By Reeve Hamilton
The Texas Tribune
Originally published Nov. 4, 2013
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer believes that the investigation into whether a University of Texas System regent should be impeached could require a look at UT regents’ personal computers, iPads and smartphones.
In an Oct. 31 letter to Rusty Hardin, special counsel to the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, Martinez Fischer — a committee member — submitted a request for an upcoming hearing to include a witness who could discuss the prospects for forensic examination of the personal devices of Wallace Hall and his fellow UT regents.
Calls to Martinez Fischer’s office were not immediately returned. The issue of regents using personal email addresses to conduct system business was raised at last month’s hearing on Hall. Currently, when it comes to producing documents from their personal accounts that are responsive to requests, the regents are on the honor system.
“This committee has information that sheds doubt as to whether or not all regents are following the law by producing every document in their possession,” Martinez Fischer wrote in the letter to Hardin.
Hardin told the Tribune he had received the representative’s letter and indicated that the witness list for the upcoming hearings was still in flux. Hall’s lawyers have indicated that the regent is ready and willing to take the stand, though no indication has been given by the committee as to whether that will happen this month.
Lawmakers have accused Hall of being on a “witch hunt” to oust University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers and pointed to the roughly 800,000 pages of documents he has demanded from the university as evidence. Through his lawyers, Hall has indicated that he unearthed issues at the university — such as favoritism in admissions, financial mismanagement and a need to improve their production of public records — that warranted such investigation.
The committee heard its first round of witness testimony in October. The next round is scheduled for Nov. 12 and 13, though it could change.
Following the October proceedings, UT System Board of Regents Chairman Paul Foster indicated that the system staff was considering a shift to using email addresses provided by the system for such activities in the future.
But for the purposes of the panel’s investigation, Martinez Fischer wrote: “In short, this committee must be assured that every document responsive to our inquiry is produced. Therefore, we must consider forensic examination of the personal or professional electronic communications of the regents in order to ensure compliance with the law.”
Martinez Fischer also asked Hardin that a “subject matter expert testify about the presence or lack of any testimonial privileges that have been or may be asserted by witnesses before the committee.”
The request could have been inspired by the UT System’s assertion of attorney-client privilege in regard to some aspects of testimony by its former general counsel, Barry Burgdorf, who resigned under pressure in 2013. At the October hearing, Martinez Fischer expressed doubts about the system’s ability to assert such a privilege when it came to testimony that had been compelled by the Legislature.
Regarding both desired experts, Martinez Fischer wrote: “These witnesses can be heard in executive session or in public. But, the necessity for this information is apparent.”
Hardin told the Tribune he did not know whom specifically the representative had in mind who could speak to such issues.