May 12, 2014
Ralph Haurwitz | Austin American-Statesman
By a 7-1 vote Monday that made history, a state House panel concluded that grounds exist for impeaching a University of Texas System regent.
But members of the Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations held out hope that Regent Wallace L. Hall Jr. would short-circuit the process by stepping down.
Absent such a move, the panel’s next step is to write up the reasons Hall ought to be removed from office, also known as articles of impeachment. No timetable has been set for that chore, although the panel canceled its meeting for Tuesday and said it would meet May 21 and 22. If panel members vote to approve at least one article, that would constitute a formal recommendation of impeachment.
Hall’s critics say his relentless demands for records from the Austin campus and other activities show he approached his role like “a roving inspector general in search of a problem rather than a solution,” as the committee’s outside counsel put it.
Hall’s defenders say that impeaching him would have a chilling effect and that regents ought to be encouraged to ask tough questions.
Monday’s action marked the first time that a Texas legislative committee voted on whether grounds exist for impeaching a gubernatorial appointee. Only two people have been impeached in the state’s history, both of them elected.
“The outcome of today’s vote will be setting a standard on appointee conduct for years to come,” said Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, co-chair of the transparency committee.
Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, urged the UT System Board of Regents to hold a no-confidence vote on Hall in an effort to press him to step down.
“If he’s not here, there’s no reason to impeach him,” said Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, the other co-chair. He said the regents “should have done something about this and they didn’t.”
A report by Rusty Hardin, a prominent lawyer and former prosecutor in Houston hired by the committee, found four grounds for impeachment: Hall’s requests for massive amounts of records from the Austin campus, his handling of confidential student information, his negative actions toward UT-Austin President Bill Powers and other university officials, and his advocacy before a national standards-setting group against the university’s position in a fundraising dispute.
Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, cast the lone vote against finding that grounds exist for impeachment. He said the panel had not heard all sides of the matter, a reference to Hall’s refusal to testify without a subpoena, which the committee declined to grant.
Hall said in a written statement that he has sought to protect the interests of students, faculty, staff and taxpayers.
“When a Board encounters problems, cover-ups, and intransigence at a taxpayer-funded institution, is the proper response to hold those who are responsible accountable, or to impeach the board member?” Hall said. “If the Transparency Committee desires transparency, it should not seek ways to interfere with investigations that would expose improper conduct at the University of Texas.”
If the panel recommends impeachment and the House follows suit, the Senate presumably would conduct a trial to determine whether Hall should be removed from office. But in what has at times felt like a six-act play, it’s impossible to predict how things might evolve. Monday’s drama featured some unexpected plot twists.
Flynn, who had told fellow committee members in a letter last week that he didn’t think Hall’s actions warranted impeachment, wound up voting with the majority. So did Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, who had said that the committee should first adopt a final report on its investigation and see whether a criminal investigation of Hall reaches a point where prosecutors refuse to bring charges, a grand jury indicts the regent or a grand jury no-bills him.
The committee’s co-chairs previously referred Hardin’s report to the Travis County district attorney’s office. The office’s Public Integrity Unit has confirmed that an investigation is underway.
A spokeswoman for the UT System did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Hall’s six-year term on the board, to which he was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, expires February 2017.
The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education called the committee’s action necessary in light of Hall’s refusal to step aside. Coalition members include former presidents of UT-Austin and Texas A&M University, CEOs of various Texas companies and numerous civic leaders and philanthropists.
“This is a somber day,” the coalition said in a statement. “No one is excited about a vote like this but it was, unfortunately, warranted.”
Thomas Lindsay, director of higher education for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, called the vote “a powerful deterrent to future efforts to ensure transparency in government, and therefore directly contrary to the best interest of our public higher-education system.”
House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, whose charge to the committee last June set its investigation in motion, commended the panel for its work. “As that work continues, I hope the Board will take its own steps to address the trust that has been broken among Regents and the harm that some Regents have inflicted on the UT System,” Straus said in a written statement.
Monday’s meeting drew dozens of spectators, including Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson. She told the American-Statesman that the contentious relationship between some regents and the Austin flagship needs to heal, and she put herself squarely in support of Powers and his administration.
“I believe in President Powers and the administration and the faculty of this great university,” Johnson said. “It’s a grievous state for one regent to put all of us through. It needs to stop, and there are a variety of ways that could come about.”
Johnson’s mother, Lady Bird Johnson, was a UT regent, and Johnson will deliver the convocation address to UT nursing graduates on Friday.