Bill would clarify regents’ duty to disclose information

Joshua Fechter

Under legislation filed Monday in the Texas Senate, the UT System Board of Regents would have to disclose information to legislators despite objections by regents that disclosure may hinder their investigative powers.

The bill, filed by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and co-authored by 16 senators, would require state agencies or governmental bodies to give lawmakers requested information even if agencies say disclosing the information would handicap their ability to conduct investigations.

The bill comes after a request Friday to the Texas Attorney General’s office by Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell to withhold potentially confidential and attorney-client privileged information requested by members of the Texas Legislature. Powell cited concerns that releasing requested information would hinder an ongoing investigation into the UT Law School Foundation

“I cannot understand them, I cannot explain their actions … clearly, clearly, they have something to hide,” Zaffirini told The Daily Texan on Tuesday. “They maintain that they don’t have to give [legislators] confidential information. They do. They are wrong.”

Zaffirini said regents seem to be thwarting the Texas Public Information Act, which gives the public the right to access government documents with certain exceptions. She said her bill seeks to clarify the existing law.

“It’s so ironic that the very regents demanding transparency and accountability of UT-Austin personnel are themselves refusing to be accountable,” Zaffirini said.

Under the act, government agencies have 10 days to seek opinions from the Texas Attorney General’s office regarding the release of potentially sensitive information.

The bill does not specify involvement of the Texas Attorney General’s office in reviewing documents that agencies do not see fit to disclose as the act does.

Zaffirini’s bill would clarify state law to require disclosure of information to lawmakers regardless of potential sensitivity for legislative and investigative purposes. Traditionally, legislators have the ability to request information from government agencies that may not otherwise be available to the public, but must sign confidentiality agreements to view certain sensitive documents.

The board will meet Thursday to consider releasing the information. They will also discuss how they will conduct the investigation into the UT Law School Foundation that regents approved by a vote of 4-3 at their March 20 meeting.

That decision drew heat from lawmakers, resulting in a series of amendments to the Senate’s budget bill aimed at limiting the regents’ ability to spend funds on investigations that passed Thursday.

Further legislative action regarding the regents may occur this week. The Senate may take up a bill filed by state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, Senate Higher Education Committee chairman, that would limit regents’ power over individual institutions. It would also prevent regents who have not been confirmed by the Senate from voting.

This article was corrected after its original posting. The cost of an additional external investigation of the UT Law School Foundation has not yet been determined.