After the protests, the lawsuits, the scathing editorials, and the state Legislature's disdain when Texas Woman's University was forced to go co-ed last year, the last thing the members of TWU's board need now is to testify before a Denton County grand jury for allegedly destroying public records.
But, thanks to the efforts of a 53-year-old TWU journalism student, the Denton County District Attorney's Office is conducting an investigation, however halfheartedly, into that very thing. For the regents, and their attorney John Lawhon, the investigation is just the latest in a series of public embarrassments they have endured at the hands of TWU junior Lenni Lissberger.
It seems that Lissberger, former editor of campus newspaper The Lasso and an aspiring religion reporter, doesn't think the regents believe in conducting the university's business in public. She has embarked on a year-long campaign to keep them honest, which has included lobbying the Legislature, talking to the media, and finally, pressing a criminal complaint against the board.
At 53, she is a "non-traditional" student, returning to college after a divorce and raising her kids. Lissberger joined the journalism program more as a way to tie numerous liberal-arts classes into a degree than for a love of the discipline.
It all started last December, the night the Lasso editors sent the semester's final issue to press. Late into the evening, the regents faxed to the paper notice of the fateful meeting where they would vote to accept men as undergraduates. The notice came too late to make the newspaper. "I got the gut feeling that they just didn't want a large crowd at that meeting," Lissberger says. "They were trying to get as little input as they could."
Because of that belated fax, Lissberger started a campaign against the university's governing body for breaking the law and violating the public's trust, she says.
"Texas requires 72 hours notice" of a meeting, she says. "It came too late, and the way it was stated, it did not look like they were going to vote on it. It looked like they were going to discuss it, and it was too late to put in the paper, anyway. I just thought that was real tacky."
The next day, the campus was in turmoil and Lissberger and the Lasso staff began putting out a special edition on the end of TWU's status as the largest women's university in the U.S.
Later, Lissberger attended an executive board meeting of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. She told the directors how the regents had waited until the last minute to let people know about their meeting.
The foundation directors told her that state law only required that the university post notice of their meetings in Austin. It was not required to post on campus, or in Denton, for that matter. The thing to do, they told her, was to get the law changed.
"As I was leaving the meeting, someone said, 'Go get 'em, Lenni.' I thought, 'Oh, shit...that was what they were supposed to do.' I went home and thought: How in the hell do you go about getting the law changed?"
Lissberger talked to assistants to state Representative Jim Horn, who represents Denton. Horn quickly drafted a bill that would require universities to post notice of their meetings in the county wherein those meetings will take place, and to advertise them in campus newspapers. The bill passed unanimously in the state House and Senate. "You'd have to look all across the state to find someone who didn't like that bill," Horn says.
Now the TWU regents are taking great pains to conform to the new law, posting their agendas in a wide variety of places around Denton and in Austin. "Particularly after the law change, the regents and the president (Carol Surles) felt strongly that the university be aggressive about informing the public," says Ann Hatch, TWU spokeswoman.
"Lenni is living proof of what a citizen can do," says Nancy Monson, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. "She went to her legislature and virtually changed the law. That is a wonderful example of activism. Citizens really do have to uphold these laws. The media can't do it alone."
Lissberger's battle, however, wasn't over yet. On June 23, the regents held a closed vote during an open meeting on the university's Houston campus. Lenni took umbrage. "The one thing that allows us to know what our regents are doing is how they vote," she says. "I couldn't believe it. I looked around at everybody's faces to see if it was bothering anybody else, and it didn't seem to be."
Later, Lissberger asked for the yellow ballot papers that the regents used to cast their votes, but was told she couldn't have them. Back at the Denton campus, she says, Lawhon told her the ballots had been destroyed. Lawhon declined to discuss the ballots with the Observer.
Lissberger contends the yellow slips are state property which, as such, cannot legally be destroyed. "It is his [Lawhon's] responsibility to preserve state records," she says. "I mean, there are explicit circumstances where you can destroy state records and that isn't it."
The Attorney General's Office in Austin told her that destroying state records is a criminal offense. So she went to the Denton D.A.'s office and filed a complaint with its white-collar crimes division. In September, Denton County assistant district attorney Phil Morris told her his office would investigate the case and get back to her. "They are supposed to be looking into it," she says.
"What do they want us to do? Throw Lawhon in jail?" asked Denton County assistant district attorney Kevin Henry, who refers cases to the Denton County grand jury.
"I really don't think it will come to that," Lissberger says. "Still, the whole exercise has been instructive, to say the least.
"I just wanted to make them cognizant that they have a responsibility to inform the public," she says. "I don't know if they are aware of their responsibility or if they are ignoring their responsibility, but they do have a responsibility to the people they serve. They are our servants.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- Houston vs Dallas: How Super Bowl Performers Stack Up
Thu., Feb. 11, 7:00pm
Fri., Feb. 12, 8:00pm
Sat., Feb. 13, 2:00pm
Sat., Feb. 13, 7:00pm
- A Texas Doctor Again Puts on His Hat as Virus Hunter
- Why the Crackdown on K2 Among Downtown's Homeless Won't Work