UT System hides ‘threat’ e-mail, offers semantic excuse

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas system, has finished an inquiry into favoritism in admissions at UT Austin.

There never existed anything so preposterous as an informed electorate.

Every few years, they let us press a red button or a blue button and tell us that’s what keeps public officials in check. The thing that really keeps them behaving, though, is the threat of embarrassment, the possibility that one’s craven and villainous behavior will go on public display.

That’s why the press matters, and why public records law matters. If officials can keep all their wrongdoing secret, the rest of democracy’s mechanisms are just for show. The basic problem with public records laws is the bad guys are the ones who get to decide how much they tell you about what they’re doing wrong. And there’s rarely anyone who forces them to be honest.

This is why Wallace Hall matters. He was willing to spend months going over the University of Texas’s response to public information requests to hold them accountable, and he’s facing impeachment for his trouble.

The University of Texas, meanwhile, is still wholly unaccountable. Eight months after the attorney general’s office ruled on Hall’s request for correspondence between the university’s president and lawmakers, the university still hasn’t produced it.

Even the UT System, which has been a little more forthcoming than the school itself, is utterly evasive when its own interests are at stake. I offer one simple example.

On April 3, I asked for copies of “all email communications during the past 60 days between and among the UT Regents, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, UT Austin President Bill Powers and Nancy Brazzil.”

I wanted to check on the fallout from Cigarroa’s announced retirement, and there was one email in particular I was after: an email from Hall to the other regents, and Gov. Rick Perry, that referred to a threat Powers allegedly made against Cigarroa in front of Vice Chancellor Pedro Reyes.

I offered to narrow that down “to just emails between Wallace Hall and the other regents, Chancellor Cigarroa, and President Powers,” on April 14, after an attorney from the UT System said the initial request would involve “thousands of pages,” and probably take awhile.

Ralph Haurwitz of the Austin American-Statesman ended up scooping me, publishing a story April 22, about that March 19 email. It was a heck of a story — it appears the regents already knew that Reyes had witnessed the threat. I wouldn’t expect either Reyes or Cigarroa to show up anywhere the press might ask them about it, not for a while.

Now, I’m not jelly. My problem is the email that arrived in my inbox Monday from that attorney informing me “System maintains no information responsive to your request.”

Now, if Powers has something on Cigarroa, or even an insinuation he can make about him, I can understand why Cigarroa’s office wouldn’t want to release emails that draw attention to that fact. But it’s still obligated to do so.

In any other circumstance, I would have had no way of knowing they were being evasive. So I wrote back, asking the attorney to explain her determination, given “the Statesman has already reported on the e-mail I was seeking.”

Her response was stunning. Now, I have a high tolerance for semantic hair-splitting. I’m in that small minority that thinks President Clinton was perfectly accurate to insist the meaning of his sworn testimony “depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

But if you’re going to play that game, if you’re going to pretend to misunderstand a perfectly clear sentence on account of some fine point of grammar, you have to actually know the rules of grammar.

Here’s her position: “System does not maintain any emails to or from Wallace Hall to another regent that includes Chancellor Cigarroa and President Powers. The email you have attached below is an email from Wallace Hall to Chairman Foster only and does not include Chancellor Cigarroa or President Powers and is therefore, not responsive to your request.”

Got that? Only emails sent to all of the parties count as “emails between Wallace Hall and the other regents, Chancellor Cigarroa, and President Powers.”

Gosh, if I’d only used “among” and maybe “and/or,” I would’ve gotten my email.

This is absurd. Bryan A. Garner, the nation’s leading authority on grammar and legal usage, explains that “between” is properly used with two objects, or many.

Garner writes, “the only ironclad distinction is that stated by the OED (Oxford English Dictionary): between expresses one-to-one relations of many things, and among expresses collective and undefined relations.”

The “many things,” in my case, would be Hall, Cigarroa, Powers and the rest of the regents, and the “one-to-one relations” would be the e-mails between any of them, no matter who got cc’ed.

The correct way to say it, in other words, is exactly the way I said it, not in other words.

My point, of course, isn’t that I speak good English. It’s not even that Cigarroa’s office would rather hide behind lawyerly quibbles than be honest and open. It’s that this sort of evasiveness is the norm with all government agencies, not the exception, and every reporter knows this from experience.

The only thing unusual about UT is that somebody in charge actually questioned it.

Contact Jon Cassidy at jon@watchdog.org or @jpcassidy000. If you would like to send him documents or messages anonymously, download the Tor browser and go to our SecureDrop submission page: http://5bygo7e2rpnrh5vo.onion

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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