Lawmakers Urge UT System to Use AG's Office for Probe

Senators (l to r) Royce West, D-Dallas, Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, listen to testimony from CPRIT officials in Senate Finance on Feb. 5, 2013.
Senators (l to r) Royce West, D-Dallas, Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, listen to testimony from CPRIT officials in Senate Finance on Feb. 5, 2013.

Updated: A majority of Texas senators have signed the letter calling the University of Texas System's planned review of the University of Texas Law School Foundation "unnecessary" and contending that it is designed with "the obvious purpose to discredit" University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers.

If the system insists on carrying on with the review, the lawmakers recommend it save money by utilizing the attorney general's office.

The letter, initially sent with four signatures on Monday, was resubmitted to Gene Powell, the chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, on Tuesday with 18 signatures — eight Republicans and 10 Democrats.

This post has been updated with the latest version of the letter.

Original story, March 25: Several Texas lawmakers have a message for the University of Texas System: If its regents must "needlessly engage" in a controversial external review of a now-defunct forgivable loan program run by the University of Texas Law School Foundation, they should use the Texas attorney general's office to do it.

 

As of Monday evening, a letter making that recommendation to Gene Powell, the chairman of UT's board, had been signed by four senators: Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler; Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo; Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo; and Kirk Watson, D-Austin. More are expected to add their names. The lawmakers did not mince words in their letter as they expressed their "deep concerns."

"This duplicative review, which targets the University of Texas at Austin for the obvious purpose of attempting to discredit its president, will be the fourth review of this matter," they wrote.

Concerns about the loan program were already investigated by the system's outgoing vice chancellor and general counsel, Barry Burgdorf, who determined that the program was "not appropriate" and recommended that it cease. Burgdorf's report was reviewed by the attorney general's office, which largely concurred with its findings. The situation with the law school foundation, an independently run fundraising organization that supports the University of Texas School of Law, is also the subject of an ongoing system audit.

The regents approved the latest investigation with a rare 4-3 split vote during a tense meeting on March 20. At that time, Regent Steve Hicks questioned the motivations of some of his fellow regents, indicating that he believed they were looking to find a way to lay blame at the feet of UT President Bill Powers, who was cleared of wrongdoing in Burgdorf's report. 

Regents favoring further investigation cited "fact discrepancies" in Burgdorf's report as reasons for setting his findings aside and starting anew. So far, the system has declined to specify what those fact matters and discrepancies are.

A recent external review commissioned by the system of Dr. Kern Wildenthal, the former president of UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, cost roughly $530,00, according to Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa.

Explaining their recommendation for an attorney general's review on Monday, the senators wrote, "As you know, that office is independent, has extensive investigative experience, unique expertise in the field of private foundations and the resources to handle this matter at no additional expense to taxpayers."

House members are also eager for the system to take this route. House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, issued a statement saying, "If the Board insists on conducting yet another investigation, it should not hire an outside firm at significant public expense but rather utilize the Attorney General’s Office."

 

If the system opts to heed the lawmakers' advice, the attorney general's team is standing by.

"At this time, the Board of Regents has not contacted the attorney general's office to request an investigation into the facts of this matter," said Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office. "However, this office always endeavors to be responsive to the Texas Legislature and is therefore prepared to proceed with an independent inquiry should the Board of Regents or the University of Texas System request that we do so."

All five lawmakers — Eltife, Seliger, Zaffirini, Watson and Pitts — who have thus far called for the attorney general's invovlement are members of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency. In the letter, the senators tell Powell that the committee looks forward to working with him.

"Through a public, fair and transparent process we can collaborate to resolve any issues related to our jurisdiction, including the UT Law School Foundation," they wrote.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.