UT Regents Chairman Asks for Pass on Turning Over Documents

UT Regents Chairman Asks for Pass on Turning Over DocumentsThe chairman of the UT System Board of Regents is asking the state’s top attorney for permission to withhold documents legislators have asked to see relating to the board’s interactions with UT-Austin.

In a letter to Texas attorney general Greg Abbott, Gene Powell asks for advice on whether he and the UT System have any wiggle room in responding to four expansive requests for documents from legislators, one from as early as 2011.

“We recognize that the legislature has reserved for itself a special right of access to information in the hands of the executive branch, and yet these requests have proved potentially damaging to the ability of the System’s governing board to fulfill properly its statutory and fiduciary duties,” Powell writes.

The letter has legislators fuming.

In a statement, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini says Powell’s letter confirms for her what she has long suspected—that the regents have something to hide.

“He and some of his fellow regents apparently are not responding to open records requests in good faith and deliberately are withholding public information,” Zaffirini says. “At no time since my initial requests in 2011 has anyone from the UT Board of Regents or the UT System informed us that they were withholding any documents. They simply withheld them. This is wrong.”*

Zaffirini recently filed a separate open-records request as a public citizen. Powell asked Abbot to advise whether the System has to respond to Zaffirini’s new request within the customary 10-day window.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, chairman of the higher education committee and co-chair of a special joint oversight committee looking into issues of governance and transparency, described Powell’s letter as “unbecoming.”

“These are people who went on a huge document-mining expedition in the name of transparency and now wish to withhold documents from a legislative committee,” Seliger told the Austin American-Statesman. “Who do these guys think they are?”

Legislators and the UT System regents have been at odds in recent weeks, after a divided board voted to commission an external review into a now-defunct forgivable-loan program at the UT Law School Foundation. A majority of Texas state senators has since signed a letter to Powell asking the board not to go through with it, or at the least to use the attorney general’s office to conduct it instead.

More broadly, legislators have expressed concerns that the UT System board is micromanaging the flagship campus and on a “witch hunt” to oust its popular president, Bill Powers. The regents have bombarded UT-Austin with data requests in recent years, and last month ordered parts of the UT-Austin campus not to delete emails.

Lawmakers are considering several bills to limit the power of UT System regents, force them to undergo ethics training, and reduce their discretionary spending.

*Zaffirini has since updated her statement. See it in full below.

File photo of Gene Powell.

Zaffirini Statement re: Powell Letter


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