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UT Board: Lawmakers May Not Observe Investigation

At a special meeting of the University of Texas System regents on Monday, the board unanimously voted to keep lawmakers out of the room during an investigation into alleged political influence in admissions at UT-Austin.

Regent Paul Foster at the University of Texas System Board of Regents meeting Aug. 22, 2013.

At a special meeting of the University of Texas System Regents on Monday, the board unanimously voted to keep lawmakers out of the room during interviews for an investigation of alleged political influence in admissions at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Last week, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, and state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, indicated that they planned on attending all interviews conducted during an external investigation of the flagship campus that was commissioned by the system. Kroll Associates, a New York-based investigation firm, was hired to conduct the investigation, and the system has agreed to pay them up to $145,000 for the service.

"The chancellor expressly charged that the investigation be independent, and to include one or more members of the Legislature in these interviews would compromise the independence and integrity of the interviews and of the investigation," Gene Powell, vice chairman of the board of regents, said when making a motion to support the independence of the "wholly external investigation."

Powell, in making the motion, also called the legislators' demand "an unwarranted, inappropriate and unprecedented legislative intrusion into a core executive branch function." 

Larson and Martinez Fischer are particularly interested in the goings-on at the university system because they were appointed to monitor it by their colleagues on the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, which voted to admonish and censure one of the system's regents, Wallace Hall, earlier this year.

Before that vote, the committee had investigated Hall for more than a year following concerns that were raised about the appropriateness of his personal investigations into the operations at the flagship university. Hall has denied any wrongdoing and said that he was duty-bound to look into activities at the university he believed were not above-board, including the admissions process.

Prior to Monday's regents meeting, Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, signaled a lack of enthusiasm for the legislators' proposal to be present during the external investigation and encouraged both the lawmakers and the system to find a workable compromise.

"Speaker Straus understands these legislators’ concerns about the transparency of the latest investigation into the UT-Austin administration," Jason Embry, the speaker's spokesman, said in a statement. "But he also recognizes that this needs to be a fully independent review, which is why he hopes that UT System officials and legislators will get together and agree on a constructive way to address those concerns. The speaker is ready to work with all parties to move forward and focus on what’s best for UT institutions and the students they serve."

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

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