Fight over UT’s Powers buried university in records requests

By David Barer
The Dallas Morning News
Originally published Jan. 5, 2014

AUSTIN — A University of Texas System regent’s requests for hundreds of thousands of documents from UT-Austin sparked accusations of a witch hunt against the school’s president. But the avalanche of demands on UT had only begun.

Wallace Hall’s requests totaled 800,000 records, and university officials have said they felt besieged and had difficulty complying. Documents have to be reviewed so personal information is redacted. But Hall’s request was followed by lawmakers, reporters, lobbyists and others wondering what he’d found, pushing the university to produce about 1 million pages of internal documents.

To handle the load, UT hired and rededicated experts to sift through the data. But school officials still feel stretched thin by the onslaught of requests, made under the state’s open-records law.

“I can think of one request where I spent, I don’t know, maybe five hours of a day doing nothing but detailed searches of my hard drive to identify if I had documents that were responsive” to a request, said Kevin Hegarty, vice president, chief financial officer and custodian of records at UT-Austin.

Beyond the increased load, the “requests have become, in many cases, dramatically more complex and dramatically more comprehensive,” Hegarty said.

The requests are part of a larger ongoing battle over UT’s direction and tension over whether to emphasize teaching more at the expense of research. Many saw Hall’s actions as part of an attempt to force the removal of UT-Austin President Bill Powers, sparking a power struggle that reached even into the school’s vaunted football program and, UT officials say, harmed the university’s reputation and recruiting nationwide. Last month, regents declined to take any action against Powers.

Lawmakers rushed to Powers’ defense this year, and a special House committee is investigating whether Hall overstepped his duties as regent and divulged private student information, among other things. The committee has finished hearing public testimony and could recommend Hall’s impeachment. No more hearings are scheduled, and the process could go on for months.

AG rulings

The cascade of requests highlights the difficult behind-the-scenes work record keepers must do to comply with the law.

Hegarty said a broad request — for instance, asking for correspondence between any UT official and any state lawmaker for the past two years — can occupy numerous state employees. Records experts must scrutinize each page for private content. Many pages are deemed unrelated and not recorded, thus deflating the tally of production.

With complex requests increasing, UT is turning more often to Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office for “open record rulings” to help determine what, if any, data in a request can be kept confidential. The process can take months.

In 2008, UT-Austin referred just one request to Abbott’s office. In 2013, it referred 84, according to dataThe Dallas Morning News obtained through an open records request.

Before any UT institution requests an attorney general opinion, the UT System examines the documents first, Hegarty said.

That means three state institutions, and numerous employees within them, can be lassoed into one records request. The Austin flagship has more than doubled its records staff since Hall joined the board. The UT System added an attorney as well, House testimony shows.

A stack of 1 million pages would tower more than 333 feet in the air. Hegarty called the estimate that Hall’s requests generated an estimated 800,000 documents “conservative.”

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said Hall’s investigation benefited the university in some ways. Hall shone light on a questionable UT Law School Foundation loan program that has been shuttered. But, Cigarroa added, the size and tight deadlines of Hall’s requests were “unreasonable.”

Powers estimated the cost of dealing with Hall’s request and the subsequent fracas at “well over a million dollars,” according to House testimony.

Reducing access?

The expense and turmoil caused by the requests might lead lawmakers to consider curtailing access to state documents. Kelly Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said she had not heard of such efforts so far but they do happen.

“There are periodic attempts to try to limit records requests and try to clamp down on what some people see as burdensome,” Shannon said. But it’s rare for someone to turn the act into a nuisance, she added. “We would hope there would be no backlash against it.”

Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, a UT System spokeswoman, said in an email that lawmakers’ requests accounted for more than 50,000 pages produced in 2013. That doesn’t include documents produced under subpoenas.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, requested the most documents, 30,000 pages from UT System. It was part of her obligation as vice-chairwoman of a legislative committee on higher education and investigation of Hall, Zaffirini said.

“It wasn’t just a matter of curiosity, and it wasn’t a matter of going fishing,” Zaffirini said. “I certainly sympathized and empathized with the personnel that were required to produce so many records.”

Aside from legislative obligations, media outlets, attorneys and others have papered UT-Austin and the UT System with requests. The News’ data requests related to Hall have resulted in hundreds of pages of documents being released from UT and other agencies this year. Some of the requests have been referred to the attorney general’s office.

UT-Austin receives an average of about 60 requests per month, but Hegarty could not say how many pages were generated from requests related to Hall. The UT System received more than 150 requests in 2013, according to its website, though LaCoste-Caputo said it would be difficult and time consuming for the busy records staff to count the number of pages related to Hall.

“Tens of thousands is certainly accurate, and probably an understatement,” she said.

Hegarty said his office, while overwhelmed, would continue to work to comply with the law.

“This is an important aspect of good, open government,” he said. “It’s when the act is overused or abused … that really causes a tremendous amount of hardship on folks here.”