On Monday, the Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, began what its co-chairwoman, state Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, called "a historic moment, certainly in the Legislature" when it started outlining a road map for the process that will decide whether a University of Texas System regent will face impeachment.
The committee is considering whether to file articles of impeachment against University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall. Critics of the embattled regent have raised questions about whether his investigative approach to his job on the board of regents constitutes an abuse of his authority, whether he adequately disclosed all lawsuits he was involved in during his confirmation process and whether he has mishandled private student information.
On Monday, Hall's lawyers asserted, as they have done previously, that he has done nothing inappropriate and has been fully transparent.
The Legislature has not engaged in an impeachment proceeding since 1975, and it has never pursued such action against a nonelected official. University system regents are appointed by the governor, and all current regents in the state were appointed by Gov. Rick Perry.
The legislative committee met in a closed executive session on Monday to discuss plans for future hearings and to consult with its special counsel, Rusty Hardin, a high-profile Houston defense attorney. Members emerged with more details about the committee's plans.
Hardin said he was waiting for permission from legislators to speak publicly about the case, which he started working on Monday, making him — to a large extent — the committee's spokesman and special counsel.
Hardin also said he had yet to respond to multiple letters from Hall's lawyers requesting meetings and presenting their client's point of view, but he indicated that he would. He assured Hall's lawyers, who were at the hearing, and others in attendance that the committee's proceedings would be fair.
Alvarado did, too, noting multiple times that committee members take the matter seriously. "For many of us, our integrity is on the line," she said.
The tenative dates announced for future hearings are Oct. 22 and 23, Nov. 12 and 13, and Dec. 2 and 3.
Harding indicated that, because the committee members felt it was important to understand Hall's actions and the standard by which he should be measured, the hearings will attempt to answer two questions: "What did [Hall] do and what did he not do?" and "What is the role of a regent in Texas?"
He assured the audience that no witness testimony will be taken and no decisions will be made during executive session. "For those concerned as to whether the transparency committee will be transparent, it will be transparent," he said.
However, he noted that staffers will be interviewing witnesses in advance of their testimony.
Hardin recommended that Hall's lawyers not be allowed to cross-examine witnesses, which he said would slow down and muddy the investigation.
"This is an investigation, not a trial," Hardin said, likening the proceedings to a public grand jury. "The investigation may very well determine that nothing is to happen after this."
In each of the state's two previous impeachment cases, cross-examination was handled differently. Most recently, in the nearly 40-year-old case of O.P. Carillo, there was no cross-examination. The committee voted on Hardin's recommendation, and decided to follow that precedent.
If the committee does decide to file articles of impeachment, those would then be voted on by the House. If approved there, the Senate would form as a court of impeachment to decide the matter.
"There is plenty of time to get into an adversarial process," Hardin said.
After the hearing, Allan Van Fleet, a lawyer for Hall, told Hardin that his approach was "too light."
"This is not a performance review. This is an impeachment," Van Fleet said, noting that President Bill Clinton had been allowed more involvement in his impeachment proceedings.
"There are a million reasons you don't want to cite what the U.S. Congress does as precedent for smart behavior," Hardin replied.
The two lawyers agreed to meet again in Houston, where they both live.
But Van Fleet was not satisfied.
"I have concerns about what I heard," he told reporters. "We heard the committee spend 10 minutes on platitudes on transparency and spend two hours in secrecy."
He said he is particularly concerned with plans to conduct staff interviews outside of the public eye, and he said he should be allowed to participate in those interviews and to cross-examine witnesses in public hearings.
"Cross-examination doesn't mean just attacking what they say," Van Fleet said. "It also means presenting the full story."