By Reeve Hamilton
Originally published 2013 July 19
In June, a new entrant quietly joined the fray in the ongoing open records wars between the Legislature and the University of Texas System: Austin businessman Jeff Sandefer, who filed an open records request with state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the former chairmwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee
Sandefer — the founder of the Acton School of Business, a private MBA program — is largely known in higher education circles for drafting a set of controversial reform proposals that Gov. Rick Perry encouraged university system regents to implement starting in 2008. The proposals grew increasingly controversial as schools moved forward with them, and Zaffirini became an outspoken opponent.
The controversy has never really subsided at the UT System, where regents’ large information requests of the system’s flagship, the University of Texas at Austin, have drawn the ire of legislators — including Zaffirini, who filed her own broad requests regarding the regents. In some of her requests, she sought information about regents’ ties to Sandefer.
Though Sandefer has previously told the Tribune he did not have significant involvement in higher education anymore, records have shown that he is in contact with regents and that Perry has called on him to help vet at least one potential regent.
On his June 6 request, Sandefer asked for invoices and evidence of payment to Zaffirini’s communications consulting company from individuals and companies with political ties. He requested the same for the respective businesses of the senator’s husband, the president and director of Zaftex Corporation, and her son, an attorney.
In the five-page request, he sought, among other items, communications between the Zaffirinis regarding any business they each might be doing with ties to the government.
Sandefer’s request did not yield any information.
On June 12, he received a letter from Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw, who serves as the custodian of Senate documents. “The Senate does not maintain or possess the documents in question,” she wrote.
“Why no response to a simple Freedom of Information request?” Sandefer asked Friday in an statement emailed to the Tribune. “Does Senator Zaffirini have something to hide, like the politicians in the University of Illinois influence-peddling scandal? If not, why wouldn’t she simply obey the law, and disclose all of her potential conflicts of interest?”
In 2009, the Chicago Tribune reported on officials at the University of Illinois giving preferential treatment to applicants with ties to politicians and prominent donors in the admissions process.
Similar accusations have been floated recently in the Texas Legislature, most notably by Perry’s staff. His spokesman, Rich Parsons, speculated that lawmakers’ opposition to some regent activities “could be motivated by attempts to conceal emails that include information about members of the Legislature requesting admission to the UT law school on behalf of others.”
Zaffirini called the insinuation that she has something to hide “ridiculous.”
Regarding Sandefer’s request, she said, “It comes across to me as harassment and nonsensical.”
Zaffirini said Sandefer should know that the Senate does not keep documents of the kind he was seeking. “And it’s rather sad,” she added, “that he would go after somebody’s family. In fact, it’s beyond sad. It’s outrageous.”
She drew a distinction about requests she has made about Sandefer’s involvement in higher education policy and the request he made.
“We’ve had disagreements about policy,” Zaffirini said, “but for him to go after me personally, my husband personally, and my son personally makes you wonder about his motivation and how much time he has on his hands.”