Higher Ed Group: Regent Investigation "Off the Rails"

Updated, April 9, 1:50 p.m.: 

Embattled University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall received support on Wednesday from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a national nonprofit known for encouraging university trustees to take a more hands-on approach to governance.

Anne D. Neal, the president of ACTA, issued a statement saying the Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations' investigation of Hall, which could lead to articles of impeachment being recommended against him, was "simply off the rails."

Neal has spoken out on Hall's behalf before. The latest statement was prompted by the release of a report to the legislative committee, prepared by its special counsel, laying out potential bases for Hall's impeachment, including allegations that he abused his office by personally conducting multiple investigations into the operations at the University of Texas at Austin.

In her statement, Neal decried the cost of the hearings, which she placed at more than $400,000, as well as the way the special counsel's report leaked to media prior to being made public.

"Impeachment is a rare sanction reserved only for serious wrongdoing, not a threat to use when there are differences of opinion," she wrote. "We saw at Penn State what happens when trustees simply go along with their presidents. Texas can’t allow itself to slide into this kind of rubber-stamp governance. And it shouldn’t let its legislature engage in expensive witch hunts designed to discourage public servants from asking tough questions in pursuit of the public interest."

A statewide group, the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, which was formed in 2011 in opposition to proposed changes to higher education at the UT System and elsewhere, had a different take on the special counsel's report.

In a statement issued on behalf of the coalition by its spokeswoman, Jenifer Sarver, it applauded the legislative committee and said the findings in the special counsel's report were "deeply troubling and warrant further action." 

"The findings in this report indicate that Regent Hall has betrayed the public trust and abused his appointed position in vindictive and damaging ways," the statement said. "The behaviors and actions documented in this report are not consistent with the way Texans expect our state boards and agencies to be governed."

Original Story, April 8, 1:40 p.m.: 

In a letter to the legislative committee mulling articles of impeachment against University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall of Dallas, a lawyer for the regent accused the group of being "not serious about its mission."

The correspondence, sent Tuesday, followed news stories about a report from the committee's special counsel, Houston attorney Rusty Hardin, that was provided to the co-chairs for dissemination among the members. The report lays out four potential bases for recommending Hall's impeachment. The document does not represent the committee's final report, but will probably inform it.

In his letter, Stephen Ryan takes issue with the manner in which Hardin's report, which has not been made public by the Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, found its way into the hands of reporters. Ryan says this leak leads him to the conclusion that the committee is "engaged in a campaign to influence public impressions of Regent Hall for political purposes." Calls to co-chairs Dan Flynn, R-Van, and Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, were not immediately returned.

Ryan requested that the committee provide Hall's team with a copy of the report, which he said the committee failed to treat as an official work product that should have been reviewed carefully before being disseminated. He posits that the committee either "authorized selective dissemination of the draft report to deflect from its own failures, or cannot control its own processes."

In Hardin's report, Hall and his actions are described as being, among other things, "vindictive," "bullying," "blustery," "myopic," "mean-spirited," "intense" and "malignant." Among possible grounds for impeachment it raises is the allegation that Hall has abused his office by making burdensome requests for information from the University of Texas at Austin as part of multiple inquiries into the university's operations. 

Hall has said he was fulfilling his duties as a regent by looking into potentially questionable practices in the areas like admissions, fundraising and open records issues.

If the committee decides to pursue any of the articles of impeachment outlined in the Hardin report, the matter would be sent to the full House. If a majority of House members approve impeachment, the Texas Senate would convene as a court to pass final judgment on Hall.

Ryan further says in his letter that despite the contents of Hardin's report, the committee's investigation did not actually uncover any abuses of office committed by Hall, and he speculates that it was never the group's intention. "Rather," Ryan wrote, "it is a mechanism intended to chill the regents from performing their sworn duties."

He concludes by saying that Hall will not be dissuaded from continuing to perform his work as a regent.

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.