Regents vote to supply information to legislators, allow Texas AG to conduct law school investigation

Joshua Fechter and Jordan Rudner

Complying with requests from several Texas lawmakers, the UT System Board of Regents unanimously voted Thursday to release documents requested by legislators and allow the Texas Attorney General’s Office to conduct an investigation into the relationship between the UT School of Law and the Law School Foundation

The decisions came after several months of tension between the board, the Texas Legislature and UT President William Powers Jr. Regent Printice Gary acknowledged the tensions while speaking after the decisions were announced. 

“I think it is important we acknowledge that the reality of the controversy surrounding the Board of Regents and the Legislature has unfortunately and inadvertently cast a shadow on the University of Texas System,” Gary said. “Let’s remember that the Board of Regents is here to serve the System.”

Last week, board Chairman Gene Powell inquired to the attorney general’s office about the legality of withholding information after state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed a broad open records request as a private citizen instead of in her capacity as a legislator. 

Though there is no specific deadline by which regents must respond to legislators’ open records requests, according to the Texas Public Information Act, governing bodies must handle all requests from private citizens in good faith and produce requested information “promptly.” If this cannot be done within 10 days, governmental bodies must recognize this in writing and set a date and hour when the records will be available. Alternatively, if there is a desire to withhold information, the governing body has 10 days to write to the attorney general asking for a decision.

Powell’s move spurred intense criticism from several legislators and prompted a three-page statement from Zaffirini. In it, she said she had heard the chairman’s behavior compared to that of former President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.

The board also reconsidered its March 20 vote to continue an external investigation of the relationship between the law school and its foundation. The investigation was criticized by legislators and individual regents themselves. Regents Steven Hicks and Robert Stillwell both referred to the external investigation as “beating a dead horse,” and Stillwell said the initial investigation, conducted by outgoing System general counsel Barry Burgdorf, was sufficient.

Powell maintained that the additional review of the Foundation is a necessary move but said he felt confident in the attorney general’s ability to conduct it.

“If I’d been here on the day of the [4-3] vote, I’d have been the 5th vote to continue the investigation,” Powell said.

In February, the Legislature relaunched the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency for the purpose of investigating regents’ alleged micromanagement of the University.

Committee members expressed relief and skepticism Thursday about the regents’ decisions to disclose documents and allow the Attorney General to investigate the foundation. 

Zaffirini said she was glad regents took lawmakers’ suggestions regarding the investigation into the foundation.

“However, I do think it’s a waste of time and effort and waste of state resources, because it’s been investigated again and again,” Zaffirini said. “I’m expecting the same results from the Attorney General’s investigation.”

Committee Co-Chairman and State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said he was pleased to see regents make both decisions and he expects regents to supply information requested by lawmakers within the next few days.

“To me, it’s two steps in the right direction,” Branch said.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the decision to disclose documents constituted the first step in ending conflict between regents, UT and the Legislature that has arisen during this legislative session.

“To be clear, this isn’t the end of this process, nor does it complete all of the board’s responsibilities to legislators and to Texans,” Watson said. “But, I do hope it’s a healthy, positive start.”

Hours after the board meeting, the Texas Senate approved a bill to limit powers of university boards of regents over individual institutions within university systems.

The bill, filed by state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Senate Higher Education Committee chairman, was filed in response to the UT System Board of Regents’ alleged micromanagement of UT, specifically President William Powers Jr.

The House of Representatives must now vote on the bill, which would limit regents from “interfering” in the daily operations of universities under systems’ purview. It would also prohibit regents who were appointed when the Legislature is not in session from voting until nominees have appeared before the Senate Nominations Committee.