Zaffirini Asks UT System if It is Withholding Records

Sen. Judith Zaffirini D-Laredo
Sen. Judith Zaffirini D-Laredo

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, expressed concerns that the University of Texas System is withholding documents from legislators in a letter she sent Wednesday to UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa.

Zaffirini is among several lawmakers who have made substantial records requests of the system, whose board of regents has been the subject of controversy and scrutiny. Legislators have accused some regents — who have made their own large records requests of the University of Texas at Austin, they say, as part of their duties as stewards of the system — of being on a "witch hunt" targeting the university's president, Bill Powers.

Tensions seemed to almost reach a breaking point in April, when Gene Powell, the chairman of the board of regents, sought to get permission from the attorney general to keep some sensitive documents from legislators, who are legally granted broad access to records in state agencies. The board ultimately reversed course, and agreed not to withhold any requested records — but apparently trust was not fully restored.

In her letter, Zaffirini asked that the UT system and board offices, which are separate, send the lawyers handling the documents relating to her requests to meet with her at her office.

“It was not a trick play,” she told the Tribune, which obtained her letter through a public records request.

In her letter she listed the topics she would like to discuss, including whether her requests were being handled through the normal processes, whether any documents gathered in response to her request were being sent to someone other than her and what the status was for the documents she hadn't received.

On Thursday afternoon, Cigarroa and Powell responded in writing.

"We interpret your request and other communications and comments you have made to imply concern on your part that the System is not fully complying with all of the legal requirements of the Texas Public Information Act," they wrote, also noting her apparent questions regarding "whether the System legal staff involved in the document production are acting consistent with their professional responsibilities."

They indicated that the four less senior attorneys Zaffirini specifically requested would only be sent to her office for a meeting if their respective bosses, Dan Sharphorn and Francie Frederick, the respective general counsels to the system and the board, were permitted to come along.

"If we cannot resolve this matter more personally, we believe the more appropriate forum in which to have your questions answered would be a public hearing of your committee or of another legislative panel," they wrote, committing to voluntarily providing any employee requested for testimony.

A joint oversight committee on higher education, which was assembled this session to look into concerns about the governance at the UT System, has yet to hold any substantive hearings, in part because lawmakers have been awaiting requested documents from the system to inform their line of questioning.

Zaffirini told the Tribune that if the system was moving slowly as part of a strategy to wait out the Legislative session, that plan was “doomed to fail.”

“We’re not going away,” she said. “In fact, during the interim, we can focus on this more.”

In addition to Cigarroa and Powell’s letter, the UT System sent Zaffirini responses from Sharphorn and Frederick to her proposed discussion items.

Sharphorn wrote that 30,000 to 35,000 documents have been gathered that are responsive to Zaffirini's requests. Of that amount, about 9,000 have been delivered to her office, and the rest are still being reviewed as to whether they will be tagged confidential. (Lawmakers must sign confidentiality agreements to handle sensitive materials.)

Sharporn indicated that reviewing the remaining documents "will take at least as long" as the first batch have, which would extend out beyond the final day of the regular session, May 27.

He also defended his staff, saying, "These individuals are well aware of the clear and unequivocal requirement to fully comply with the letter and spirit of these laws and they behave accordingly."

For the board office, Frederick noted that document production is "a very high priority" and said she is "absolutely confident" that no documents have been intentionally withheld or diverted from being produced to Zaffirini.

After receiving the response from the UT System, the senator told the Tribune that her concerns that documents are being withheld by the system — which she says dated back to 2011 — had not been alleviated, and she expressed displeasure with the approach of the chancellor and the chairman.

"I didn’t want a response in writing, because I knew it would be reviewed and edited and approved and supervised,” she said. “I didn't want something to carefully crafted. I wanted an honest, genuine response."

She also said she did not understand why the system would not permit the four less senior attorneys handling the documents to meet with her without their bosses present, especially after she indicated what she intended to ask them.

"To me, that's clearly indicating that they must have something to hide," she said. "If they had nothing to hide, why would they worry about it?"

More broadly, she questioned the tone of the system's leaders throughout the last two years of lawmakers — Zaffirini, in particular — raising questions about their governance.

"There's clear resistance to every request we make. It's like they automatically go into defense," she said. "Those are not the hallmarks of confident leadership. Those behaviors are characteristic of insecurity and anxiety."

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