Politics
4:51 pm
Mon July 15, 2013

Committee Weighs Impeaching UT Regent: How We Got Here and What's Next

Update: The Texas House Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations met Monday to discuss an investigation that could lead to impeachment proceedings against a University of Texas System Regent.

The committee is tasked with deciding which articles for impeachment it could possibly bring against Wallace Hall. But at a committee hearing, lawmakers found there's little historic precedent to guide the process. According to Jeff Archer with the Texas Legislative Counsel, there have been few attempts to impeach a public official in Texas and there’s no definition or standard for what’s considered an impeachable offense. 

At the end of the regular legislative session, House Speaker Joe Straus issued a proclamation giving the House Transparency Committee the authority to investigate the claims made against Hall. Representative Walter Price suggested that’s where the committee should start its investigation.

“That’s the only thing we’ve got that says here are some ongoing or previous acts that might rise to the level of an impeachable action. At least that’s the claim," Price said.

Hall is not charged with any crime. But others have characterized his broad open records requests of the UT Austin administration as a “witch hunt.” Hall also has been accused of not disclosing lawsuits he was involved in when he was appointed to the Board of Regents.

The Transparency Committee’s next step is to hire outside counsel and an investigator.

KUT's Kate McGee contributed to this report.

Original Story (11:48 a.m.): Simmering tension between the Texas Legislature and the University of Texas Board of Regents may be reaching a boil: A legislative committee created to mind the regents meets today to discuss how to increase oversight and possibly the impeachment of regent Wallace Hall.

On June 24 Rep. Jim Pitts filed a resolution to impeach Hall. The next day, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, authorized the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations to investigate allegations of misconduct against the Board of Regents and propose articles of impeachment if deemed necessary. 

Strauss wrote in a statement on his website:

"This proclamation will allow the committee to monitor the conduct of executive appointees – including university regents – to ensure they are acting in the best interest of the agencies and institutions they govern.

There is a significant difference between appropriate strategic oversight and destructive conduct that could be detrimental to our public institutions and the people who work in them.

The proclamation will also authorize the committee to investigate misconduct of these officers and – if the committee determines that grounds for impeachment exist – propose articles of impeachment."

The committee is scheduled to hear invited testimony today, beginning at 12:30 p.m. An investigative meeting is tentatively set for the end of the month. Committee co-chair Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, tells KUT News the group is “an investigating committee, to see if there are charges, and if there are charges that have substantial reason to go forward.”

Competing Visions

While state reps and regents battle, the fight is seen by many as a clash between Gov. Rick Perry and UT President Bill Powers for the future of UT’s flagship campus.

Gov. Perry and Powers came out at odds in 2008, when Perry announced his administration’s  “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” for higher education in Texas.  Though Powers acknowledged the proposal's intentions, he countered that there are better ways  to get “from point A to point B.” The solutions – drafted by a conservative think tank – were attacked by many in the academic community.

The Rumor Mill

Conflict between the two leaders ratcheted up last year, when the regents rejected a tuition increase proposed by Powers. Despite approving tuition raises for most other UT System schools, the regents instead implemented a two-year freeze on UT-Austin tuition. Powers in response publicly announced he was “disappointed that [the] proposal was not adopted.” Powers’ public disapproval immediately prompted rumors about his job security.

Students rallied to the UT president’s side. Social media campaigns quickly exploded on Twitter and Facebook and supporters inundated the Board of Regents office with calls and mail.  

Members of the Texas Legislature also rushed to offer Powers bipartisan support. Lt. Governor David Dewhurst made an impassioned and nearly tearful entreaty on his behalf, while Rep. Dan Branch filed two resolutions honoring Powers’ accomplishments at the university. No direct action was taken towards Powers.

Open Records or ‘Witch Hunts?’

Despite the public displays of support for Powers from students and legislature, the Board of Regents – who are appointed by Perry – took an investigative approach. Particularly Regent Wallace Hall, who began making voluminous open records requests of UT System records – a move some lawmakers began calling a “witch hunt.”

Concerns about the regents’ focus on Powers prompted Senate Bill 15, a measure to limit the Board of Regents. The billed passed easily in both the house and the senate with bipartisan support – although it was vetoed by Gov. Perry. In his veto statement Perry wrote “History has taught us that the lack of board oversight in both the corporate and university settings diminishes accountability and provides fertile ground for organizational malfeasance.”