thursday, with Powers and Cigarroa scheduled to testify. The hearing comes a week after a tense UT System Board of Regents meeting in which Cigarroa issued a harsh critique of Powers saying he has been difficult to work with at times and that the relationship between Powers and the UT System has been "strained." Ultimately, Cigarroa recommended Powers remain president of UT saying he was optimistic about the relationship moving forward.

Francie Frederick, a member of the general counsel for the UT System Board of Regents, testified on the ongoing investigation of Hall’s actions as a regent Tuesday morning. In her testimony Frederick explained how Hall shared emails with FERPA-protected information. 

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

During the complex process required to fulfill Regent Wallace Hall’s massive open records requests to the University, Hall was mistakenly given access to private student information — possibly in violation of federal privacy acts — according to testimonies of several UT System lawyers at a House hearing Tuesday.

Testimonies were given as part of the House committee’s ongoing investigation into the recent behavior of Hall, trying to determine if he overstepped his boundaries as regent.

In her testimony, Francie Frederick, who serves as the general counsel for the UT System Board of Regents, said regents must be “diligent in seeking information.” If a regent requires information protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, they must have a valid, job-related reason in order to see it, Frederick testified.

“I’m not a FERPA expert, but my understanding is that the regent must have a legitimate educational interest to see FERPA [documents], something related to the regent’s duties,” Frederick said. 

Frederick said over the course of reviewing documents, Hall came across a chain of emails he should not have been allowed to see.

“It had not been determined in advance that [Hall] had legitimate educational interest,” Frederick said. “No determination was made, [the emails] were in the files, and he saw them.”  

According to Frederick, Hall saw the emails after a series of untraditional moves were made in order to fulfill his “massive requests for information.” Because Hall’s requests were so large, University employees turned documents over to System lawyers with the understanding that System employees would redact private information. In her testimony, Frederick said the System employees failed to redact such information in at least a few cases.

“If I were replaying this, we would not hand one document to Regent Hall before someone in my office actually looked at it,” Frederick said. “I think we failed him by allowing this to happen.”

Frederick said her office could not have foreseen the problems that arose as a result of the unexpectedly sizeable requests.

“I don’t think when it started out there was any intention to be disruptive,” Frederick said. “I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted the volume and the spin-off requests.”

Frederick said regents are legally barred from sharing protected documents with outside parties, even if they have demonstrated educational purposes. Despite this legal barrier, Frederick said Hall shared emails containing FERPA-protected information with his private attorneys. Though Hall was required to return the emails, no other steps were taken.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, motioned to have Rusty Hardin, legal counsel to the committee, review Hall’s actions in sharing confidential documents and determine whether Hall committed a crime. The motion passed unanimously.

“I take it they want us to look at and to see if it’s a matter that ought to be referred to prosecuting authorities,” Hardin said after the hearing. 

Barbara Holthaus, the UT System’s senior attorney and privacy coordinator, said FERPA regulations are not always clearly defined. According to Holthaus, UT System handled Hall’s exposure to information protected by FERPA in the correct manner. 

“The remedy under FERPA is to make a concerted effort to get the document returned, ascertain that you have gotten all copies of it and remind the individual that it was given to them in error,” Holthaus said. “The nature of FERPA is that it’s very confusing … FERPA is not a black and white kind of proposition.”

In his testimony, Daniel Sharphorn, general counsel for the UT System, directly contradicted a statement made by Kevin Hegarty, chief financial officer and custodian of records at UT.  

At the first committee hearing, Hegarty said the UT System denied him the opportunity to seek outside counsel while his office was dealing with Hall’s requests. Sharphorn denied this claim at Tuesday’s hearing.

“I went through every email that I have, and I asked one of our office assistants to do the same,” Sharphorn said. “There was nothing in our systems where Mr. Hegarty was asking for outside counsel.”

Sharphorn also provided an explanation for reminding Barry Burgdorf, who resigned as general counsel in April, that attorney-client privilege was still in effect before his testimony in October. 

Sharphorn said he reached out to Burgdorf at Hall’s request.

“I did not think of [Hall’s request] as a directive,” Sharphorn said. “I did it because he was right.”

At the end of the meeting, the board unanimously voted to issue subpoenas to Powers and UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. Their testimony is scheduled for Dec. 18. 

Correction: An earlier version of the story misattributed a quote about reviewing a motion passed by the committee. Rusty Hardin, legal counsel to the committee, said the quote.

UT administrators continue their opposition to allowing concealed handguns on campus after a House committee approved a bill Thursday to permit licensees to carry on university grounds.

The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee voted in favor of the bill, authored by state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, who added an amendment that would allow universities to opt out of permitting concealed handguns inside buildings.

UT spokesman Gary Susswein said administrators had not looked at Fletcher’s proposal but reiterated President William Powers Jr.’s opposition to allowing guns on campus.

