After being compelled to testify Tuesday before a legislative committee, one of the University of Texas System’s top lawyers hinted that the institution was beginning to experience negative side effects from the publicity generated by embattled regent Wallace Hall's dogged investigation of UT's flagship university.
“I think that Wallace Hall is a very principled man. I think his heart is good,” Francie Frederick, the general counsel to the board of regents, told lawmakers. “I think the distractions that have occurred over the last several years are unfortunate and are starting to detract from what is in the best interest of the University of Texas System.”
Hall, who has generated controversy since joining the board in 2011, is currently being investigated by the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Operations, which could file articles of impeachment against him. Among the accusations against him 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.
Frederick indicated she believed Hall's lawyers did not have the authority to view the information. Van Fleet later said he disagreed because Hall's lawyers are representing him in the impeachment investigation relating to his possession of those documents. But another senior attorney from the system also said that sharing the information with outside counsel was not permitted under federal privacy guidelines.
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, inquired about whether the sharing of the document had been a criminal act.
He cited state law — separate from the federal privacy laws — that makes the misuse or distribution of confidential information official misconduct punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and confinement in a county jail for up to six months.
The committee voted to instruct its special counsel, Houston attorney Rusty Hardin, to review the matter and refer it to proper legal authorities if necessary.
“That wasn’t a suggestion,” Van Fleet said afterward of Martinez Fischer’s comments. “That was a threat to Wallace, to me and to all of the lawyers working with him in these proceedings.
In her testimony, Frederick said when she learned that Hall had shared a document that was potentially protected, she became concerned and successfully sought to retrieve it. But she told lawmakers, “The idea that he had committed a crime was not on my mind, was not on my radar.”
The content of the document in question and what protected information may have been shared was not specified during the testimony. Hardin later told reporters that the committee members did not know, because they had yet to see the document. The committee issued a subpoena on Tuesday for the system to produce a large volume of documents from January 2011 to the present, including any and all documents or materials relating to regents' discussions of UT-Austin President Bill Powers, contact with the governor and his staff, and closed-door meetings at which a quorum of the regents was not present.
It is possible that the information at issue concerned a letter from state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, to University of Texas at Austin administrators recommending his son for admission to law school. Much of Tuesday’s discussion focused on that correspondence.
Hall’s desire to publicize the existence of such correspondence from a lawmaker is apparently what sparked Frederick’s concern and, upon realizing that the document might contain protected information, prompted her to retrieve it.
After Hall’s lawyers issued a public allegation that the university was subject to inappropriate political influence, though they did not name names, published reports quickly pointed the finger at Pitts. The powerful chairman of the House budget-writing committee has been a vocal critic of Hall’s, calling for his impeachment.
When Hardin asked Frederick if it seemed to her that private information was being used to retaliate against lawmakers, she said, “That is one possible scenario, but another is that someone made a very good guess.”
The UT System’s general counsel Dan Sharphorn also testified on Tuesday. He took issue with the way he and other system officials were characterized during a previous hearing in October.
Last month, UT-Austin's chief financial officer Kevin Hegarty said that the system had denied his requests for outside counsel to consult with regarding the handling of documents Hall requested. Sharphorn disputed that such a denial had occurred.
Lawmakers closed the hearing by teeing up a potentially fiery lineup when the committee reconvenes Dec. 18 and 19. They voted to issue subpoenas for UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and UT-Austin President Bill Powers to appear.
Committee members also indicated a desire to hear from Hall, though Hardin said they have not yet decided whether to issue him a subpoena or extend an invitation.
On behalf of Hall's team, Van Fleet said, “We invite their subpoena.”