Lawyers and Legalities: Coverage of the Latest Hall Hearing

Another round of questions leads to more allegations in the investigation of embattled UT System regent Wallace Hall. We take a look at what made it into new outlets around the state.

Hall May Have Broken Privacy Laws, UT System Lawyer Says

A tense series of hearings continued Tuesday, as allegations that UT System regent Wallace Hall may have violated privacy laws were brought to the Texas House committee investigating Hall. Not only were new twists added to the ongoing controversy this week, but the legal intricacies of the case seemed to become more and more complex.

As the hearing stretched across eight hours, journalists tried to iron out the details of a case in which little primary-source evidence has come to light, and rumors are rampant. While digging into legal minutiae, writers around Texas have attempted to distill the saga surrounding Hall into digestible packages. Staff lawyers, private attorneys, and legislators (most of whom are attorneys) are all working to sort out the details, as well.

UT System general counsel Francie Frederick testified before the eight members of a select House transparency committee Tuesday (along with Rep. David Simpson, who is not a member), and indicated that Hall may have shared legally protected student information with his personal attorneys. Hall’s attorneys have denied that claim.

As the Texas Tribune‘s Reeve Hamilton reported:

Among the accusations against [Hall] is that he mishandled private information.

“Of course, it’s false,” Hall’s attorney, Allan Van Fleet, said of the accusation on Tuesday.

Still, the charge provided the focus for Frederick’s testimony. And she acknowledged that, in one instance, the regent was in possession of student information, which he shared with his personal attorneys, that may have been protected.

According to federal laws, to see such documents, a regent must have an educational purpose, which Frederick said Hall did not have. But she did not blame him for obtaining the document amid a large collection of information that he had requested.

“We failed him by allowing this to happen,” she said.

State representative Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), continued the extended, methodical questioning that’s defined his time on the committee, and ultimately asked the body to look into the privacy allegations. The Dallas Morning NewsDavid Barer explained:

[Martinez Fischer] recommended that the committee’s special counsel review the issue and potentially refer it to law enforcement.

“Wallace Hall’s lawyers have no right or authority to confidential documents Wallace Hall acquires as a UT regent,” Martinez Fischer said. “I think that there is a crime that has occurred.”

Van Fleet would later call Martinez Fischer’s actions a “transparent attempt at intimidation.”

Touchy relations between Martinez Fischer and the UT System aren’t new. The legislator has previously implied that the System has dragged its feet in responding to legislative requests and failed to be completely forthcoming with the committee, imposing the attorney-client privilege to limit some testimony from UT System officials on sensitive topics.

The Tribune wrote:

In October, when the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations subpoenaed and heard testimony from Barry Burgdorf, the system’s former general counsel, he was unable to discuss certain matters because the system had asserted attorney-client privilege. However, some committee members—most notably, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio—questioned whether such privilege could be applied in the situation.

Earlier in the week, however, a vote by the Board of Regents sent the matter of attorney-client privilege to the state Attorney General’s office for a third-party opinion, and eased some restrictions on testimony, something committee counsel Rusty Hardin thanked System officials for at the hearing.

The Tribune continued:

In addition to authorizing board chairman Paul Foster to seek an opinion — which could take some time — on the matter, the board voted in the same motion to “expressly waive the attorney-client privilege in a limited manner concerning those certain matters as recommended by outside counsel” during the regents’ closed-door meeting.

System representatives did not publicly specify to which “certain matters” the motion was referring.

UT System interim general counsel Dan Sharphorn also testified Tuesday, along with System attorney Barbara Holthaus. As for Hall himself, who’s expressed a desire to testify if subpoenaed, it’s still unclear when he’ll appear before the committee. Members voted unanimously to subpoena Hall to appear in December, but after a two-hour closed-door session, the vote was recalled on account of rescheduling next month’s hearings.

Though UT president Bill Powers and System chancellor Francisco Cigarroa were summoned for December 18, Hall’s subpoena was not brought up again. The committee is currently investigating Hall for improper conduct, pursuing allegations that Hall micromanaged UT-Austin and is intent on ousting Powers, and looking into the possibility of recommending Hall’s impeachment.

This latest round of accusations comes after months of worsening relations between legislators and some members of the Board. Despite recommendations from regents’ chair Paul Foster to calm the waters, Hall’s actions continue to stoke a firestorm of allegations and counter-allegations. Ralph Haurwitz of the Austin American Statesman summarized:

Hall, a businessman from Dallas appointed by Perry, has been accused of trying to micromanage the Austin campus and to oust its president, Bill Powers, in part by digging for dirt through some 800,000 pages of school records. The transparency committee’s investigation comes amid a long-running clash over fundraising, tuition, faculty productivity, forgivable loans for law professors and other matters.

The possibility of Hall sharing student records was particularly interesting to Hardin, who in his questioning seemed to draw a connection between the alleged records and a letter sent by Hall’s lawyers that alleged unnamed lawmakers had used his influence to affect their children’s applications to UT.

The committee will meet again on December 18, and will hear testimony from Powers and Cigarroa.

Photo courtesy Garrett Seeger via Flickr Creative Commons.

 

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