“We do not believe the college campus is an appropriate place for guns,” Susswein said.

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa also opposes allowing concealed handguns at system universities. On March 12, Cigarroa sent a letter to Gov. Rick Perry expressing concerns that such a measure would not increase safety at universities.

“I respect the Legislature’s authority to decide this policy issue and that neither all legislators nor the Texans they represent will agree,” Cigarroa said in the letter. “However, during my tenure as chancellor, parents, students, faculty, staff, administrators and institutional law enforcement officers have all expressed concern that the presence of concealed handguns on our campus will make the campus environment less safe.”

Separation of powers showdown

Yesterday, President Obama granted Attorney General Eric Holder executive privilege to withhold documents requested by the House committee investigating the administration’s involvement in the failed ATF gun smuggling sting, Operation Fast and Furious.

The executive privilege, Obama’s first use of the power, ignited a “political firefight” on Capitol Hill and resulted in the House Committee voting to hold Holder in contempt of Congress.

Punches were thrown, and Holder claimed the vote was politically motivated.

"It's an election-year tactic intended to distract attention — and, as a result — has deflected critical resources from fulfilling what remains my top priority at the Department of Justice: Protecting the American people."

Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor defended the committee’s contempt vote and released a statement saying, “Fast and Furious was a reckless operation that led to the death of an American border agent, and the American people deserve to know the facts to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

Presidential use of executive privilege dates back to George Washington when he denied the House’s request for information relating to the Jay Treaty between the U.S. and Great Britain.

More recently, Bill Clinton used executive privilege 14 times, most notably in an attempt to withhold his aides from testifying in court during his impeachment in 1998.

George W. Bush used the power six times, once to withhold the details of Vice President Dick Cheney’s meetings with energy executives, and several times to block congressional subpoenas of his Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers and political aide Karl Rove.

While voting to hold an official in contempt can potentially lead to jail time, politicians usually avoid carrying out the entire procedure because it could lead to a court battle that redefines the limits of executive privilege.

Nancy Pelosi chastised House republicans Wednesday and claimed they misused the contempt vote.

“It doesn't serve our country, and it undermines the true purpose of contempt of Congress," Pelosi said. "That's why I didn't arrest Karl Rove when I had the chance."

Things seem to be calming down now, with the Associated Press reporting a compromise between both parties is in the works.

A bill requiring women seeking abortions to view a fetal sonogram 24 hours before the procedure easily cleared a key House committee vote Wednesday, paving the way for the full House to consider the bill.

The Texas House State Affairs Committee held a hearing at the Capitol to hear public testimony about the sonogram bill filed by Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville. About 20 people gave testimony at the hearing.

The bill would require doctors to conduct a sonogram, give a description of the fetus and play audio of the fetal heartbeat 24 hours before the procedure. It would also require them to give patients a full list of risks and alternatives.

The committee voted 9-3 to send the bill to the House floor. The State Senate passed a similar bill last week that provides exceptions for rape and incest victims or for women whose fetuses have abnormalities. Miller’s bill does not include these exceptions.

Under Miller’s bill, doctors can lose their licenses if they fail to adhere to the procedure. Because the committee passed it, the House will now vote on it. The Senate version of the bill will also come before the House for a vote in the coming weeks.

Becky Turner, a Texas citizen who had an abortion performed 25 years ago, took a can of tuna with her when she testified before the committee. Just as people have the information about different types of tuna packing methods, they should have the information necessary to make educated decisions when they get pregnant, Turner said.

“If I had been given that information, I probably would have made the same decision,” she said. “But I would hope that the value of that child would’ve held as much value as a dead fish in a can.”

However, the bill uses this information to present to the public the idea that what is in the womb is a baby, said Russell Crawford, author of “The Living Book on Abortion,” a pro-choice book.

“What you’re doing is proving to a woman that what she has in her womb is a baby,” he said. “What I’ve noticed is that a zygote can be frozen and live. A baby cannot be frozen and live. There is a difference between what is in the womb and a human baby.”

Birth rates between 1959 and 1973, before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in 1973, tended to be lower than they are today,
indicating that birth rates are actually higher when abortion is an option, Crawford said.
In 2010, University Health Services administered 618 pregnancy tests, 38 of which were positive. UHS does not offer abortions, so there is no way to tell how many students received abortions in 2010, said UHS senior program coordinator Sherry Bell.

The option to view a sonogram and to hear a description of a fetus and its heartbeat should be available to all women, including victims of rape or incest or women whose babies have physical deformities, said Kerry Holland in her testimony at the hearing. Holland’s mother attempted to abort her while she was in the womb, and Holland survived the abortion.

“I believe that had they shown her an ultrasound, my mother would not have attempted the abortion,” she said. “I believe that if she was here today, that she would testify to you how much she regrets that decision and that she would never do it again.”