Martinez Fischer

After being denied access to interviews relating to the external investigation of UT’s admissions process, state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, said he is concerned the investigation may focus on President William Powers Jr.

At a special meeting last week, the UT System Board of Regents denied a request from Larson and state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, to attend or monitor all interviews conducted by Kroll Associates, Inc., the risk mitigation response firm leading the investigation that will look at outside influence over the admissions process. Martinez Fischer and Larson, both members of the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, were assigned to monitor the System by the committee’s co-chairs in August, after the committee’s censure of Regent Wallace Hall. 

Larson, who also expressed his concerns to the board in a Sept. 18 letter, said he wanted to sit in on the interviews conducted by Kroll to ensure that System officials and regents were also being investigated. 

“I wanted to make sure that we had a holistic investigation, and it wasn’t targeted specifically at President Powers,” Larson said. “It’s unfortunate that President Powers has been subjected to the pettiness of the regents. I hope that when the new chancellor comes in, we can put this behind us.”

Larson said he has heard of regents asking System staff members to go to the UT admissions office and request that certain students be considered for admission into the University.

“They typically ask a staff member to go over and request a consideration that the student be admitted to UT-Austin,” Larson said. “I’ve been told by System staff that’s how they handle it.”

Records first obtained by The Texas Tribune show Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa — who commissioned the Kroll Associates investigation in June — has forwarded letters of recommendation, including those from state legislators, to Powers since he became chancellor in 2009. Cigarroa said at a board meeting in May that letters not sent through the prescribed process should no longer be considered in admissions decisions, and the regents formally approved the change in July.

The System began conducting its own inquiry into legislative influence over the University’s admissions in July 2013, after Hall brought up issues with two emails he uncovered from one of his requests for University records. In May, the System announced the inquiry found no evidence of a structured system of favoritism or wrongdoing, but it did determine letters of recommendation sent by legislators to Powers or a dean likely influenced the admissions process.

Martinez Fischer said the board’s denial of the request makes it clear there is a level of disconnect between the UT System and the role of the legislative branch.

“I think time will certainly tell whether the UT System is following the laws that every other Texas agency is required to follow,” Martinez Fischer said. 

The UT System Board of Regents unanimously voted Monday to deny requests from two state legislators to monitor interviews relating to the external investigation of UT’s admissions process.

At a special meeting over telephone conference call, the board discussed a Sept. 8 letter from state Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, and Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, announcing their intention to attend or monitor all interviews conducted by Kroll Associates, Inc., the risk mitigation response firm leading the investigation. In August, the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations announced Martinez Fischer and Larson would be tasked with monitoring the System. 

At the board meeting Monday, Regent Gene Powell read a motion rejecting Martinez Fischer and Larson’s request to be involved in the interviews conducted by the firm.

“The Chancellor expressly charged that the investigation be independent, and to include one or more members of the Legislature in these interviews would compromise the independence and integrity of the interviews and of the investigation,” the motion said. 

The System conducted its own inquiry into legislative influence over the University’s admissions in July 2013, after Regent Wallace Hall brought up issues with two emails he uncovered from one of his record requests to the University. In May, the System announced the inquiry found no evidence of a structured system of favoritism or wrongdoing but determined letters of recommendation sent by legislators to President William Powers Jr. or a dean likely influence the admissions process. 

Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa announced in June that the System would launch a full external investigation of University admissions because of remaining concerns about the process.

Prior to the reading of the motion during the open session of the meeting, the regents also discussed the potential ramifications of continuing to invest System money into Russia, which has recently become overwhelmed with sanctions because of international political and social issues.

“Divesting from Russia, in and of itself, would not necessarily be an overly significant event,” said Bruce Zimmerman, CEO and CIO of the University of Texas Investment Management Company. “We have about $200 million dollars invested in Russia currently. The larger concern I think would be if we did begin putting in changes to the investment policies related to political and or social issues, then there could very well be a substantial domino effect.”

The regents agreed to continue discussing the issue at future board meetings.

The UT System Board of Regents will discuss issues relating to the external investigation of UT’s admissions process by Kroll Associates, Inc., a risk mitigation response firm, at a meeting over telephone conference call Monday. 

