Former UT System lawyer says job fears ‘epidemic’

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The former general counsel for the University of Texas System told lawmakers Wednesday there is an “epidemic” of employees fearing for their jobs if they conflict with regents.

Barry Burgdorf testified before a House panel investigating possible impeachment of Regent Wallace Hall, who some lawmakers have accused of misusing the authority of his position to try to force out Austin campus President Bill Powers.

Burgdorf said he left his job in May after he was told Hall and three other board members wanted him fired. Burgdorf believed it was because his review of a University of Texas law school loan program wasn’t critical enough of Powers.

“I think there is a clear intent to get rid of Bill Powers,” Burgdorf said.

When asked if other system employees feared for the jobs, Burgdorf said, “I think that’s an epidemic at the moment.”

The House Select Transparency in State Agency Operations Committee is investigating several allegations against Hall, including whether he withheld information on his application for appointment, abused open records laws with requests for more than 800,000 pages of documents, and released private student or employee information.

The panel can also determine if Hall’s actions amounted to malfeasance or misuse of his office. If it recommends impeachment, the matter goes to the full House.

Hall did not attend the hearing but is expected to testify when the panel meets again Nov. 12-13. Hall attorney, Allan Van Fleet, has not been allowed to cross-examine witnesses and has questioned whether Hall can get an impartial hearing.

“Wallace looks forward to telling his side of the story,” Van Fleet said.

Van Fleet has said Hall raised important questions about political influence over university admissions, fundraising and the law school loan program, and denies Hall released any legally protected information to the public.

Hall isn’t the only regent who has clashed with Powers over issues such as tuition and graduation rates, the roles of teaching and research, and other issues. Powers is believed to have a slim majority of support on the board, and the power struggle has led prominent alumni to rally in his support.

Burgdorf said UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa told him in January that Hall and “others aligned with him are unhappy with me and are going to make my life difficult.”

Burgdorf said he believed the other regents unhappy with him were then-Chairman Gene Powell, Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich.

The committee also heard from Teresa Spears, Gov. Rick Perry’s former director of appointments in 2010 when Hall was appointed. Lawmakers have accused Hall of being dishonest by not listing all of the lawsuits he was involved with on his application, which he updated in April.

Spears said she didn’t consider the omissions an attempt to mislead the governor’s office.

Robert Haley, director of the Senate Committee on Nominations, said the information should have been included but that it’s “too hard to tell” if it would have made a difference in Hall’s confirmation.

On a previous application to another board in 2008, Hall attached a letter saying he could provide more information about litigation if needed.

Background checks are typically left to the governor’s office, but Haley said the committee will do more robust vetting of candidates the future.

“We have operated on the honor system,” Haley said. “This has opened up a lot of eyes.”

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