State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, wants to know: Who are the peacocks? Who are the charlatans? And who are they fighting?
Those were just a few of the questions he had for University of Texas System Regent Brenda Pejovich on Tuesday at a meeting of the House Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations.
Pejovich was called before the committee to testify about her work as chairwoman of the system's task force on best practices regarding affiliated foundation relationships, which was formed after questions arose about the relationship between the University of Texas Law School Foundation and the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.
But Martinez Fischer also had questions about the ongoing controversy surrounding the system board's governance and the amount to which it is influenced by Gov. Rick Perry or the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based conservative think tank.
Martinez Fischer, who has requested many documents from the UT System and received more than 12,000, cited an email addressed to Pejovich and fellow regents Alex Cranberg, Wallace Hall and Paul Foster from someone with the initials "RP."
In a March 1 email cited by Martinez Fischer and obtained by the Tribune, "RP" expressed sympathy to the regents about how they "get tired of being hammered by charlatans and peacocks," but reassured them that "the fight is being won."
"RP" compared the fight to World War II's Battle of the Bulge, "when only a few hundred yards were gained a day and fighting was viciously personal and brutal."
Pejovich confirmed that "RP" was Perry, but she declined to comment on the contents of the email.
When asked what fight the governor appeared to be referring to, Pejovich responded: "I have not talked to him specifically about this email. That's a question for him."
"In general, the governor's communications with the regents of all our public universities are about keeping higher education in Texas accessible, accountable and affordable," Perry spokesman Josh Havens told the Tribune when asked about the email.
Pejovich declined to speculate as to who the peacocks or charlatans might be. Havens also declined to provide that information.
Martinez Fischer also cited a series of emails from January in which "RP" asked a potential UT System regent to go to dinner with Cranberg, Perry's director of appointments Bech Bruun, and Jeff Sandefer, a businessman and key adviser to Perry on higher education issues.
The representative pressed Pejovich for information regarding Sandefer, who also serves on the TPPF board along with Pejovich. In 2008, at a TPPF event, Perry endorsed seven "breakthrough solutions" for higher education that were drafted by Sandefer.
Those recommendations later became a flashpoint for controversy over higher education policy in Texas that has lasted at least two years.
"I don't think I've talked to him, to the best of my recollection, in a very long time," Pejovich said of Sandefer.
But Sandefer still has the governor's ear. According to an email obtained by the Tribune, after their meeting, RP asked Cranberg and Sandefer if their dinner companion had "the philosophy, wherewithal, loyalty to be a positive influence on the UT BOR?"
The individual in question was ultimately not among Perry's appointees to the board, whose nominations are expected to be considered by the Senate Nominations Committee on May 20.
When asked, Pejovich said she did not know why the governor would be asking regents or potential regents to meet with Sandefer.
Martinez Fischer asked for Pejovich's thoughts about concerns that outside forces were influencing the board of regents. She said she was not aware of outside influences and added that she did not think it was a conflict of interest for her to serve on both the UT System board and the TPPF board. "I can't speak to what someone thinks about an appearance," she said.
The representative concurred that there wasn't a conflict of interest, which he called "a magical word," but said, "I'm talking about optics. I'm talking about best practices." He referenced the embattled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas board as an example of why such matters were of concern.
Martinez Fischer asked if Pejovich believed the regents should have a written code of conduct establishing a separation from outside influence.
After some back and forth, Pejovich said, "Is it worth looking into? Yes. What would it ultimately look like? That, I would have to give some thought to."
After Martinez Fischer finished questioning the regent, committee co-chairman Dan Flynn, R-Van, said that Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, had indicated the transparency committee would continue to operate after the session ends.
Flynn told Pejovich that committee members would remain interested in her work on the task force, which is expected to produce recommendations to the UT System board in July.
The task force's scope is forward-looking and systemwide rather than focused on past dealings at UT-Austin. Flynn and other committee members indicated that they wanted Pejovich to be sure that the task force's work was reviewed by outside, independent advisers.