UT System private counsel said Hall did not violate state law

Madlin Mekelburg

In a report released earlier this week, private legal counsel representing the UT System concluded there was “no credible evidence” that Regent Wallace Hall violated a state law regarding the protection of confidential information. 

Philip Hilder, outside counsel to the System, submitted a report outlining his conclusions to the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations on Monday. The committee is investigating Hall to determine whether Hall overstepped his duties as a regent and whether he should be recommended for impeachment. 

Hall has been accused of conducting a “witch-hunt” against President William Powers Jr. after he filed open-records requests with the University for more than 800,000 pages of information. 

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. Francie Frederick, general counsel to the UT System Board of Regents, said regents are only allowed to view documents with information protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — known as FERPA — if the regents have a “legitimate educational purpose” for doing so.

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. Martinez Fischer also 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.

In his letter, 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. Hilder concluded Hall did not violate privacy acts because the University “never determined that Regent Hall did not have a legitimate educational interest” in viewing the information. 

“Regent Hall specifically asked that documents with potential FERPA information be withheld,” Hilder said. “However, when potential FERPA documents were provided by UT-Austin, in response to a regental information request, issues surrounding UT-Austin’s admissions process came to Regent Hall’s attention.”

Hilder said the role of a regent includes maintaining admissions standards consistent with the mission of institutions in the UT System, so, once Hall read the documents in question and identified potential issues with the admissions process, he would have an educational purpose. 

In the letter, Hilder said Hall did not violate FERPA when he disclosed the emails because UT did not intend to give Hall access to the information, and Hall did not intend to receive it, demonstrated by his request for all information protected by FERPA to be redacted. 

State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston and co-chairwoman of the committee, said she is glad the System followed the committee’s request by submitting a report. 

“We appreciate them 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.