Regents agree to honor lawmaker record requests

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Associated Press

Posted on April 11, 2013 at 5:05 PM

Updated Friday, Apr 12 at 7:02 AM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Bowing to pressure from the Legislature, University of Texas System regents unanimously agreed Thursday to release emails and documents requested by lawmakers.

After about two hours of private talks, the regents approved a motion to turn over the records "as soon as reasonably possible." But there's one condition: The lawmakers must sign confidentiality agreements.

At the Capitol, lawmakers responded within hours. The Senate passed SB 15, a measure that would require ethics training for newly appointed regents. The bill, which still must pass the House, would also limit the board's authority.

The dueling actions mark the latest step in the increasingly bitter dispute between the regents, all appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry, and the Texas Legislature.

Prominent lawmakers have challenged the board's role in governing the flagship campus in Austin, with a key issue being the board's investigation of a loan program operated by UT President Bill Powers during his tenure as the dean of the law school. After one investigation cleared Powers of wrongdoing, the board voted last month to start a new investigation.

Lawmakers have accused the regents of conducting a "witch hunt" and have started their own counter-investigation, making large records requests from the regents. In response, board Chairman Gene Powell asked the state attorney general for an opinion on whether the law compels the regents to disclose the records.

In the meeting, Regent Printice L. Gary praised the work of Powers and other administrators, saying the dispute "has unfortunately and inadvertently cast a shadow on the UT System."

"Let's remember that the board of regents is here to serve the system and its campuses," he said. "Let's give them the support, resources and most importantly the gratitude they deserve."

Regent James D. Dannenbaum said the board never intended to withhold the documents from the legislature. Rather, he said, the regents sought an opinion from the attorney general out of due diligence.

In a separate motion Thursday, also approved unanimously, the regents asked the attorney general to handle their inquiry into the now-defunct loan program managed by Powers.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chairman of the Senate higher education committee, offered measured praise for the regents' decision.

"It is the proper thing to do and exactly what they should do and should have done," Seliger said, adding that he expects documents to start being sent to lawmakers "immediately."

Seliger said lawmakers are looking for "anything that would indicate deficient governance."

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat and fierce defender of Powers, said she has submitted multiple requests looking for documents about Powers and his performance. She questioned whether the regents will try to label most or all of the responding documents as confidential, which prevents lawmakers from sharing or discussing them in public.

"What do they have to hide? That's what I want to see," Zaffirini said. "They are just labeling things as confidential and acting like they are just because they said so."

But Powell, the regents' chairman, pledged to keep up the board's investigations.

"Some of the things that I know may turn out to be totally innocent," he told reporters after the board meeting. "But I still think it's the responsibility of the board to look."

He said conflict with the legislature is inevitable for a politically appointed board.

"These issues go with the terrain," Powell said. "I don't take any umbrage at them challenging us or chastising us."

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