AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst gave an emotional defense of embattled University of Texas President Bill Powers on Monday, accusing members of the school's Board of Regents of engaging in "character assassination" in efforts to force him out.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Dewhurst said an anonymous letter was being distributed among regents that mentioned Powers' family, though he provided no details and declined to discuss it later.
Powers has been fighting off political criticism of his leadership for the last couple of years, and he is believed to have a slim majority of support among regents. Senate and House lawmakers passed resolutions supporting Powers' leadership of the flagship Austin campus, though Dewhurst's angry and tearful comments were the first mention of any personal attacks.
"You leave your family out of it," Dewhurst said. "I'm really mad."
The university has recently been embroiled in a fight with former women's track coach Bev Kearney, who was fired for having an inappropriate relationship with a student-athlete a decade ago. Her attorney has said Kearney wasn't treated fairly, and the university recently disclosed that a current assistant football coach was reprimanded but not fired in 2009 for inappropriate contact with a student trainer on a trip to a bowl game.
Powers, who met his wife while she was attending the university's law school while he was a professor, declined to comment on Dewhurst's remarks. Powers and his wife, whom he married after she graduated in 1981, have three children.
"Don't get involved in making attacks on spouses, family and staff. That's a low blow and that's beneath, I think, the code of decency," Dewhurst said.
The show of legislative support could be critical for Powers, since regents are appointed by Gov. Rick Perry and three of their terms expire this year. Lawmakers from both parties publicly complimented Powers as he stood at the front of the Senate chamber, after which he said: "I enjoyed the ceremony and I want to leave it at that."
A statement from Gene Powell, the University of Texas System Board of Regents chairman, and Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa also praised Powers for his leadership but did not address any letter or internal discussion of Powers' family.
Several senators who spoke in support of Powers later said they were unaware of the personal attacks mentioned by Dewhurst. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said the Senate, which holds confirmation power over Perry's appointees, supports Powers.
"Today was a demonstration of how we feel about him," West said.
Some lawmakers were willing to point directly to Perry's office on efforts to oust Powers, including Sen. Kel Seliger. The Amarillo Republican and chair of the Senate's higher education committee said responsibility for regents' actions ultimately falls to the governor.
"He appoints them, and quite frankly he directs the activities of the people he appoints," Seliger said. "I'm not going to make an accusation, but it looks how it looks."
Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed sidestepped such criticism, noting that "people are honored nearly every day in the Texas Legislature during session."