UT System chancellor William McRaven, center, and Daniel Sharphorn, general counsel and vice chancellor for the UT System, right, met with the Board of Regents on Monday.
Photo Credit: Zoe Fu | Daily Texan Staff

The UT System Board of Regents and Chancellor William McRaven sent a letter Monday to Attorney General Ken Paxton arguing that individual regents’ access to records can be subject to limitations in certain situations.

At a specially called meeting Monday morning, eight members of the board voted unanimously to file a brief with the AG’s office outlining the System’s official stance on regent information requests. The ninth regent, Wallace Hall, abstained from the vote.

System counsels filed the brief in response to an appeal Hall’s private attorney filed with Paxton on April 20. Hall’s attorney, Bill Aleshire, asked Paxton to formally provide advice on Hall’s request to review thousands of documents related to UT-Austin admissions and asked whether the Board or the Chancellor had the authority to prohibit Hall from obtaining copies of those records.

Hall is attempting to review the thousands of documents Kroll Associates, Inc. used in an independent investigation earlier this year. The Kroll report found President William Powers Jr. intervened in a handful of admissions cases, but concluded Powers did not violate any policies.

When Hall asked to review the Kroll documents, three regents, including Hall himself, voted to grant him access. Under Regent Rule 19801, “Policy on Transparency, Accountability, and Access to Information,” UT System employees must respond to information requests “without undue delay” if two or more regents vote in support of the request. 

However, McRaven told Hall that Hall’s requests ventured into independent “inquiry and investigation” and therefore would require a majority board vote for approval. In a terse email exchange, McRaven told Hall his requests for information go beyond “any reasonable desire to be better informed as a regent.”

“This current request for information … is detrimental to the overall well-being of the system,” McRaven wrote in an email to Hall. 

The brief filed Monday, which represented McRaven and the Board of Regents’ official position on Hall’s appeal, argued that Hall’s attorney did not have standing to seek formal advice from Paxton in the first place.

“An individual Regent is not authorized to seek an opinion of the Attorney General in his official capacity without the consent of the Board, nor may an individual Regent be represented in his official capacity by private counsel,” System lawyers wrote. “In addition, the Attorney General generally declines fact-finding and answering hypothetical questions, both of which would be required in answering the questions presented.”

Even if Paxton did agree to provide Hall advice, Hall’s requests for the documents should still be denied, according to the brief. System counsel said Regents’ Rules and federal laws exist to regulate individual regents’ access to records, especially when student privacy is a consideration.

“A Regent’s access to information is not ‘unfettered,’” the System counsel wrote. “Given the potential volume of a request for information by an individual member of the Board and the impact on workload priorities, it is inherently reasonable that the Regents’ Rules provide checks and balances.”

In his letter to Paxton, Hall’s attorney argued that Regents do have an unfettered right to agency records. 

“A regent is not a mere figurehead, passive servant of corporate management,” Aleshire wrote. “Other opinions of the Attorney General also demonstrate that a regent’s inherent right of access to the agency records is not subject to judgement of the other board members (or of the Chancellor).” 

After the meeting Monday, Regent Alex Cranberg, who originally voted to grant Hall access to the Kroll records, explained his vote in support of the brief to the AG.

“I certainly feel it’s very important to express the need for individual regents to have [the] capacity to ask hard questions, even as the majority of the board might feel uncomfortable, but I don’t think this response suggests that the regents don’t have that capacity,” Cranberg said. “[I believe the response suggests] merely that there might be some limits placed on what a regent might reasonably ask for.”

Gene Vela was booked in the Travis County Jail on Nov. 11 after aiming a handgun equipped with a laser at two policemen through his apartment window in North Campus.

Photo Credit: Helen Fernandez | Daily Texan Staff

More than a year after a standoff with Austin police, Gene Vela, a former public affairs graduate student, stood trial this week for two charges of aggravated assault on a public servant.

Vela was taken into custody in November 2013 after an armed confrontation with multiple Austin police officers. His attorney is trying to convince jurors that police did not correctly identify themselves before attempting to contact Vela.

According to the police affidavit, police officers shot Vela after he aimed a handgun equipped with a laser at two policemen through his apartment window in North Campus. Police were originally called to the apartment following a 911 call from a friend of Vela’s.

Responding officers and one medic testified in court Thursday about the circumstances surrounding the shooting. According to a recorded 911 call, Vela was told the individuals outside his home were police, but Vela’s attorney, Edumund Davis, said that because Vela was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, he was unable to process the information correctly. 

