Transparency Committee Votes to Censure UT Regent Hall
In a 6-1 vote on Monday, the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations approved a motion to admonish and censure University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall for “misconduct, incompetency in the performance of official duties, or behavior unbefitting a nominee for and holder of a state office.”
The focus of the committee's inquiry has been the regent’s behavior since being appointed to the board in 2001, in particular his lengthy personal investigations of the University of Texas at Austin administration and his subsequent handling of private student information.
Some of Hall’s findings, such as his allegations that the flagship university is subject to undue political influence in its admissions processes, have led to formal inquiries and policy changes.
However, in their 28-page motion, the primary author of which was state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, a majority of the members agreed that, “Even if the committee were to accept all of Mr. Hall’s state reasons for his actions, his methods merit censure.”
State Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, was the lone dissenting vote.
In comments made to reporters, committee co-chair Dan Flynn, R-Van, stressed the historic nature of the vote to censure a sitting regent, which to his knowledge had never been done before.
Co-Chair Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, emphasized that, were there to be new developments, approving articles of impeachment at some point in the future remains on option. “A vote to censure is not a vote against impeachment,” she said.
The committee’s next meeting,on October 6, will be on matters not related to UT. But while the committee prepares to move on to other issues the co-chairs insisted that they will keep an eye on UT. Committee members state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, and state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, have been assigned the task of continuing to monitor the situation.
Meanwhile, multiple investigations that have resulted from Hall’s activities remain ongoing.
The UT System announced on Monday that they have hired Kroll Associates, an investigative firm with offices in Bastrop and Dallas, to examine admissions practices at UT-Austin.
Earlier this year, the legislative committee referred legal questions about Hall’s handling of private student information to Travis County prosecutors, who opened a criminal investigation.
In a letter sent to his fellow members of the Texas House Republican Caucus on Monday, Flynn wrote that “it is understood the committee should be receiving feedback soon” from Travis County officials.
Flynn’s letter also provided insight into some of his thinking about the investigation.
While he wrote that he believes Hall was attempting to fulfill his fiduciary duties, Flynn continued, “However, his disruptive, flippant and defiant behavior towards university officials and members of the legislature is absolutely inexcusable for someone in his position.”
In his letter, Flynn expressed particular frustration at Hall’s refusal to cooperate with the committee by accepting their invitations to testifying or to suggest witnesses.
“If Regent Hall's efforts were truly meant to protect the integrity and interests of the University, why then did he fail to turn over his findings to proper legal authority?” Flynn wrote. “He also refused to participate in the process, cooperate with officials, and refused the multiple opportunities presented for him to justify his actions.”
The co-chairman also went after other UT System officials, saying, “The complete failure of the University of Texas System to handle this personnel matter internally is equally as troubling as the rogue actions of Regent Hall himself.”
The House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations will weigh multiple options on Monday when it meets to seek some closure to an investigation of University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall that has lasted more than a year. Among the options: voting on articles of impeachment against Hall, waiting on the results of a separate criminal investigation, issuing guidelines for all regents or considering another type of reprimand.
"At this point, everything’s on the table," committee co-chair Dan Flynn, R-Van, said on Friday.
Hall has been accused of abusing his authority and mishandling private student information in his personal investigations of the administration of the University of Texas at Austin. The regent has denied any wrongdoing and said his efforts have been in line with the oversight responsibilities of his position. He and his attorneys have alleged that, among other things, the university has allowed political influence to creep into its admissions processes. The system has announced an external investigation of the matter.
The legislative committee launched an investigation of Hall last summer. Earlier this year, the committee's special counsel, Houston-based attorney Rusty Hardin, issued a report laying out four possible grounds for impeachment of Hall. In a 7-1 vote in May, the committee voted that grounds for impeaching Hall exist. They have since been working on drafting specific articles of impeachment.
At the committee's last hearing in July, members expressed an openness to stopping short — for the time being, at least — of approving such articles. Travis County prosecutors are currently conducting an investigation of Hall's handling of student information. While members of the committee indicated a desire to take some sort of action in the near future, some suggested they preferred to wait until that effort has concluded before tabling or approving any articles of impeachment.
"We need to step back and take a hard look at issuing a statement, and not necessarily taking impeachment off the table, but allowing that to be something that we might revisit if and when there are criminal indictments," Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, said at the July hearing.
In his comments, Price took exception to some critics' framing of the inquiry as being merely over a regent asking too many questions.
"There’s a right way to ask questions and there’s a wrong way to ask questions," he said. "There’s a right way to express an opinion and there’s a wrong way to do it."
Price encouraged his fellow board members to seriously consider issuing "a public reprimand or censure that outlines some of that information and gives not only a statement or a conclusion on some of those issues … but also gives some guidance and sets forth a message that allows [the board] to do [its] job in a productive way going forward."
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, also said the situation might call for a response that was broader in focus than a single regent. "Maybe a more considerable exercise of this committee should be: Forget articles of impeachment for Wallace Hall, let’s just write the best practice for systems throughout the state," he said.
In the July hearing, there was a strong sense that the committee's work on the issue had run its course. Before beginning her questioning of witnesses, state Rep. Naomi Gonzalez, D-El Paso, likened the matter to a dead horse.
"It’s dead and I don’t want to make it deader," she said.
On Monday, the committee is expected — as it has at all of its hearings — to spend a significant chunk of time behind closed doors in executive session.
On Friday, Flynn indicated that he was hopeful that agreement can be reached in that discussion that will allow the group to put the matter of to rest for the time being.
"I’m going in with high expectations, but I understand there are still conversations that need to be held," he said."We’re going to look at it, come out of our discussion and hopefully we can set a date to move on to other issues."
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Rusty Hardin was a major donor to the Tribune in 2012 and 2013. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/08/11/transparency-committee-exploring-multiple-options/.