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Transparency Committee to Mull Impeachment of UT Regent

UPDATED: A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry said the expansion of a House committee's authority to investigate gubernatorial appointees on Tuesday sent a "chilling message."

July 9th, 2012: Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus during House Appropriations Committee hearing

Updated, 5 p.m.: A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry said Tuesday's authorization of investigations by the Texas House into the actions of University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall and other gubernatorial appointees sends a "chilling message."

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, issued a proclamation expanding the committee's jurisdiction and allowing them to propose articles of impeachment against executive appointees if they find such articles are warranted.

In a Tuesday meeting of the committee, they opted to exercise that role by beginning an investigation into the controversy surrounding Hall, who has garnered attention for multiple, large requests for information from the University of Texas at Austin.

"Appointees serve on a voluntary basis with great responsibility, but today heard a chilling message from the Legislature: exercise that responsibility at your own risk," Lucy Nashed, Perry's spokeswoman, wrote in an email. "Regent Hall has a sworn duty to ensure the institutions he and his fellow regents are responsible for are acting within the law, even if that makes some people uncomfortable." 

Nashed said that Perry and the regents he has appointed are primarily focused on making higher education "more accessible, affordable and accountable to Texas students and their families."

The Tribune has reached out to Hall and will update this post if he issues a comment.

Original Story: House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has authorized the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations to investigate allegations of misconduct against the University of Texas System Board of Regents and propose articles of impeachment if it is determined that they are warranted.

"Over the last year, members of this House have consistently expressed concerns about the conduct of the University of Texas Board of Regents," Straus read to the House from a proclamation. "These concerns warrant further inquiry, as well as a broader look at the role of all executive appointees in the agencies they oversee."

While the committee is authorized to look into any regent, they will pay particular attention to the actions of UT System Regent Wallace Hall, including his ongoing investigations into the operations of the University of Texas at Austin. (Check out our interview with Hall, published Monday.) 

Hall has become an increasingly controversial figure since he was first appointed to the board by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011.

"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," Straus said.

After an investigation, if the committee feels it is warranted, it could recommend articles of impeachment, at which point  Straus could call the House back into session for the sole purpose of considering articles of impeachment. If approved, the law appears to call for the suspension of a regent from his or her duties while the Senate convenes as a court to consider the matter.

The timeline for the investigation that the committee has agreed to undertake is currently unclear. "Whether this takes two days or two months, what I've noticed from each individual member of this committee is everybody works hard and we work well together," state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio and a committee member, said.

This approach appears to be an alternative to approving House Resolution 230 by state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, which was filed on Monday and called for a special committee to be formed specifically to consider Hall's impeachment. Pitts indicated to reporters that the resolution was not going to move this session, but he left open the possibility that it or similar legislation could come back in a later special session — if one is called.

The committee members said the outcome of the investigation is not a foregone conclusion. "While I don't expect it to be a warm and fuzzy procedure, I expect it to be a fair one," Martinez Fischer said. "I hope everybody's going to operate in good faith."

State Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, a co-chairman of the committee, issued a statement saying, "This is a strongly bipartisan committee with a strong track record of success in passing transparency legislation during the regular session and I am fully confident that we shall be able to continue working together for all Texans."

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