Amongst Cheesy Emails, A Bitter Conflict Brews Over Open Records

Dozens of documents delivered to Empower Texans in response to a Public Information Act request for correspondence between outgoing UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and State Senator Judith Zaffirini demonstrate a complex relationship between the two officials. The emails and notes contain exchanges ranging from the sickeningly sweet to the downright bitter.

Emails and letters between the two powerful officials demonstrate a close degree of familiarity, with both Cigarroa and Zaffirini referring to each other by their first names. Cigarroa has served as the Chancellor of the UT System, and Zaffirini is a powerful state senator who has, at times, served as Chair of the State Senate Committee on Higher Education. Yet Zaffirini would address her emails to “Francisco” and sign them “Z” while Cigarroa would address his to “Judy,” often signing them “Abrazos, Francisco.” Many of the emails speak of the delivery of gifts from Zaffirini, including home and office décor and homemade pimento cheese spread.

Cigarroa has recently announced that he will resign as Chancellor of the UT System to become the head of the pediatric transplant team at the UT-Health Science Center in San Antonio. This resignation comes on the heels of a growing controversy over UT-Austin’s handling of open records requests.

Often the Chancellor and Senator would lay the flattery on thick when speaking of time spent together enjoying free box suites at UT football games. On September 11, 2012, Cigarroa emailed Zaffirini, telling her, “It was great being with you at the football game with a double dose of Carlos!! Abrazos, Francisco.” On October 21, 2012, Cigarroa doubled down on the schmooze, telling the Senator:

“I was thinking how much fun it was to have you, Carlos and Carlos at the football suite. Somehow, a football game is dull without your presence in our suite so I get a little jealous when you are in WP’s suite! I will ask Randa to see if she can get two seats available for the next game ….. I will keep my fingers crossed.”

The close relationship between the two officials would prove useful as documents show Zaffirini would recommend individuals for admission to UT Austin, while the UT System would work with Zaffirini on tuition revenue bond legislation.

However, the relationship between the Senator and Chancellor was not all roses. Documents delivered to Empower Texans reveal that Zaffirini sent two legislative requests to the University of Texas System and one public information request in her capacity as a private citizen. Those requests required the involvement of 63 people and the review of approximately 30,000 – 35,000 pages of documents. It was estimated that this work required 830 hours of attorney time at the UT System to deliver approximately 25,000 documents to Zaffirini. However, the response to Zaffirini’s requests was deemed unsatisfactory by the Senator.

On March 15, 2013, Zaffirini wrote in an email:

“I am exceedingly disappointed in the response to my letter. Frankly, I don’t understand such delays and what always seems to be an over-abundance of concern about what might be confidential—when, of course, usually it is not. Perhaps it’s time for the Board and System principals and personnel to engage in an overview of our state’s public information laws, including legislative access and expectations. I would appreciate your looking into this matter immediately and your ensuring that I receive a meaningful, substantive (not “piddly”) response by 5 p.m. today.” [emphasis added]

On April 13, 2013, Zaffirini followed up with another email to Cigarroa complaining of the labeling of documents as “confidential.” In the email she wrote:

“I am reviewing the materials identified by your staff as “confidential.” So far, however, I have seen nothing that could [sic] considered confidential, even by a stretch of my imagination. My concern is that this may be the same tactics used in 2011: Identify non-confidential material as “confidential” to delay making it public, and bury the actual confidential documents within dozens of non-confidential items. If you think I sound suspicious, it is because I am.[emphasis added]

On May 1, 2013, Zaffirini wrote Cigarroa stating that she was “concerned that documents have been withheld from the production(s) made in response to [her] document requests.” She demanded to meet with four UT System staff members at her office the following day at 8am and for them to answer a series of questions.

Even while these tense letters were being exchanged, thank you notes continued to be sent to Zaffirini’s office thanking her for repeated gifts of homemade pimento cheese. For example, a May 8, 2013 letter from Zaffirini to Cigarroa suggesting the employment of an outside document support firm to handle Zaffirini’s requests is followed immediately in the PIA response by a May 13 thank you note. Several other cheese-related thank you notes were sent on July 3, July 25, and August 26 of 2013.

However, real appreciation was showered on Zaffirini on June 13, 2013, when, in a redacted email from Cigarroa to “Judy,” he expressed his “million x900 Thanks!” in relation to UT’s requests for tuition revenue bonds, or TRBs. TRBs are bonds issued to universities to fund additional construction which are ostensibly backed by future tuition but are, in practice, paid-off by the state. A package of tuition revenue bonds nearly passed the legislature in 2013 but the bill died when House and Senate negotiators failed to agree on final specifics.

These exchanges raise some serious questions, but the most important one is this: If the state senator who sits in the chancellor’s box, who carries UT’s biggest legislative package, and who makes a monthly pimento cheese delivery to the chancellor’s office can’t get straight answers to a public information act request, what hope does the ordinary citizen have?

The full Public Information Act response from UT System can be viewed here.

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Tony McDonald

Tony McDonald serves as General Counsel for Empower Texans. A licensed and practicing attorney, Tony received his J.D. in 2012 from UT Law School. While in school, Tony served as Senior Vice Chairman for Young Conservatives of Texas and helped manage its legislative affairs. During the 83rd Texas Legislature he served as Chief of Staff for Rep. Jonathan Stickland. Tony resides in Austin and attends St. Paul Lutheran Church.

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