Vela is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq in 2002.

Court records show Vela has had several conflicts with Austin police, including one incident of driving while intoxicated. 

According to the Travis County Criminal Court docket, Vela faces four charges, including one charge of unlawful carrying of a weapon, two charges of aggravated assault against a public servant and one charge of terroristic threat. 

Vela’s trial continues Friday at the Travis County Courthouse. 

Judge Bert Richardson overruled a motion Tuesday to dismiss indictments against Gov. Rick Perry and said that the prosecutor in the case was properly qualified.

Perry’s attorneys previously argued that the indictments against him were not valid because the prosecutor for the case, Michael McCrum, was improperly sworn in as attorney pro tem. Tony Buzbee, one of Perry’s lawyers, said McCrum did not follow the correct sequence of events when signing his oath and took the oath before signing his anti-bribery statement.

Perry’s defense also argued some documents related to the case were not filed correctly. However, Richardson ruled Tuesday that McCrum was properly sworn into office.

“The court holds, therefore, that the actions taken by Michael McCrum as Attorney Pro Tem are valid and that Mr. McCrum has the authority to act in his capacity as Attorney Pro Tem in this case,” Richardson said in a ruling filed with the 390th District Court.

Richardson still has not issued a ruling for other issues the defense raised relating to Perry’s indictments.

A grand jury originally prosecuted Perry in August for abuse of an official capacity and coercion of a public servant, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. Perry vetoed state funding for Lehmberg’s investigative unit after she refused to step down following her drunken driving conviction.

The preliminary hearing for Rashad Owens, who drove through a barrier and killed four people at the South By Southwest festival last March, was rescheduled for Nov. 3, according to Judge Clifford Brown of the 147th Travis County Criminal District Court. 

Owens and his attorney failed to appear at the scheduled hearing at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center on Monday, so the date was rescheduled. This is the fifth time court dates for Owens have been pushed back since he was arrested in March. 

Owens was charged with capital murder after driving while drunk through a barrier on Red River Street during the South By Southwest festival in March, killing four people and injuring 20 others. 

Owens was originally scheduled to appear in court April 9 before his trial, but a number of no-shows and requests by his attorney, Rickey Jones, have pushed the pretrial hearing back to 9 a.m. on Nov. 3.

The charges against Owens include capital murder, four counts of felony murder and 24 counts of aggravated assault. Bond was set at $5.5 million.

Photo Credit: Charlie Pearce | Daily Texan Staff

Update (May 20, 12:32 p.m.): In the letter, released on Tuesday by attorney Allan Van Fleet, Hall crticized Chairman Paul Foster's handling of the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations investigation and the decision to ask for his resignation.

"The result is that you have used your position to participate in a campaign that is intended to impugn my reputation," Hall said.  "You have also allowed a small group of legislators to interfere in the Board's official opperations."

Citing letters sent to the transparency committee by System outside counsel Phillip Hilder and Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa in early 2014, Hall said the committee has found no evidence of wrongdoing on his part. A report released in April by Rusty Hardin, special counsel to the transparency committee, determine Hall had likely committed impeachable offenses.

After Tuesday's UT System Board of Regents meeting, Foster said he read the letter and will not pursue the issue any further.

"I pledge to work closely with him, as I have in the past," Foster said. "As far as I'm concerned, that's history."

Original story (May 19): UT System Regent Wallace Hall said he will not resign in a letter to Paul Foster, Board of Regents chairman, according to Hall’s attorney Allan Van Fleet.

Foster publicly asked Hall to resign at a regents meeting on Thursday. A few days before on May 12, the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations determined grounds for Hall’s impeachment exist in a 7-1 vote. The committee is scheduled to meet on Wednesday and Thursday to develop specific articles of impeachment.

In a statement, Hall said he has been working to point out wrongdoing at System's institutions.

"Will the public ever know the truth about problems in our institutions if legislators are allowed to impeach Board members who reveal them?" Hall said.

The committee began investigating Hall in June 2013 after state legislators accused him of overstepping his authority as a regent and seeking the removal of President William Powers Jr. from his position.

According to System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, Foster has not yet received the letter. The regents are schedule to meet via teleconference on Tuesday.

House transparency committee co-chairs and state Reps. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, and Dan Flynn, R-Canton, address the media after a meeting on May 12. The committee determined by a 7-1 vote that there are sufficient grounds for UT System Regent Wallace Hall's impeachment. 

