On Impeachment Probe, Committee in Uncharted Waters

Transparency in State Agency Operations Co-Chair, Rep. Dan Flynn, speaks to UT Law representatives during committee hearing on March 12th, 2013
Transparency in State Agency Operations Co-Chair, Rep. Dan Flynn, speaks to UT Law representatives during committee hearing on March 12th, 2013

A legislative committee charged with weighing the impeachment of University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall is easing its way into a process that has relatively little historical precedent or statutory guidance.

At the end of the first special session, Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, issued a proclamation expanding the scope of the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations to allow it to investigate whether or not articles of impeachment should be brought against Hall, an increasingly controversial figure on the UT board.

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, had filed a resolution that would have jump-started the impeachment process, but the House leadership decided to take a step back and have the committee look into the matter and decide how to proceed.

After two organizational meetings and a hearing with one invited witness — Jeff Archer, the chief legislative counsel of the Texas Legislative Council — the process is still a bit murky.

At Monday's hearing, Archer told the committee that there had been "very few" attempts to impeach public officials in the state's history. Only two have been successful: Gov. James "Pa" Ferguson, in 1917 — largely as a reaction to his decision to veto appropriations to the University of Texas at Austin — and O.P. Carrillo, a district judge who eventually served time for income tax fraud, in 1975.

Archer did not cite any examples of impeachment proceedings against an individual who was not a governor or a judge.

Hall has not been accused of any criminal wrongdoing. Pitts' resolution cited him for failing to disclose several lawsuits on his initial application to be a regent, for not following board policy in all his actions, and for filing "unreasonably burdensome, wasteful, and intrusive requests for information" of UT-Austin.

With little to go on besides Straus' proclamations and news reports regarding ongoing controversy on the UT System board, state Rep. Walter "Four" Price, R-Amarillo, suggested the committee use Pitt's resolution as a "roadmap, or at least a starting point" for their investigations.

Archer informed the committee that there were no clear standards and definitions for what constituted an impeachable offense.

"Common sense is going to play into a lot of this. Does it pass the smell test?" said state Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. "Does it make sense and does it make sense to the average person out there?"

At their second organizational meeting, committee co-chairs Dan Flynn, R-Canton, and Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, indicated that they might have a hearing at the end of July. But on Monday, they said they needed more time, and the next public hearing might not be until the end of August.

In the meantime, they will hire a special counsel and an investigator. They may hold a closed-door meeting once that hiring has occurred. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, also asked that they consider hiring a stenographer or court reporter for the committee's hearings.

Ultimately, after all the evidence has been gathered, the committee can decide whether or not to offer articles of impeachment. Martinez Fischer noted that the 1975 process was very involved, including many meetings and hours of public testimony, and resulted in 11 articles of impeachment.

If Hall's actions rise to the level of impeachable offenses, the committee can present its findings to the House. If the Legislature is not in session, the speaker can call the members back to specifically consider the issue of impeachment. If a majority vote to proceed with the charges, the matter goes to the Senate, which convenes as a court, with a two-thirds vote required to remove an official.

In a bit of a twist, Archer told the committee that, while the process could ultimately lead to the removal of an official, he was not sure the Legislature had the authority to disqualify Hall — or any other appointee the committee may decide to bring articles of impeachment against — from serving in a public capacity in the future. He noted that this could render the impeachment "somewhat moot."

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