Committee Weighing Its Options on Wallace Hall
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/.