Photo Credit: Amy Zhang | Daily Texan Staff

Updated (2:56 p.m.): In a statement distributed by attorney Allan Van Fleet, Regent Wallace Hall said his impeachment would not solve the problems he has identified at UT System institutions.

"When a Board encounters problems, coverups, and intransigence at a taxpayer-funded institution, is the proper response to hold those who are responsible accountable, or to impeach the board member?" Hall said in his statement. “If the Transparency Committee desires transparency, it should not seek ways to interfere with investigations that would expose improper conduct at the University of Texas."

Hall said his role as a regent is to protect the individuals at the various UT institutions.

"My efforts as a regent are to serve the interests of our great educational institutions, the students, faculty, and staff who make them great, and the taxpayers who fund them, not to appease a privileged class who abuse them," Hall said.

Original story: In a 7-1 vote Monday, the House transparency committee voted there are sufficient grounds for UT System Regent Wallace Hall’s impeachment. The committee will meet on May 21 and 22 to try and determine the nature of specific articles of impeachment.

If the committee votes on specific articles, Hall’s case will go to the full Texas House of Representatives. If a majority of the members of the House approve of the case’s merits, it will go to the Senate, where members will convene as a court to make a final decision. If the Senate concurs with the committee’s recommendation, Hall will be the first non-elected official to be impeached in Texas history.

Rep. Carol Alvarado, committee co-chair and D-Houston, said Hall’s actions warrant extreme actions.

“Impeachment is an extraordinary tool to use in extraordinary circumstances,” Alvarado said. “I view Regent Hall’s conduct as extraordinary for an appointee.”

Rep. Dan Flynn committee co-chair and R-Canton, said he encouraged Hall to resign, and noted that if Hall were to resign before May 21, the committee would not have to convene.

The only committee member to vote against grounds of impeachment, Rep. Charles Perry R-San Antonio, said he did not feel all sides had been provided adequate chance to explain themselves.

“I think UT has lost some of its swagger,” Perry said. “I believe my opinion may have been different if I had heard testimony from all sides.”

After the committee voted, Rep. Lyle Larson R-San Antonio issued a request for Governor Rick Perry to ask for Hall’s resignation. Larson said he has asked Perry three times previously, with no response.  

"I’ve been contacted by just about every chairman of the UT system for the last four decades, all indicating that something needs to be done,” Larson said. “What this has cost us in recruiting deans, in recruiting a new chancellor, and the monetary impact…like [Martinez Fischer] said, there have been opportunities for the UT system to intervene.”

Senate of College Councils president Geetika Jerath said she felt the decision reflects the best interests of the University.

“We made our voice very clear in our letter to the governor,” Jerath said. “That’s definitely in line with what, as Senate, we have come up with in our letter, and so I’m pleased to see they agree.”

The House Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations has investigated Hall since July 2013 for potentially overstepping his duties as a regent. He has been accused by some members of the state legislature, including state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie,  as conducting a “witch-hunt” against Powers.

Hall was appointed to a six-year term on the Board of Regents by Gov. Rick Perry in February 2011. Before his appointment, Hall served on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which works with legislators and education officials to enforce various education initiatives.

Tensions between Powers and Hall have been ongoing since 2011, when Powers asked Larry Sager, former dean of the School of Law, to resign after concerns arose regarding the foundation's forgivable loan program. Sager awarded himself a $500,000 loan through the program.

Though Powers said he was not aware of the forgivable loan Sager awarded himself, Hall filed open records requests which yielded roughly 40 boxes of materials and claimed he had evidence Powers was aware of the forgivable loan but chose not to take action. Powers has repeatedly denied these claims.

After state legislators accused Hall of micromanaging the University and working with other regents to remove Powers from his position, Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus asked the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations in June 2013 to investigate the actions of executive appointees and recommend articles of impeachment if necessary. The committee subsequently began investigating Hall.

In August 2013, the committee hired Houston attorney Rusty Hardin as its special counsel. Based on recommendations from Hardin, the transparency committee decided in September to not allow cross-examination of witnesses by Hall’s attorneys during the upcoming hearings in the investigation.

According to testimony from Kevin Hegarty, executive vice president and chief financial officer at UT, Hall filed open records requests for over 800,000 pages of information from UT. System officials, including outgoing UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, have said the actual number of pages is closer to 100,000.

