Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
In a letter to the co-chairs of the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, a lawyer for embattled University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall clarified some of the motivations behind Hall's ongoing investigation into the system's flagship university.
The committee is currently investigating whether or not Hall's controversial behavior as a regent warrants impeachment. The lawyer, Steve Ryan, describes Hall's actions as "not a basis for impeachment."
In the letter, obtained by the Tribune late Thursday, Ryan contends that Hall has been driven to dig deeper into the operations at the University of Texas at Austin because of misgivings about the influence of politicians on the admissions process, misleading institutional fundraising reporting and insufficient investigation of questionable compensation practices at the University of Texas School of Law.
State Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, one of the committee co-chairs, told the Tribune, "I think what they’re doing is they’re just outlining their ideas and their suggestions, and we’re always happy to get any input from anybody."
Hall has perhaps gained the most public attention for his habit of making large document requests of the university, which Ryan argues is "in line with his statutory authority and duty as a regent." He notes that Hall has found UT-Austin's responses to requests to be, at times, slow and incompleted.
Regarding Hall's requests, UT-Austin spokesman Gary Susswein said, "We’ve provided everything we’re legally able to, totaling hundreds of thousands of documents."
Ryan also says that, as a result of Hall's investigative work, the UT System Office of General Counsel has opened a formal inquiry into incidents in unnamed lawmakers allegedly sought "special treatment" for applicants to the university who had either previously been rejected or been informed that they were not qualified for admission. In multiple instances, following intervention by lawmakers, admission was apparently secured in a manner that Ryan describes as "plainly unfair to all Texans."
Jeff Sandefer, an Austin businessman with ties to Gov. Rick Perry and a proponent of controversial higher education reform proposals, has also recently questioned lawmakers' influence in the admissions process at UT-Austin. Perry's office has floated similar allegations.
In a statement, Susswein said, "We're proud of our admissions policy and are happy to speak with the legislative committee about applicant recommendations we receive from lawmakers and from other state officials, including Regents."
Regarding Hall's concerns about investigations into compensation at the law school, Susswein noted that the university worked in collaboration with the system and that their work "was reviewed and then re-reviewed and is going to be reviewed again by the attorney general at the request of the board of regents."
Susswein also said that the university's previous method for reporting fundraising totals was "appropriate." He added, "But we have complied with the regents' request to do things differently."
Ryan's letter asks that Hall be allowed to participate in the investigation in order for it to be "full and fair." Ryan asks that he asserts that Hall be granted the power to interrogate witnesses called by the committee, to call his own witnesses — using subpoena power if necessary — and to review and supplement documents gathered by the committee.
He further insinuates that the allegations made by lawmakers in the process leading up to the current impeachment investigation have been driven by a desire "to silence Regent Hall and keep these matters out of the public eye."
Flynn indicated that it was unlikely that Hall would be granted subpoena power or be allowed to interrogate witnesses. "That’s the responsibility of the committee, not of any attorney," he said. "If there was a trial, that might be their procedure, but for us, we’re an investigative committee. We’re doing the investigating, not someone else."
The committee is in the process of hiring a special attorney to aid them in their investigation, Flynn said, indicating that they intend to release more details on that position "pretty soon."
In addition to the ongoing investigation by the committee, the timing of the letter may have some bearing on the upcoming board of regent's meeting slated for August 21 and 22.
The job performances of the system's university presidents are traditionally reviewed in advance of the board's annual August meeting, and there is significant speculation about what that portends for UT-Austin President Bill Powers this time around, given — as Ryan's letter demonstrates — his rocky relationship with Hall and some other regents.
Powers will not be in Austin during the meeting.
The nine-page letter and 19 pages of appendices from Hall's lawyer are attached.