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Paxton: UT Can't Block Regents' Requests for Information

Attorney General Ken Paxton on Tuesday boosted University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall's efforts to dig into admissions at UT-Austin by siding with Hall in a dispute over whether regents can have access to confidential student records.

UT Regent Wallace Hall speaks at a Texas Tribune event on Sept. 4, 2014.

Attorney General Ken Paxton on Tuesday boosted University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall's efforts to dig into admissions at UT-Austin by siding with Hall in a dispute over whether regents can have access to confidential student records.

Paxton didn't specifically order the university system to hand over any records. But he broadly stated in a letter to the system that universities can't withhold documents from regents if those records are necessary for the regent to do his or her job.

Paxton also seemed to dismiss the system's concerns about student privacy, saying federal privacy records don't prevent schools from giving regents records if they are part of an audit or evaluation of a state-supported program. 

The letter comes one day before the system's Board of Regents is set to meet. Regents are expected to discuss tightening restrictions on how individual regents can access information. It's unclear how they will respond to Paxton's letter.  

"We appreciate and respect the opinion of the Attorney General and the Board of Regents will consider the opinion in executive session during this week’s board meeting," a spokeswoman for the system said in a statement. 

Hall didn't immediately return a message seeking comment. 

Paxton's letter could block any effort on the docket to further restrict regents' access to information.  

"Access to records is a necessary part of a board member's fulfillment of his or her duties," Paxton wrote. 

Then, citing a prior statement by the attorney general's office in 1999, he wrote: "While a government body may adopt reasonable procedures with regard to timing, copying and process for review of records, 'a governmental body cannot adopt a policy that prevents a member of the body from performing the duties of office.'"

Hall and UT System administrators have been fighting over access to the student records for weeks. Hall is seeking supporting data and documents related to an investigation that found that dozens students with powerful connections appeared to get into UT-Austin even though they didn't appear to be qualified. The office of outgoing school President Bill Powers appeared to help many of those students get into school over the objections of the admissions office, the report said. 

After the report's release, UT System Chancellor William McRaven commissioned a "blue ribbon panel" to look into admissions policies and recommend possible changes. That panel is expected to report its findings on Thursday. 

But Hall has indicated that he has other questions, though he hasn't said what he wants to know. In the past, Hall has expressed interest in finding out the names of the influential people who used their power to get people into school. 

McRaven has resisted that effort, however. When Hall first requested the information, the UT System called a special meeting to discuss the matter. Regents voted 6-3 to deny Hall access to the information, but only two votes are needed to approve the request. Regents left the April meeting expecting Hall to see the documents, except for documents that were determined by system lawyers to violate federal student privacy laws. 

Later, however, McRaven emailed Hall and said he decided not to share the information. McRaven said he didn't see any official need for Hall to review the documents. McRaven said that he had declared the investigation into admissions closed and that it would require a majority vote by the full board to reopen it. 

Soon after, Hall wrote a letter to Paxton asking his office to weigh in. Hall is a big financial supporter of Paxton. Hall donated $35,500 to Paxton’s campaign when Paxton was running for office in 2014, according to the Texas Ethics Commission.

It's unclear whether the UT System will now turn over the documents. McRaven has already told Hall that he doesn't think the report's supporting documents are necessary for Hall to fulfill his duties. 

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

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