By Reeve Hamilton
The Texas Tribune
Originally published Feb. 3, 2014
As the legislative committee investigating University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall of Dallas considers whether to impeach him, the UT system met a Feb. 1 deadline to address certain directives set by the committee.
The co-chairs of the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations sent UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa a letter in mid-December detailing information they wanted the system to provide by the end of the following month. That information included a list of requests for information from UT System institutions made on behalf of regents, an update on pending investigations being conducted by the system, and a description of proposed changes to the board’s rules.
A lengthy letter signed by Cigarroa delivered on the deadline serves as the system’s response. It included subtle and direct challenges to comments made during the legislative hearings on Hall.
The committee has been investigating Hall after allegations made by other lawmakers that he, among other charges, has abused his authority in conducting personal investigations of the University of Texas at Austin administration. His propensity for demanding that large amounts of information be provided to him in a short timeframe has particularly come under the microscope. Hall has said he has only fulfilled his duties as a regent by digging into potential misconduct at the university.
The transparency committee’s hearings on Hall do not appear to have deterred such records requests. Of 10 requests included in the report that were conveyed to UT System institutions on behalf of regents — all but one of which were UT-Austin-specific — seven were initiated by Hall. Two requests were made on behalf of Gene Powell, one of the board’s vice chairmen, and one, which was systemwide, was made on behalf of Alex Cranberg.
Among the information sought by Hall were details of all of UT-Austin President Bill Powers’ travel — including personal travel — since the start of his presidency, information related to the university’s hiring of a vice president of development and admissions statistics for undergraduate students at the university.
The legislative committee had asked for an explanation of the need for or benefit of information requested by regents, but the system was not able to provide any since, as Cigarroa wrote, “the individual regent making the request did not explain the need or benefit when making the request, nor do current Regents’ Rules and Regulations require any such explanation.”
Cigarroa also noted that, in a board meeting that will take place Wednesday and Thursday, the board’s chairman, Paul Foster, plans to propose rule changes that would address a number of the committee’s concerns. Among the proposed rule changes is an attempt to formalize the process by which regents request information through the system.
“The proposed rule is not intended to prevent a member of the board from access to information or data the regent deems necessary to fulfill his or her official duties but to ultimately make more information and data readily available for all,” Cigarroa wrote.
The planned rules will also establish an expectation that regents would coordinate their contact with news outlets through the system’s official channels. And they will consider updating a website that already details open records requests made of the system to include responsive documents to those requests.
Of particular note is a proposed change that would mandate the establishment of system-provided email addresses for the regents and include “strong encouragement” for regents to use these accounts for their UT System-related business. Regents currently use personal email addresses for regent business, which has drawn the objections of members of the legislative committee.
In his report, Cigarroa noted that a committee member had asserted that state law required regents to use email addresses provided by the system. “After diligent research by U.T. System legal staff, the system can find no state law that mandates the use of a utsystem.edu email domain or address by members of the board,” Cigarroa wrote, adding that no law was found requiring that members of the governing board of any state agency use agency-specific email addresses.
That is just one example of a number of challenges to comments made in the legislative hearings that are included in Cigarroa’s response.
“During testimony before the Select Committee, some early witnesses implied that the UT System has not protected the privacy rights of students, staff and patients. This is simply not true. To the extent student information may have been released inappropriately, the release was made by UT-Austin.”
“Note also, in what has been a consistently confused and misunderstood fact, Regent Hall did not make 1,200 requests under the [Texas Public Information Act] for documents and emails, but only requests information concerning the TPIA requests previously made by others. Regent Hall filed, as a private citizen, five TPIA requests of his own. It has been represented that as many as 800,000 pares of documents were provided to Regent Hall as a result of his requests. System believes a far smaller number of pages were provided, perhaps fewer than 100,000.”
“At several points during the hearings, testimony was offered that the personnel file of Carol Longoria, a former UT System employee who is now employed by UT-Austin, was requested by Regent Hall. Regent Hall at no time requested such access nor did he receive or review the personnel file.”
“During the hearings, it was repeatedly implied that the only source of legal advice for employees at UT-Austin is the UT System Office of General Counsel. This is not true.”
Three clarifications, not included above, were specifically issued to Powers’ testimony, mostly related to an episode in which UT-Austin representatives and Hall found themselves presenting opposing sides of an argument related to the reporting of in-kind software donations to a standards-setting organization in Washington, D.C. The incident is extensively detailed in Cigarroa’s report.
In committee hearings, lawmakers also questioned the system’s review of Powers’ personal travel. In his own testimony, even Cigarroa expressed discomfort with it. In the latest report, Cigarroa indicated that the review is expected to be concluded by the end of this month.
The system is also looking into allegations of undue influence by lawmakers in the admissions process at UT-Austin, which have come from Hall and others. Cigarroa noted that it is “an inquiry, not an investigation,” which he said meant only a small set of data was being examined internally to determine if a full investigation with external assistance is warranted. Without giving any indication of the findings, the chancellor noted that the inquiry is “nearing completion.”
In their mid-December communication that included the first set of directives, the committee co-chairs indicated that they could issue more directives. They also asked for monthly updates relating to the issues raised in the first batch.
The committee is preparing the final report of its investigation of Hall, which will provide a clearer sense of the odds of the impeachment process continuing. A specific timeline for the release of its findings has yet to be announced.