Last November, the transparency committee heard testimony from Francie Frederick, general counsel for the Board of Regents. Frederick said Hall was mistakenly given access to private student information through his wide ranging open records requests.

In her testimony, Frederick said regents can have access to information protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act if they have a valid, job-related reason to see it.

In December, Powers and Cigarroa testified on subpoena in front of the committee. Powers said Hall’s open records requests cost the University well over $1 million, but insisted he could not provide an exact number at the time. Both Cigarroa and Powers testified Hall’s actions were a distraction to UT and the System.

At the request of the committee, Philip Hilder, outside counsel to the System, submitted a report to the transparency committee in January, stating there was “no credible evidence” Hall violated any state laws regarding the release of data. In his report, Hilder said Hall requested all information protected by FERPA be redacted from the documents, but UT failed to completely remove all potentially problematic information when providing Hall with the requested documents.

Hardin prepared a report on the committee’s investigation which concluded Hall likely committed impeachable offenses. The report lists a variety of basis for Hall’s impeachment, including his handling of confidential student information, his treatment of UT-Austin and UT System officials and his large number of open records requests. The report also suggests Hall attempted to interfere with testimony.

Following the release of Hardin’s report, the Travis County district attorney's Public Integrity Unit opened an investigation into allegations that Hall violated privacy laws in distributing private student information obtained in one of his open records requests.

As early voting continues and primary elections are underway, judicial candidates receive relatively little attention compared to other candidates, such as those running for governor, according to a judicial clerk.

In the 2012 general election, about 58.6 percent of registered Texas voters voted for a presidential candidate, but 44 percent voted in the judicial race for the Court of Criminal Appeals. In 2010, 16.1 percent of people aged 18 to 29 reported voting, compared to 42.7 percent of those 30 and older, according to the Texas Civic Health Index, a report released by the University’s Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life.

According to Sherry Williamson, 11th Court of Appeals clerk, voters are not typically familiar with judicial candidates’ qualifications or the way the judicial system works.

“People know more about district courts because of [television shows like] ‘CSI’ and all of that, but they don’t really understand the appeals courts,” Williamson said.

According to government senior Catherine Benavidez, the biggest barrier to students voting is the voter registration process, which she said is complicated.

“Many people are confused about the process, what information they need and when they need to do it by,” Benavidez said. “This confusion has only been enhanced by the new voter ID requirements that have been implemented in Texas this past year.”

Williamson said if the candidate is an incumbent, voters should consider the judge’s past decisions.

“Look at the positions they took and how they held,” Williamson said. “If they’re just now running, then you’ll just have to look at their experience, what cases they’ve been an attorney for, [and] what the outcome was.”

Williamson said personal connections are important for voters who are not familiar with the judicial system or legal language.

“I would suggest going to, say, an attorney friend or an elected official who is a friend and say, ‘Tell me what you know about these people,’ and get them to tell [you] in simple terms,” Williamson said. “Then, if you want to do further research, look at some of the decisions they’ve made as a judge and as an attorney.”

English sophomore Kellie Teague said she’s not planning to vote in the primary elections or in the regular elections in November.

“I feel like I don’t have — that one person doesn’t have — an impact,” Teague said. “If everybody literally votes, then yes, the elections would be entirely different — yes, but we can’t get everybody to do that.”

Benavidez said she believes students should vote to have someone who best represents their beliefs.

“The politicians that we are picking right now will be with us during very critical points in our lives,” Benavidez said. “Wouldn’t you want a say in who’s going to be governor or railroad commissioner when you have to start paying taxes?”

Gene Vela was booked in the Travis County Jail on Nov. 11 after aiming a handgun equipped with a laser at two policemen through his apartment window in North Campus.

Photo Credit: Helen Fernandez | Daily Texan Staff

Correction: This article has been corrected after its original publication. Steve Brand, prosecuting attorney for the District Attorney's Office, argued to increase Gene Vela's bond to $1 million on Nov 22. The judge did not rule to change the amount of the bond, which remains $100,000.

Steve Brand, prosecuting attorney for the District Attorney's Office, argued in court on Friday to increase the bond for Gene Vela, a public affairs graduate student to $1 million claiming Vela is a threat to the public at a court hearing Friday.

Vela has been charged with aggravated assault against a public servant after he was involved in a standoff with the police Nov. 10, according to UTPD. The bond, set last week, remains at $100,000.