The board will discuss a Sept. 8 letter from state Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, and Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, announcing their intention to attend or monitor all interviews conducted by Kroll. Following the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations’ censure of Regent Wallace Hall on Aug. 11, the committee announced Martinez Fischer and Larson would continue to monitor the System. 

“While we know that there have been allegations of legislative influence on admissions, we believe that every member of the Legislature is responsible for his or her own actions, and our requests are made solely as part of our official duty as monitors of The UT Board of Regents, The UT System, and UT component institutions,” Martinez Fischer and Larson said in the letter. 

The System conducted its own inquiry into legislative influence over the University’s admissions in July 2013, after Hall brought up issues with two emails he uncovered from one of his record requests to the University. Releasing its report in May, the inquiry found no evidence of a structured system of favoritism or wrongdoing, but determined letters of recommendation sent by legislators to President William Powers Jr. or a dean likely influence the admissions process. 

In June, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa announced the System would launch a full external investigation of University admissions because of remaining concerns about the process. 

According to the contract between Kroll and the UT System, the firm will complete the investigation by Oct. 15. 

The letter from Martinez Fischer and Larson comes months after board Chairman Paul Foster asked the Texas Legislature in July not to attempt influencing board
decisions. 

“The point is the board has a role,” Foster said after the board’s July meeting. “It’s not political. We’re not politicians. I believe we should be left alone to do our business.”

Photo Credit: Amy Zhang | Daily Texan Staff

In an email to UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, Paul Foster, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, suggested Regent Wallace Hall accused Cigarroa of not doing his job weeks before Cigarroa announced his resignation. 

Foster praised Cigarroa in the email, which was originally obtained by The Dallas Morning News, and said “virtually all” of the regents appreciated the work he did as chancellor. 

“I absolutely do not agree with [Hall’s] tactics in trying to pressure you into taking an action that you do not feel is in the best interests of UT-Austin or of the UT System,” Foster said in the email. “It is clear what he hopes to accomplish, but to disparage your reputation in the process is neither fair nor is it appropriate.”

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, a member of the legislative committee investigating Hall, submitted a letter Friday to State Reps. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, and Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, after he saw the email, asking them to reconvene to hear testimony from Cigarroa and Foster. 

Flynn and Alvarado are co-chairs of the House Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, which is trying to determine whether Hall overstepped his duties as a regent and whether he should be recommended for impeachment. Hall filed open records requests with UT for more than 800,000 pages of information and has been accused of conducting a “witch hunt” to oust President William Powers Jr.

Martinez Fischer said Foster’s email raises questions about Cigarroa’s true motive for resigning, and testimony from Cigarroa and Foster could provide the committee with answers. In December 2013, Cigarroa testified in front of the committee and said Hall’s actions were disruptive to the System and caused a drop in morale.

Alvarado said the committee will consider Martinez Fischer’s request, but no decision has been reached about reconvening.  

“I have not talked to the other committee members or my co-chair about [the letter], but it’s something that I hope we will have discussions about,” Alvarado said. “We were hoping our report would be done soon, but, again, we have stressed all along that we are not in a rush. We want to make sure that we’re being thorough and that we don’t leave anything uncovered.” 

In February, Martinez Fischer sent a different letter to the committee co-chairs addressing his concerns about Cigarroa’s true motives for stepping down, especially in light of other System employees resigning — including Barry Burgdorf, who resigned as the System’s general counsel in March 2013.

“I am concerned that, without proper leadership and experienced staff, there will be continued communication and administrative issues between the Board of Regents and the component institutions of the System,” Martinez Fischer wrote in February.

In February, Cigarroa said he is resigning as Chancellor in order to pursue medicine full time. He said the existing tension between the board and Powers did not factor into his decision.

“As it relates to President Powers, this decision is completely separate from that,” Cigarroa said. “I will continue to do my work as chancellor every day until my last day, as I’ve always done, based on facts and performance. I support President Powers, and I will continue to evaluate all presidents every day.”

Editor’s note: We will feature higher education bills already filed for Texas’ 83rd legislative session, which begins Jan. 8, every day until the end of the semester.

Two bills filed in the Texas House of Representatives will encourage more student volunteers if they make it through the upcoming legislative session.