Vela was represented by Adam Reposa and Edmund Davis. Reposa said he believed without proper treatment to Vela’s post traumatic stress disorder, Vela was going to deteriorate in jail. Vela is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq in 2002.

“[He needs to] take the veteran treatment opportunities that are available to him,” Reposa said. “He was only recently, probably within the last 69 days, properly assessed/given a [post traumatic stress disorder] diagnosis.”

Steve Brand, prosecuting attorney for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, said Vela should not be released from custody for veteran treatment because he is a danger to the community.

“Police are frightened by this guy, concerned by him, they feel that he poses an ongoing danger to the Travis county community,” Brand said.

Vela was booked in the Travis County Jail on Nov. 11, the day after being shot in the torso by police. UTPD said Vela was shot after aiming a handgun equipped with a laser at two policemen through his apartment window in North Campus. Police were originally summoned to his apartment following a 911 call from a friend of Vela’s.

Vela's next hearing is set for January 2014, although Brands said he expects this date to be moved up.

Bev Kearney, former women’s track and field head coach, filed a lawsuit against the University alleging discrimination based on her race and her gender Thursday, according to her attorney, Derek Howard.

Kearney resigned in January after being told the University was prepared to fire her for a having a consensual relationship in 2002 with Raasin McIntosh, who was a student-athlete on Kearney’s team.

In her lawsuit — which seeks more than $1 million — Kearney said Bubba Thornton, former men’s track and field head coach, consistently demeaned her in front of others and falsely accused her of committing NCAA infractions.

The lawsuit points fingers at a wide range of University officials who Kearney claims she reported the harassment incidents to and chose to do nothing about it. The list includes men’s and women’s head athletic directors DeLoss Dodds and Chris Plonsky, Jody Conradt, former women’s head athletic director, Patricia Ohlendorf, vice president for legal affairs, Gregory Vincent, vice president of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and individuals in the human resources department.

"The University of Texas will thoroughly review the unfounded allegations of Ms. Kearney's lawsuit and respond through proper legal channels," Ohlendorf said in a statement.

The lawsuit also alleges that other University employees — predominately white males — have been involved in relationships with students or direct subordinates and have not received any disciplinary action. It cites the University’s handling of an incident with football co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite as an example. Applewhite engaged in “inappropriate, consensual behavior with an adult student” in 2009, according to a letter from Dodds obtained by The Daily Texan through the Texas Public Information Act in February of this year. Applewhite’s salary was suspended for a year following the incident, but he has since received promotions and raises.

"When the university reviews inappropriate behavior by its employees, each case is evaluated on its individual facts," Ohlendorf said in a statement. "In this case, it was evident that Ms. Kearney displayed a serious lack of judgment by having an inappropriate, intimate, long-term relationship with a member of her team. The team member later reported it to university officials who pursued all appropriate action."

Kearney took the helm of the women’s track and field program in 1992, and her teams have won six NCAA championships.

Kearney was placed on administrative leave by the University almost exactly one year ago after McIntosh revealed her past relationship with her coach to officials in UT athletics. Since then, much has changed in the department. Thornton announced his retirement in June and Dodds plans to step down in August. The UT System Board of Regents voted to approve Steve Patterson, the newly hired men's head athletic director, Monday.

In honor of an attorney who helped exonerate him, former death row inmate Anthony Graves established a scholarship earlier this month in the UT School of Law named for Nicole Casarez.

Casarez is a UT alumna, an attorney and a journalism professor at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Her work, along with the work of her team of investigative journalism students, led to a reversal of the charges against Graves in 2010.

Graves created the “Nicole B. Casarez Endowed Scholarship in Law” at UT as a way to thank her. Casarez and her husband Reuben Casarez both graduated from UT in 1979.

“Anthony Graves worked with Nicole’s husband to keep the scholarship private,” said Samantha Youngblood, communications coordinator at the law school. “He wanted to surprise her.”

Youngblood said Graves held a dinner party earlier this month where he announced the scholarship to Casarez.

“We wanted to keep it a secret until Nicole found out about it as well,” Youngblood said. “So we didn’t distribute a news release about it or anything like that.”

The details of the scholarship have not been decided as of yet. The first scholarship from the fund will be awarded in fall 2014 to a “deserving law student.” It will most likely be an annual scholarship, according to Youngblood.

“Our development team is working on the specifics,” Youngblood said. “And, of course, we’re incredibly grateful for his generosity.”