Representative Eddie Lucio III and representative Trey Martinez Fischer each filed bills earlier in November that would encourage Texas high school and college students to put in more volunteer hours. Fischer’s bill would add 20 hours of volunteer work to college graduation requirements and Lucio’s bill would turn high school students’ volunteer hours into tuition credit.

“Serve Your Way to College”

Lucio’s legislative director Houston Tower said Lucio’s bill would create a pilot program called “Serve Your Way to College,” in which students would earn tuition funds in exchange for volunteer hours. Tower said under the program, students would earn at least the equivalent of minimum federal wages in tuition credits.

“We looked at the rates of student debt that students are incurring, and the numbers are skyrocketing,” Tower said. “This is a way to make college more affordable to students while they give back to the community. The way we looked at it, it was a win-win.”

Tower said high school students would have to volunteer at least 50 hours before they could earn tuition funds and they could earn no more than 250 hours per year. According to the bill, the Higher Education Coordinating Board will choose which companies and organizations can participate in the “Serve Your Way to College” pilot program. Political organizations are not allowed to participate, Tower said. He also said Texas would not consider any for-credit volunteer work or volunteer work that replaced paid employees.

While it is early in the legislative process, Tower said Lucio is confident the bill will receive support at the Capitol.

“This is something we feel needs to be addressed, and that is why we filed it as early as we did,” Tower said.

“Volunteer graduation requirement”

Fischer, who also practices law, did not return a request for comment. According to the text of his bill, which would require public university students to serve 20 hours of volunteer work before graduating, every institution would assign an existing office to the duty of assisting students in satisfying this new graduation requirement.

The bill allows individual institutions to select which public service organizations students can volunteer for. It also allows students to propose specific organizations.

If Fischer’s bill passes, it would not affect any college students who enroll in a Texas institution before Sept. 1, 2014.

Holland Finely, coordinator of Student Government’s philanthropic agency Orange Outreach, said the opportunity to expose students to volunteering is valuable, but requiring students to do it gives her some reservation.

“Volunteering gives a dimension to education that can’t be found anywhere else,” Finely said. “But at the same time, there is something about service that is very pure in that you are giving yourself to it rather than being required to do it.”

However, Finley said the bills would be useful in getting students who would normally not volunteer to do so.

Printed on Tuesday, November 27, 2012 as: Legislation to encourage community volunteering

 

Two Mexican-American Democratic lawmakers launched a new political action committee (PAC) on Thursday to mobilize Hispanic voters in Texas.

State Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer and Ana Hernandez Luna unveiled the One Texas PAC, with Martinez Fisher pledging to match the first $50,000 in donations.

The PAC will concentrate on supporting Hispanic candidates for the Texas Legislature, engaging Hispanic voters and mobilizing them in districts where they can make a difference in an election’s outcome, Martinez Fischer told The Associated Press. The group’s strategy of directly engaging voters sets it apart from other advocacy groups, he added.

“I want to talk to people because I believe if they understand what we stand for, they will realize there are people fighting for them,” said Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus in the Texas Legislature.

Non-Hispanic whites make up less than half of the state’s population, and Hispanics are the fastest growing group in Texas. Both Democrats and Republicans are trying to recruit more Hispanics into their ranks, but Hispanic voters in Texas go to the polls in small numbers compared to their population’s size and compared to other states. For example, eligible Hispanic voters in Texas turnout at half the rate of Hispanics in California.

Martinez Fisher said the new PAC hopes to get out the Hispanic vote by pointing out the stake they hold in Texas’ future. Demographers expect them to be the majority by 2020.

“Texas is running out of water and energy, our roads are deteriorating, and the next generation of Texans who have to face this reality will be less educated and in poor health,” Fischer said. “Apparently, our alleged pro-business Republicans think it is more important to attend tea-party rallies than confront this reality. One Texas will change that.”

Gov. Rick Perry has led efforts to make the Republican Party more attractive to Hispanics. He appointed the first Hispanic female to the Texas Supreme Court and the first Hispanic ever as secretary of state. He has welcomed many Hispanic politicians who defected from the Democratic Party, including state Rep. J.M. Lozano who is running for re-election in South Texas.

Hispanics have traditionally voted Democratic in Texas since the 1960s, but Republicans hope that the party’s social conservatism will attract more Hispanics in the future.